The locked down world we’re living in means her local clients can’t come to her at present but, thanks to embracing technology and responding to an appeal from the LGFA, fitness instructor Sharon Reel finds herself reaching a wider audience than ever before.
The Armagh stalwart’s warm-up video was uploaded to ladies gaelic’s governing body’s various social media platform last Tuesday, metaphorically taking her into homes across Ireland and indeed further afield.
It was an impressively professional production, but the south Armagh woman insists that she’s naturally reticent in front of the camera and has only gone down the online route with a degree of trepidation.
“I’ve just got a complimentary text from a guy involved with the GAA in New York, and appreciate the positive feedback because, to be honest, this stuff that I’m doing now is quite outside my comfort zone,” she told the Gazette that evening.
“I started freelancing just over a decade ago while still working in the gym at the Carrickdale Hotel, later established ‘SR Fitness’ as my brand name and have been operating out of the present premises in Meigh the past seven years.
“It’s a fitness studio but affectionately known as ‘The Shed’ because it used to be my dad’s shed. What’s made it such an enjoyable job is the interaction with the regulars who come to me and feel like friends as much as clients.
“When the coronavirus restrictions came, I initially tried to keep my clients active by sending videos into the WhatsApp group, but it quickly became clear we could be in this situation for the long haul so I needed more than a stop-gap solution.
“I’d been asked fairly frequently to do online content before, including by bloggers who want segments of fitness stuff, but I was always wary and didn’t take up those offers, including endorsing products and supplements as an influencer on Instagram.
“My passion was for working with people face to face and I’ve always enjoyed the social interaction with the regular girls. You often feel like a counsellor for you get to know people and the challenges they have in their lives, like we all do.
“There’s satisfaction from knowing the workouts with me help them feel good, keep positive and cope with the stresses of everyday living. You get people who’ve had health issues, relationship problems or whatever and enjoy the outlet of coming to The Shed.
“So I just stuck with that rather than thinking about online. However, we’re living in extraordinary times and it was really for those same people who come to my classes that I finally took the plunge.
“It all happened pretty quickly and I was quite unprepared initially. I had to improvise in terms of creating content for online and there was some fear of the unknown. I’m not technologically-orientated and wasn’t on social media apart from Facebook.”
She has multiple perspectives on the coronavirus crisis, including as a club gaelic footballer for Carrickcruppen who was looking forward to the new season starting, and a friend of two former Orchard county colleagues who have experienced Covid-19 close-up.
Dr Caroline O’Hanlon is spending some of her working week at the community Covid centre in Banbridge while Marian McGuinness, who like Sharon stepped back from Orchard duty at the end of 2018, caught coronavirus while working as a physiotherapist in Cavan General Hospital.
“Obviously we’ll all affected to some extent by what’s happening but I particularly feel for those suffering from coronavirus or facing the threat in the frontline. Caroline and Marian are friends, and I’ve quite a few clients who are nurses.”
At a personal level, she has had to grapple with the current realities as a professional fitness instructor needing to find new ways of working and as a self-employed businesswoman who has to keep earning a livelihood. Did she have sleepless nights about the latter?
“The first week or two I was seeking advice on the Government guidelines and assistance schemes. Being self-employed presented problems and also the fact I rent my premises meant there was no obvious box to fit into.
“But anyway my natural instinct and desire was to make my way through this as best I could, and hopefully keep paying my mortgage rather than freezing it, but doing so meant stepping out of my comfort zone and embracing new methods.
“Initially I was just sending stuff for my regular clients to keep them going but now they’re getting the full experience of an online class and I’m buzzing again. My fella is a dairy farmer so I was isolating with him on the farm and helping out, which was grand, but it’s good to be back at my own work.”
At a time when so much of normal life has been mothballed, there has still been a significant focus on exercise and, for various reasons, perhaps even increased interest and demand for services.
The government mentioning exercise as a valid reason to leave the house has, subconsciously or otherwise, prompted people to do more, while hearing that being overweight puts you at greater risk from coronavirus has been a wake-up call for others.
A lot of folk have more time to take exercise at present than they normally would in their busy lives and, of course, there is a large constituency of sportspeople who aren’t able to train with their teams at present and normally active citizens who can no longer go to the gym.
Like other organisations, the LGFA are keen to occupy and stimulate their base by sharing material relating to physical activity as well as skills challenges on their online platforms, with Cork footballer Orlagh Farmer to the fore in that regard and now Reel coming on board.
“Jackie Cahill from the LGFA asked me about doing some fitness stuff for them so I sent him a sample. My initial one which has gone online featured mobility exercises and I think the plan is to roll out 6-8 of them over the next few weeks. I’m doing this because I love ladies football, not for financial reward, but it is nice exposure I suppose.”
