Louise Galvin: Fear is my constant companion

Sweaty palms, tense shoulders, stomach churning, frequent unfulfilling bathroom trips that give a transient relief from the discomfort of a full stomach, until nature calls again in 10 minutes.

It’s like my bladder capacity has shrunk to a third of its size with the accompanying impatience of Friday evening commuters spilling out of the Luas. 

Jumpy-leg-itis, like a murder suspect in the pit awaiting jury verdict. A heightened awareness of everything. 

Who knew a clicking pen could be so loud and irritating, the second hand of my watch echoing loudly, counting down the time until it all starts...

And that is before I talk about what is going on in the six inches or so between my ears. 

What is this strange virus that engulfs my body? I’m going to let you into a big secret here: the night and sometimes even the hours preceding a big game it often crosses my mind: “Why the hell do I put myself into this position?”

Why put myself out there in front of my family and friends, acquaintances and the general public, my coaches and team-mates, with the fear of failing spectacularly? 

All I’m doing is setting myself up for a fall. Even if I do play well, that just means I need to do better the next time. Someday I won’t perform to expectations, and I’ll have let down all those afore-mentioned, and especially myself.

That is The Fear.

So why do it then? Why do I willingly put myself through the mental stress and anguish and the physical symptoms that go with it.

If one was to experience such discomfort with such regularity surely they’d be speaking to their GP. 

Yet sportspeople like me do it voluntarily on a regular basis.

I was always aware players suffered from nerves before a game and that this was ‘normal’. Looking around many of the dressing rooms I shared confirmed this. To be honest, observing from the outside, I certainly wasn’t the grey-looking one sitting in the corner about to burst into tears. Not outwardly anyway.

I preferred to wear a counterfeit smile, exude an air of fake confidence, pretend like I was having fun. 

I laugh embarrassingly to myself when I think how often I’ve proclaimed to team-mates “embrace this feeling lads, this is why we do it”. Like I’ve had some sort of epiphany!

“Lads, these sick knots in your stomach, the fear of losing, embarrassing yourself, letting your team down and the season being over will be well worth it on the 50% chance that we win”.

How hollow I must’ve sounded. I was trying to “fake it til I make it”. It’s only in recent years I’ve had the courage to ask fellow athletes about the extent of their pre-game suffering, and then only in hushed tones. 

TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final 2013. Cork’s Angela Walsh and Louise Galvin of Kerry. Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Like an addict opening up in a support group, I was relieved to hear I wasn’t alone. Reports of wanting to run away from the stadium; fake an injury or illness to get out of the game or at least have an excuse in case of a poor performance; solemn pledges this was the last time they’re putting themselves through this have all been relayed to me.

Of course this is in direct contradiction to every sports psychologist and mental fitness book out there.

Sometimes I wonder how many of these authors have actually performed to a high level and been on the pressure side of the fence? 

I’m not dispelling the science of sports psychology, just saying the reality is often in stark contrast to how sportspeople are supposed to think in the build-up to matches. We can all read about the ‘ideal’, but sometimes it’s hard to live it.

The older I am, the more weight I put on having my mind as well as my body right. 

There are a wealth of sports gurus and various publications out there for anyone to help harness their mental energy and suppress potentially debilitating thought processes. Like most things in life, one size doesn’t fit all and I have found my own way to combat ‘the fear’.

Perspective

Outside my alma mater in UL there is a wall, at the flagpoles. It’s black and white with smooth and unpaved stones. It simply means ‘life isn’t always black and white, you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth’. 

Along with my degree, it’s the most valuable thing I took from my UL days - even if its true meaning was delivered by a taxi driver on the way home from a night out, and not a lecturer!

It might sound simplistic but when I feel the overwhelmingly negative impact of adrenaline clawing its way through to the deep recesses of my brain I simply ask myself: “What is the worst that can happen?”

