Finding Balance by Philip Doyle
Written by Philip Doyle
Let me introduce myself, my name is Philip Doyle, a now 30-year-old doctor, and rower. For the past five years I’ve been qualified in the NHS (National Health Service) and have been on the Irish National Squad for the same amount of time. I qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which then became the 2021 Olympics, and competed in that same games. I have been dipping in and out of both rowing and medicine, but never truly leaving one behind. I want to share a bit of how 2018/19 went for me and how this period was, in retrospect, one of the most difficult times for me that required balance and skills I was unaware I was utilising at the time.
In 2018, I was in my final year of medical school in Northern Ireland, officially in the UK, which was part of the NHS training scheme for doctors. In 2014, during my second year of medical studies, I started this mental sport called rowing. I was forever saying no to nights out and getting up early to train before class. My university journey wasn’t staggered or split. During this time, I also received a second degree mid-way through my program in medical research, as an elective year. I didn’t take any years off of school to train or have time away to allow me to push on with sport like many of my teammates on the Irish system today. To be completely honest, I am jealous of their ability to focus solely on rowing, and I feel like I would have been far more successful in rowing if I had done this myself.
While studying and rowing I found myself vying between social life, family life, rowing and studying. My social life took some hits with nights out reduced. When I did go out, I usually didn’t drink, and I was home in bed by 1:00 am at the latest. I was lucky that my family home was a 30-minute drive outside the city and my friends were very understanding of my commitments to training. I used ‘the 4-leg table’ as a quick guide to balance and life. Every now and then, I would look at the 4 legs of the table: Family being the first, friends the second, sport the third and study the fourth. If I wanted to balance being successful on the top of the table, I had to keep minimum three out of four legs strong. Three legs can compensate to hold up the table, and I could afford to let one slack while still being balanced. If I let two legs slack and become weak the whole table would come crumbling down. I used this as a guide, and I would regularly check in with myself to ensure I had 3 strong legs on my table in any given week or month.
My schooling took me to Africa for 11 weeks where I worked and learned in African hospitals, seeing the challenges of developing world’s medicine. Over my stay in Africa, I had managed to train as much as I could on a rowing machine I found in Malawi, hidden in the university’s gym. After two hours of a good cleaning and tedious time clearing out the erg’s fan to get the resistance high enough to make it worthwhile, I was determined to improve my training. I had to make do with weights available along with running in Tanzania and arrived back to the UK to start my final year with a renewed vigour for rowing. I had my final exams which would determine my worth as a doctor and gain me entry to the foundation program in the NHS, which all trainee doctors must complete to prove their application of medicine in the real world. At this time, I knew that this was likely my swan song in rowing and the following year I would have to step back and get back to the grind of the NHS.
I entered the most grueling study period ever having to learn and comprehend everything from the past 5 years and cover concepts I hadn’t learned yet with February 2018 being my deadline. Outside of studying, I was really enjoying rowing since my return to the university squad and was seeing great numbers on the Concept2 and pushing myself on the water. In the background, there was also a change of guard within the Irish Rowing national system. A new high-performance coach had arrived with a new men’s heavyweight coach. Rowing Ireland hadn’t had a men’s heavyweight boat really since 2008 when they sent a men’s 4- to Beijing. I had trialed every year since 2015 and had never been invited to train at the national centre. I had an erg test (2000m) that November and I pulled 5.59.2. This was the first time I had ever gone under the 6-minute barrier after years of 6.01 and 6.00. I felt good doing it too. After years of frustration at the 6-minute barrier I took it off the pedestal that I had it on. I was enjoying training more with less expectation for results, thinking it was my last year rowing before joining the big bad world. However, I had caught the attention of this new coaching team who were determined to develop the heavy men’s program, and everything was about to change.
I was invited then to do their rigorous Italian-based program. Previously, I had been on the fence on whether or not to continue rowing while studying but now, I had this program which to me was nuts. I went from 140km a week to nearly 200km. One session we did was 14x1500m and this took over 2 hours 15minutes to complete. The rowing machines were in a sports hall in the university’s gym complex and we only had access for 2 hours. I would often have to walk my sweaty self into the public gym and finish them off on another erg. This was not a pretty sight for the casual gym goer. I would then study all evening because my hospital placement was still running right up until the exams. Everyone in my year was cramming and revising every spare hour of the day, but I had 30 hours of rowing to factor in as well as social time with friends and my girlfriend at the time. I set myself some simple non-negotiables.
First, was that I would train before class or early every day. Second, I would leave the library at 11:00 pm the latest and third, I wouldn’t study at home as I would just procrastinate. This meant leaving the house some days at 6:00 am and getting home at 11:30 pm. I had no idea how well I would manage this, but with my most important exams ever coming up and this new interest and potential rowing opportunity, I found a new sense of discipline that I hadn’t been able to tap into before. I wasn’t a saint and some days I slipped, taking the day to study because I was feeling pressure for an exam, or getting berated by family and friends to spend some social time away. I aimed to get 5 out of 7 days each week following these rules I had put in place.
After Christmas, I put rowing to once a day and increased my study time. I used the training as a mental break, and I used the study time to physically recover. I completed and passed my exams and then headed off on a ski trip with my classmates, which had been planned months before rowing started getting so intense. I would ski all day then I would head to the leisure centre in the local town and do an ergo session while they all went to aprés ski. After this excursion, I came home and had a trial at the National Rowing Centre in Cork. I came a dead heat in the single with a young guy Ronan Byrne who then joined me to race the famous O’Donovan brothers in the double. It was a close race, but we just lost out after leading through the 1500m mark. We were then offered a spot to join the team and work towards the world championships that summer in the men’s double sculls.
I had some big decisions to make because I still had my final placement, which was compulsory to complete. They also wanted me to move to Cork, which technically is in Europe, not the UK, and not part of the NHS. I was due to start work as a doctor in August, the same month as the world championships. This year challenged me so much and when I had decided to postpone starting work and compete in the world championships coming 9th, as well as racing the Single scull in Lucerne as part of the World Cup series, I had done this after training and doing my final placement up to the end of May that year.
I looked back and only recently realised that my need and ability to balance all of my desires and commitments during my final year of college balanced too finely on a knife’s edge. Only through sheer determination and a mix of luck am I the person I am today. The question I still ask myself, is if the person I am now is the best version of what I could have become?