A great humanitarian, whether highlighting the plight of refugees or helping good causes, Sharon did the homeless sleep-out organised by Gaelic Voices For Change three Christmases ago and a contact from then came in handy now.
“Pete McNicholl, who I met doing PR for the homeless sleepout, he did the social media aspect for me. I don’t often ask for help, but it was great having his expertise to guide me and get me up and going.”
The end product promoted on the LGFA platforms really looked the part, albeit that this couch-potato correspondent was dismayed to learn that such contortions are merely regarded by Reel as ‘simple mobility exercises’ to be done before fully-fledged work-outs, albeit ‘better than nothing’ if you do nothing else!
As a warning to the more sedentary types, Sharon has a disclaimer at the end of the video just in case the uninitiated do themselves a mischief in exploring a brave new world with previously unfamiliar manoeuvres with intriguing labels like bird-dogs, downward dogs, cat-to-cow stretches, low lunges and trunk rotations. However, we should all start somewhere.
Part of her business, especially in the early years, was working with clubs, not least in the pre-season period, “though I don’t promote myself as a strength and conditioning coach and don’t believe young footballers really need specific programmes to the extent some claim.
“What I find is that kids don’t have the muscle tone they used to and the younger generation need help with their functional strength, like lifting their body-weight from the ground, being able to stand on one leg and that type of thing.
“Without wanting to sound like somebody banging on about the good old days, I’d definitely say society has changed from when we were young and out running about and climbing and pulling ourselves up over walls.”
In recent times she has worked with an Under 14 boys team in Louth, various Under 16 girls sides and the adult ladies of Mullaghbawn and Forkhill, and her own proven pedigree in gaelic football, as an Armagh regular for a decade, gives Reel an authenticity and insight into what a player would want.
“When working with teams I like to use a football even for what are primarily physical sessions because it makes it more enjoyable. I don’t believe in handing people a programme and leaving them to their own devices.
“You can do fitness stuff in between ball drills. It’s important to keep training fun for younger ones especially. I don’t know it all but I’ve had brilliant trainers over the years and have taken a bit from each in developing my approach.”
Sister of Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel, Sharon has come a long way from humble beginnings to having her work-out videos promoted to the large ladies football base across Ireland and beyond.
“Back when I started I didn’t think I even needed a (brand) name and SR Fitness really just came about by default. I went round clubs with a trailer on the back of a Volkswagen Golf before building up over time in terms of equipment and then getting premises.”
In her last few seasons with Armagh, Reel was juggling a growing business with the heavy demands of being a county footballer and was weary enough from it all to the extent that there were doubts she’d even line out at club level last season, but now Sharon sounds refreshed.
“I was looking forward to club football for Carrickcruppen this year. It isn’t much commitment compared to county and, naturally, with my line of work, I haven’t let myself go physically. I’d been enjoying training indoors with the Cruppen girls even though I didn’t need to be doing circuits.”
In fantastic physical shape, Reel looks like she still could be playing county football at the age of 36 and, interestingly, she hasn’t officially closed the door on an Armagh return in the future while not necessarily suggesting an Orchard comeback is likely either.
“There has been no formal retirement from county football. It was different for Caoimhe (Morgan), who was a high-profile player and also Armagh captain when she announced at the start of January that she was hanging up her boots.
“Armagh were stuck a couple of nights in the winter for somewhere to train so Tommy (Stevenson) contacted me to see if they could use the shed. He was part of the Armagh management I played under back in 2008. I didn’t know Ronan (Murphy) before but he seems personable.
“We had a casual conversation and they indicated the door wasn’t closed from their perspective. I always loved playing with Armagh, but I’d probably got a bit jaded with football because of working crazy hours and it had begun feeling like a chore.
“Now though, this shutdown is making me realise how much I love a kickabout and maybe another blessing in disguise is that having to remodel my business with an online element could leave me more free time in the future.
“Even when we go back to whatever normality returns at some stage after coronavirus, society and work will have changed in some ways which won’t be completely reversed and it’s important to embrace that as progress and see what opportunities present themselves.”
So the online element is set to be built upon but Reel will continue offering face-to-face classes after the current restrictions end, just as she caters for all levels of client from the established sportsperson to the self-conscious customer.
“Absolutely, I work with a wide range of clients and tailor things appropriately. I’m not an S&C guru, my speciality is fitness instruction, working with everyday mothers, some men and so forth.
“From playing sport to a good level myself it’s easy to assume people know how to do squats or lunges or whatever, but many (novices) come to me in their 30s and maybe feel a bit intimidated or inadequate but it’s a homely, welcoming environment.
“Even the videos I’m doing for the LGFA, some will be quite easy and other exercises a little more challenging. There’ll be warm-ups, light work-outs and some more specific sessions, something for everyone. Hopefully they’ll get a reasonable response,” she says, with an unnecessarily nervous laugh.