DERVAL O'ROURKE: Staying on track with the right sport/life balance

For about 12 years my life had a routine and every September I would take stock and decide what I wanted for the following 12 months, writes Derval O'Rourke.

Then, in October, I would set about putting the wheels in motion to achieve my goals.

Despite hanging up my racing shoes four months ago, this year has been no different. September was a good time to reflect and make some decisions, one of which was beginning a new part-time role in the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA).

At the start of my running career, I was in a training group where I was one of the few who was both studying and training. Studying offered me many perks, most notably a sports scholarship. It meant I could pursue my running career and gain a degree at the same time. It seemed like the most sensible option, plus I loved getting away from the track and enjoying student life.

Yet there were others who viewed it as a negative and thought I was doing a disservice to my running performances. Others expressed the notion that I wasn’t as “focused” as the full-time athletes and I was letting college distract me. However, I never felt I needed exclusive devotion to my sport to obtain the best results.

In 2003, I graduated from UCD with an Arts degree and when the Olympics came around in 2004, I was on the team. I had combined studying with running and made my way to my first Olympics. Of course it’s impossible to say what made the difference, but I know for sure getting my degree certainly didn’t make me perform badly.

As my career moved on, I always tried to maintain the sport/life balance. Part of this was out of necessity, athletics isn’t the most lucrative sport, meaning part-time work often had to be part of my life, but I don’t think working harmed my performances either. In the months leading up to one of my biggest wins, the 2006 World Indoor title, I was combining working with training.

As I began to achieve greater success, I was earning more money from running and this gave me the freedom to choose off-track activities based on my interests, not the necessity to make money. These activities varied hugely year to year.

One year I completed a Masters in Business Management, I complained a lot while doing it but now I’m delighted to have it! After the Olympics in 2012, I went to cookery school, which enabled me to write my recent cookery book.

I volunteered in the DSPCA for a year, learning a huge amount and eventually rehoming an abandoned greyhound called Chaz.

In my opinion, nobody fits in a box. No matter what you are doing, you are capable of a hugely varied life.

I feel my performances were ultimately better when I had distractions away from the track. There were periods in my career when I focused only on athletics but I found this suffocating and usually performed badly. The times when I was injured I found particularly hard if I wasn’t doing something else off the track.

My tendency was to obsess about the injury unless I was busy.

During my track career, I did some things right and I definitely did some things wrong but I’m really thankful I tried lots of different things. I had great balance, this benefited me on track during my career but, most importantly, now it has really benefited me since my retirement from running.

When I looked at my options off-track, I was fortunate to have a few avenues to explore. Undoubtedly coming from a sporting background opens doors but then I needed the credentials on my CV to keep those doors open.

I applied for the role of player development manager in IRUPA for many reasons.

IRUPA represents the professional rugby players in Ireland, protecting their welfare and ensuring the players are considered key stakeholders in the game.

In my time in athletics, I often felt that there was not enough emphasis on athlete welfare and that sometimes the voice of the athletes was lost.

IRUPA is the type of organisation I’ve always admired, in the same way I admire the Gaelic Players Association. When a part-time role was advertised, I applied and went through the interview process. The job has many different areas from career planning to business mentoring with players. The role gives me a great opportunity to work in sport, in an area I feel passionate about.

Normally in November I’d be training hard and putting a base down for the following season. This year is different though and it’s a new chapter for me.

Change is always good and I’m looking forward to being in a new sport in a new role. I won’t miss running up hills in the rain!


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