We lose, humiliated, I get sent off and injured in the same clumsy tackle. Yes, that’s bad but no one dies. I won’t be disowned. 

Next week it will be old news and there is always a shot at redemption. Suddenly, there’s a weight off my shoulders. ‘The fear’ is still present, but things are back on my terms. It’s not all-consuming.

Previously I had this horrible fear of doing my ACL. I honestly thought this was the worst thing that could happen to me, not just in sport, but in life.

I laugh now at my blissful ignorance of real-life problems. At the age of 26, I suffered a sudden bereavement that pulled the rug, the carpet, the very foundation of my being from under me. 

Suddenly, I couldn’t care less if I was born with or without limbs, not to mind functioning ligaments.

Eventually, I found a reprieve from my suffering in sport - but this time it was different. My perspective had changed for good. I hadn’t lost any competitiveness, if anything I became more focused and impatient to succeed, more aware now of how fragile life is. But the fear was lessened. The bad days were never going to be as bad again.

Ten weeks post-bereavement, UL played in the National Basketball Cup final desperate for three-in-a-row against Glanmire. The game went to overtime and we lost. Desolation. 

Yet I remember standing on the court soaking up the atmosphere and understanding how lucky I was.

That may sound mad, like I’d lost all desire to win. But that wasn’t the case. I was devastated we lost, but the overwhelming feeling was how lucky I was to be able to play and contribute in one of best women’s cup finals, in front of a packed National Arena and live TV audience. 

In front of my family and friends, representing my club, my team-mates; my coach and friends. All of whom were so fantastic to me during the greatest difficulty I have faced.

I hadn’t lost competitiveness, just gained perspective. That was one of the days I realised how much I love and owe to sport. That is why I do it.

Sport offers us chances to step out of our comfort zone and express ourselves, it encourages discipline and teamwork. Globally it is a unifier of races and ethnicities; it can even cross the divisions caused by war.

It provides one of the fairest methods of measuring yourself. It doesn’t matter who you are, what car you drive or how much money you have. When you come up against your opponent it comes down to who is better prepared, who has worked the hardest; who has accumulated the greater repertoire of skills through training and repetition. 

Who wants it more. No sympathy, no excuses. That is why I love sport. That is why I go back.

I still suffer to varying degrees with ‘the fear’, and I’m sure I will continue to until I stop playing, even if there’s only a man and a dog watching. 

That is because of the internal competitiveness that drives most athletes. But perspective has taught me that, regardless of the result, life goes on and there is always the next match.

The author is an Irish rugby international. Follow Louise Galvin on Twitter @lougalvin4

Team news

Ireland Women’s head coach Tom Tierney has made several changes for tomorrow’s Six Nations clash with France in Donnybrook (12.45pm, RTÉ 2).

Sophie Spence moves from the replacements to partner Marie-Louise Reilly in the second-row and there is a new-look backline, with Mary Healy wearing nine and partnering the experienced Nora Stapleton at out-half.

In the centre, Claire McLaughlin comes into the side, having been a replacement in Italy and Scotland and she will line up beside Jenny Murphy.

IRELAND v France:

Mairead Coyne (Connacht), Kim Flood (Leinster), Jenny Murphy (Leinster), Claire Mc Laughlin (Ulster), Eimear Considine (Munster), Nora Stapleton (Leinster), Mary Healy (Connacht); Lindsay Peat (Leinster), Leah Lyons (Munster), Ailis Egan (Leinster), Sophie Spence (Leinster), Marie-Louise Reilly (Leinster), Ciara Griffin (Munster), Claire Molloy (Connacht), Paula Fitzpatrick (Leinster).

Replacements:

Ciara O’Connor (Connacht), Ilse Van Staden (Ulster), Ruth O’Reilly (Connacht), Ciara Cooney (Leinster), Nichola Fryday (Connacht), Larissa Muldoon (Railway Union), Nikki Caughey (Ulster), Louise Galvin (Munster).


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