“These people do not know me. They define me by what they read about me. I have owned up to every mistake I’ve ever made. I will never let anyone define me as a person. I’ve nothing to prove. My friends and my family know who I am. I know who I am. That’s all that matters.”
In this day and age, preconceived opinions are formed on athletes through the lens of the media. Before even stepping foot over that white line, athletes are judged.
Ashling Thompson is no different. Not too long ago, Thompson was a media darling. A seven-time All-Ireland winner for both club and county, as well as an important figure for mental health. As quickly as the media and social media can build players up, it can tear them down just as fast.
“I take full responsibility for my actions but what the media put myself and my family through was absolutely devastating.”
Whatever you predetermined opinions are, put them to one side. People make mistakes. Thompson made a mistake. Mistakes are NOT failures. If you learn and grow from your mistakes, these are lessons learned.
“Obviously, I’ve cared a lot in the past. I say I do not care anymore but obviously there are certain amounts of things which you do care about.
I have always been nothing but myself. I think people can see through that and they appreciate the honesty.
People can sometimes forget that I am human. I am just like everyone else. I can fuck up and make mistakes. The same as anyone else does. It is just unfortunately I am out there. There are vultures just waiting there for you to make a mistake.
That said, I take the positives out of that. I can speak about my experiences and hopefully help young boys and girls learn from them. If someone can pull something from my experiences and that helps them, it’s worth it.”
As a world-class, high-profile athlete, Ashling Thompson has plenty of lessons to share. Despite being softly spoken and laid back, her resilience and steely mentality is worth listening to.
Thompson has experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows in sport. Her medal collection is second to none. Four counties, four Munster titles, three All-Irelands with her club Milford, four All-Irelands with Cork – one as captain – and two All-Stars.
When the chips are down Thompson delivers. The all-action midfielder is a big-game player and a powerhouse in midfield. She was apart of Milford’s first ever title in 2013, gracing the hallowed Croke Park turf in front of family and alongside the friends she grew up with.
The journey all started in Newtownshandrum where she grew up. Thompson went to school in Milford as where her mother was a teacher. From her earliest memories, sport has been rooted in her family.
“I definitely had a hurley in my hand from the moment I could walk. My mum and dad both played a lot of sport so I think it was bred into us from day one.”
Back then, there were no phones or social media. Every chance she could get, she would be outside playing sport. Soccer, basketball, football, camogie, Thompson tried it all. Growing up with brothers, she was never treated any different and would compete without hesitation.
“My mam was an athlete. She played for Cork footballers and actually won two All-Ireland clubs with Newtownshandrum at senior level. She was also a marathon runner! My dad was a good hurler. I was brought into sport from the get-go, it was in my blood. I was always a very active child and wanted to be outside constantly.”
Through thick and think, that love for sport has never waivered and sport has pulled her out of some of the darkest times.
At 22-years old, Thompson hit rock-bottom. It started with a car crash in 2009 which left her with severe muscle damage to her back and neck, at a time when she was already playing camogie at the highest level. She was forced into inactivity which in turn led her down a dark path getting in with the wrong crowd.
She stopped talking to friends. She would sit in her room 24/7 beating herself up for feeling depressed. She stopped eating and felt as if her whole identity was being lost.
Sport, family and coach Frank Flannery pulled her out of the darkness.
“Sport gives and teaches you so much. The competitive edge and character that you learn to pick yourself up and refuse to give in. That is the type of thing that sport does to you. That is why I would encourage every child, every adult, everyone to never give up on sport.
Life can be shit and it’s a rollercoaster. But the benefits and the give that sport has is second to none. Nothing compares. The last ten years for me have been a rollercoaster.
I have learned the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people and environment. Sport for me has been everything. It has been my backbone and never let me down. I owe a lot to it and I owe a lot to my family.
Without those two, I would not be where I am today. It is not being dramatic or emotional about – it is simply a matter of fact. Sport has always been my anchor. It has always been there for me no matter what. It has pulled me out of the deepest darkest holes I never imagined I could get myself out of.
That would be my biggest advice. Never give up on something that will always be there for you. The two things I will never give up on is my family and my sport.”
There is no questioning the Millford star’s bravery and attitude. There is something refreshing and inspiring about the tunnel mentality which she has established. The All-Ireland winning captain received enormous media attention throughout her court case last year. While it is impossible to always ignore all that is written and said, Thompson simply does not care anymore.
“The court case and everything with it last year was one of the toughest experiences of my life. I never thought I would have to face anything life that. It was incredibly difficult.
I regret that I reacted to the situation. I should have never reacted to it. I hold my hands up.
At first, I questioned whether returning back to the sport was the right thing to do – to put myself into that environment. You know with the media coverage and social media, is that the right thing to do?
But I realised, the more I worry about different opinions and people’s perception, that is how you are letting the negativity win. Do not let anyone else dictate your career, your sport and your decisions. Do whatever you want to do and do not worry about what anybody else thinks.
I don’t mean to be vulgar, but you know what, fuck that, I couldn’t give a shit in the first place. I could not give a shit what anyone else thinks because when shit hit the fan you really find out who’s there for you and who’s not.
For me again, it was my family, my sport, and my handful of friends. It’s come to a point now for me that I will do whatever I want that makes me happy and outside of that I couldn’t care less.”
Mental illness is said to affect one in three elite athletes every year. The elite sports culture, with its heavy training demands and constant drive to improve performance, only serve to heighten the risk.
The stigma within sport, is often reported as the key factor which prevents athletes with mental health issues from seeking help and speaking out. This is often viewed as a sign of ‘weakness’ rather than the hallmark of a ‘winner’.
Thompson broke barriers back in 2014 with her frank interviews on mental health. Ireland has become more open on the topic of depression in recent years and there is no doubt she was at the forefront of this. Thompson’s courage to speak out about her mental health was against the grain back and not something she had planned to do. She was quizzed about sharing more about the stories behind her tattoos and it stemmed from there.
“At the start I questioned whether it was a good idea. There was that fear that I knew obviously that it would go to print. I had that fear of what would people think of me?
Would people think that I am weak? There was that taboo when it came to mental health. So, for me that sort of stuff was a ‘weakness’.
Do not tell anybody you were upset at a certain time in your life. People will think you are weak for that. As sports people we have to be seen to be tough as nails. These strong figures that do not suffer from anything. That was the taboo initially at those times.
There was a certain fear, but I think it is just my character in general. It is just my personality. I just do not give a shit.”
Regardless of your views and opinions on Thompson, there are great lessons to be learned. A ferocious competitor on the field, with a win at all cost’s mentality. Critiques often unfairly label women’s sport as weak and uncompetitive. Those people have not watched Thompson play. Her physically imposing and an in-your-face approach would not be out of place in hurling – still one of the finest players in the country.
Yet off the field, she is a completely different person. Witty, softly spoken and calm. People make mistakes but it is what you make from it which should define you. Never judge a book by its cover.