How illness inspired Scottish athletics chief Stephen Maguire

Work with Arthritis Care led to return to sport

Athletics guru Stephen Maguire guided the GB & NI relay squads to no fewer than four sets of medals at the London 2017 World Champs.

The memorable “full house” included sensational golds for the British men’s 4x100m men’s team over a star-studded American quartet and cherished silver medals for Scots Eilidh Doyle and Zoey Clark in the women’s 4x400m race.

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It helped him to share Coach of the Year at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in 2017 (with fellow relay coaches Benke Blomqvist and Christian Malcolm) and came only a few years after he led Scotland to four track and field medals at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

In fact, that first spell on these shores saw the talented and highly-respected Northern Irishman create the platform for 15 Scots to qualify for the Olympics in Rio – the biggest representation in more than a century.

Maguire has since returned for a second spell at Scottish Athletics as Head of Performance and Coaching and the 56-year-old has a key role ahead of a string of major events in 2021 and 2022.

But Maguire’s own hopes of performing at major events were derealed by debilitating illness in early adulthood. It ended a promising career as an athlete and, for a spell, stalled his ability to work.

“I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in my early 20s,” explained Maguire in a special interview with Scottish Athletics. “I was not long married at the time and I had to try to somehow get my head around why my body was failing me.

“I knew I was a decent athlete, or could be a decent athlete, but I could not put together the kind of block of fitness that I wanted and needed.

“I was forever pulling my hamstring and there were other early indications of debilitating illness.

“I had a couple of years out of the sport. My body kept breaking down. I am an all-or-nothing type of guy in whatever I do and, looking back, that was not the right approach. I was Type 1 diabetic, too, and it all began to escalate.

“At one stage, I was doing absolutely nothing. I’d had to stop work and then I was not able to work. My wife, Georgina, was the breadwinner in the house. I was 24 or 25.

“I had gone from trying to be the best I could be as an athlete – and like many young athletes I’d had dreams of winning the Olympics – to not being able to do anything at all.’

Our of that nadir, however, came a different road.

“I started working for Arthritis Care and did a personal development course with them – and I hated that they were called a ‘disability’ charity – and I pushed myself to try to understand more.

“I began to figure things out about pain and pain management and also the ‘inner gain’ which became part of my coaching philosophy. That involves knowing what the here and now is and what you can affect and what you cannot affect. In my coaching, I was introduced to the ‘goal model’ and setting targets and options for the athlete.

“These things gelled to become my coaching philosophy,” added Maguire.

His own career peaked with Irish international vests at school and age group level.

He recalled: “Growing up and in my early teens I just loved sport – I played football, Gaelic football, rugby, cricket, athletics.

“I was a good footballer but not good enough. I was a good Gaelic player but not good enough. I was fast but not fast enough. And I could long jump and triple jump but not far enough.

“But I loved participating and I was lucky enough to represent Ireland. In fact, my first vest with Irish Schools was over in Scotland and we came to Grangemouth. Every time I walk through the doors at Grangemouth, the memories flood back and they are mostly good memories.

“I was actually coaching at 16, 17, 18. I always wanted to know why people did well. It intrigued me and I knew even then that there was more to it than the physical side of things – there was head space which sometimes needed to be worked at.

“I was 19 or 20 and I coached a Senior Irish champion and I also coached all around the club. My father was involved as chairman of the club.’

So why did Maguire return to sport after Arthritis Care?

“I felt I had a lot to give and a couple of athletes approached me and asked me to coach them,” he said.

“In terms of working as a head coach, or overseeing coaching, I like to see the reasons behind an individual’s performance or if an athlete and coach have created an environment which maybe has thrown up issues. Sometimes it is something simple or just blind spots. Other times it is a lack of knowledge.”

Watch the full interview with Stephen Maguire on www.scottishathletics.org.uk

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