The Northern Ireland long jumper is both coach and athlete at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games
He may have appeared as an extra in a Bollywood movie and found himself on the set of Game of Thrones, but Adam McMullen knows he followed the right career path in pursuing athletics.
The long jumper is not only preparing to compete at his first Commonwealth Games, for Northern Ireland, but he also coaches one of the rising stars in the national team, Kate O’Connor.
McMullen (pictured above with team-mates Sommer Lecky, Jack Agnew and Amy Foster) is now seeing the fruits of his labour, both as a coach and athlete. Indeed, the very fact that he works with Athletics Northern Ireland in developing youngsters is helping to sharpen his own skills when it comes to performance.
“The more I try to coach and help other athletes the more I learn about my own long jump,” says the 27-year-old, who broke his own Northern Ireland indoor record with a leap of 7.99m earlier this year.
“I’ll say to an athlete: ‘when such and such happens in a competition then you shouldn’t do this’ and then realise it’s something I do myself. I need to practice what I preach. I think that each year I develop as a coach I also develop as an athlete because I get a stronger mental aspect to what I need to do.
“There’s no point telling athletes they need to act a certain way if I can’t do it in a competition.
“The more I try to coach and help other athletes the more I learn about my own long jump”
“I’m self-coached this year so I’ve written my own training program and done a lot of sessions by myself. I’ve had some support from the Sports Institute and a little bit of help from Athletics Northern Ireland but I’d say 80 per cent of the sessions I’ve done this year have been me, alone, trying to give myself feedback.
“It’s a learning process and, if I have a bad session, it’s about not getting too caught up and focusing on the bigger picture. I find I tell athletes that a lot but it’s something I struggle with myself sometimes so the better I get at doing it the more I can use examples of my own experiences to help others.”
McMullen has been setting a fine example this year. His record leap in February came at the Irish indoor championships, the day after he had contested the British Championships alongside the likes of Greg Rutherford.
Jumping against athletes of that calibre in both Birmingham and at the Indoor Grand Prix in Glasgow have provided just the right sort of experience ahead of what will be a high quality field at the Gold Coast Games.
“It’s important just getting comfortable in warm-up areas where you have athletes who are world leaders, Diamond League winners, top-ranked in the Commonwealth…for the first few competitions you’re a little bit startstruck,” says McMullen.
“At the British trials I could see CJ Ujah, Ojie Edoburun and Asha Philip getting warmed up , Greg as well. You do get caught up in it all a little bit and start thinking ‘I wonder what kind of drills they do?’ and you kind of lose focus on yourself.
“However, quite quickly I was able to come out of that. I was there to be competitive, it wasn’t about me checking out those guys.
“So when it came to the Glasgow Grand Prix I knew there were big names there but I’m trying to be a big name too so I had to focus on myself and not get too caught up on what other people do in their warm-up.
“So that experience will help, going to the Commonwealth Games, especially when you have the likes of world champion Luvo Manyonga. I need to focus on myself and not get swept up in the big athlete or big name lifestyle.
“A few years ago I’d see a big name warming up in my event and you’d see they starting doing sprints earlier than me, or put their spikes on half an hour earlier than me. A little bit of you starts to freak out and you think ‘have I timed my warm-up wrong?’ but you just have to remember that what you do is beneficial to you and what they do is beneficial to them.
“It’s not one shoe fits all. It did make me a while to realise that but now I have the mindset where I go through my routine and I know what prepares me best to be at my best.”
Having confidence in yourself is, of course, crucial to any athlete and McMullen is no different.
“Sometimes you’ll see someone like Greg Rutherford and you just don’t think you’re capable of being at that level,” he adds. “I think a large part of my athletics is the self belief. I just know from competitions that my best jumps have been when I’ve looked down the runway and thought ‘okay, I’m ready to do this, I’m ready to jump something massive here’. “For me, I really need a lot of self belief and I feel like I’m really beginning to get that confidence where I hope, at the Commonwealth Games, I’ll be looking down that runway thinking ‘I’m ready to jump 8.10/8.20 here’. I might not do it, but I think believing it will get the best jumps out of me.”
“It’s not one shoe fits all. It did make me a while to realise that but now I have the mindset where I go through my routine and I know what prepares me best to be at my best”
Getting the best out of what they have is a skill which the sport in Northern Ireland as a whole is becoming increasingly good at. From his coaching work, he is seeing a clear pathway for young athletes to follow which is bearing fruit.
“I think the set-up we have at the minute is a very good one,” he says. “You can see from the development squads and the academy athletes that we are definitely progressing as a sport on the global stage.
“Last year there were two gold medallists in the Commonwealth Youth Games from Northern Ireland – in the 200m and the high jump – and that’s unheard of.
“Within the team of 12 seniors we’re sending out to the Commonwealth Games we do have two 17-year-olds. I coach one of them – the heptathlete Kate O’Connor – for her long jump and 200m.
“I think, as a team, we’re upskilling the coaching in Northern Ireland and I think as a byproduct we’re now seeing a lot of good athletes coming through from the grassroots level.
“A lot of my work involves working at primary schools, where I’ll do some testing and do some coaching. From that I’d then invite some kids to different sort of initiatives – we have one called Rising Stars, for 8-14-year-olds.
“Kate started with Rising Stars, when she was 10 or 11 years old, she then developed to the youth academy and is no developing out of the youth academy towards being a senior athlete. She has gone through all of the initiatives we have set in place and I think having them there gives young athletes the opportunity to get the coaching they need at that age.
“We’re not treating the 9/10-year-olds like professional athletes, we’re giving them the multi-event approach, we’re seeing what kind of event group they might start drifting into as a senior and we’re trying to support them through their club coaches, through their parents and the coaching we would do with them.
“Say, if they’re based in a local club in Belfast, we’re trying to bring multi-events to that club as well so it’s not just the athlete we’re developing, it’s the whole club we’re developing as well and we do start to see some kids shine through.”
So with both day jobs going so well, there are no regrets about turning his back on the movie business?
McMullen laughs at the suggestion.
“In my student days I signed up to something called NI extras, which meant that if movies or TV shows needed extras and you fitted their requirements you then get paid to be in the background.
“I ended up doing a prison drama, I was on the set for Game of Thrones but I don’t think I made the cut. Then one day I got a text asking me if I wanted to be in the background of a Bollywood movie. There were about 50 people in the scene but you can definitely single me out as I’m about a foot taller than everybody else.
“They had to stop the scene because I was staring at the camera, which is the first thing you’re told not to do, so I don’t think I was cut out for the Bollywood life!”