Sports Talent Pathways: Are we getting it all wrong?

Talent development is a hot topic in sport and many clubs and coaches dream of discovering the next Serena Williams or Lionel Messi. Google ‘talent pathway’ and you’re presented with a set of precise pyramids and simple flowcharts. Every sport from angling to lacrosse to snowboarding places elite sport at the end of a nice neat arrow:

identify promise → invest time / money / resources → success

Simple, right?

Talent pathways are in place for a number of reasons:

  • They are designed to identify and nurture talent, and to provide a framework for developing athletes in a particular way towards specific performance goals.
  • They can create consistency and continuity in the development of an athlete from junior to senior, or from grassroots to elite level.
  • They can help coaches and selectors to make decisions against a set of objective assessment criteria (and as a side effect of this, to an extent they also provide a means of justifying selections).

But talent development systems can also create problems. For example:

  • They tend to suggest the ‘conventional’ route is the only route.
  • They create misconceptions that sporting accomplishments are achieved via a checklist.
  • They generate a sense of pressure about the importance of being identified early and selected young, which can translate to unrealistic expectations or damaging consequences when things don’t go as planned.
  • They make it more difficult for young athletes to avoid early specialisation.
  • They can infer that every individual’s ultimate performance objectives should look the same.
  • They can assume development is linear and often fail to account for individual differences.

I accept that we need some kind of development pathway and that sometimes, the product of a system will go on to become a great success. I also know there are some amazing people who coach within and administrate these systems. What I don’t accept is that we should heavily endorse the concept of a single method as the perfect or the only way to create brilliant, accomplished and fulfilled athletes.

I believe some young sportspeople – and often more so, their parents – are becoming much too concerned with fitting into a system, being picked young and achieving a particular level of play.

I find it really difficult to see kids and parents invest themselves so completely in the belief that ticking off steps in a talent pathway will be the defining factor in their sporting career. I know several players who didn’t play junior international hockey but who can now call themselves Olympic champions. Equally, I know others who spent their teenage years being touted as the next big thing… and didn’t go on to ‘make it’.

Athletes and parents tend to crave certainty in their quest to reach the top and overemphasis of the pathway concept can mislead them to believe that success is a simple case of moving up a pyramid or through a flowchart.

My fear is that we are attempting to rationalise a process that is fundamentally variable and unpredictable.

 “You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure” (Lazarus Lake)

The beauty of a dream is that the outcome is unknown. Being passionate, hardworking, dedicated and talented improve our chances of the dream becoming a reality – but they don’t guarantee it.

There are different routes to the top and the reality is that sportspeople aren’t all going to the same destination (and that’s okay). This is not a reason to shy away from hard work, or a suggestion that ambition is a bad thing. It’s more concerned with accepting that as in life, sport is neither predictable nor fair.

The truth is the greatest chance you have of ‘succeeding’ and getting the most out of yourself in sport is being motivated by trying your best, working hard and loving what you do. Being the best version of yourself is not the same thing as playing at the Olympics or winning a trophy, and it doesn’t look the same for every athlete.

Don’t misunderstand me: I feel as inspired and emotional as the next person when I learn about a team who has prevailed against the odds or an athlete who fights against adversity. But here’s the thing. For every one person who succeeds in these circumstances and has a book written or a movie made about them, there are hundreds more who have the same attitude, the same work ethic, the same talent… and things just don’t work out.

Sporting fairytales can teach us a lot about the value of resilience and determination, but it’s important we differentiate between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. Do these people inspire us because they win, or because they keep trying when it looks like they won’t? Is it the happy ending that we have an emotional connection with, or is it because we empathise and relate to the journey itself?

So if you’re a young athlete or a sporting parent, remember that accomplishments should be celebrated, but they are all relative. The same goes for setbacks.

Even the greatest sporting champions are humans who have grown and developed through experiences, not flawless robots built on a conveyor belt.

It can be good to follow the path. But sometimes it’s better to leave your own trail of footprints.

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Never, Never, Never Give In: Was Churchill Right?

The problem with most fairytale stories that teach us never to give up is that they are told with the benefit of hindsight. They are nearly always the stories with happy endings.

Perseverance and resilience are admirable and important characteristics. Many of the greatest human achievements, most unlikely inventions and against-the-odds heroes would not have emerged without them. But are we too quick to judge when someone gives in? Is quitting always a sign of weakness and cowardice, or can it require strength and bravery too?

Imagine you’re a mountain climber 100m from the summit of Everest, running out of oxygen and watching dangerous storm clouds moving in. So close – yet in mountaineering terms, so very far. Do you give up on your dream of reaching the summit, or do you persevere with your attempt, knowing that you might not make the top but you may also not make it back down the mountain at all?

“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Vince Lombardi

On a sports field, we revere athletes and teams who refuse to give up even when the odds are stacked against them.

Man United’s late goals to win the Champions League in 1999 (okay, okay – and Liverpool’s comeback in 2005) will always be etched in my memory, while the German Men’s 2016 Olympic quarter final victory (from 2-0 down with six minutes to go – see the last minute here) is probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve watched play out on a hockey pitch.

Of course, these examples all relate to a simple goal: win the game. Sometimes sport – and life – aren’t just about winning a medal or being the best, they’re simply about giving all you have or sticking your middle finger up at expectations or adversity.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” Confucius

Let me take you back to Barcelona 1992 and one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. Having been unable to even take to the start line four years earlier at the 1988 Games, British medal hope Derek Redmond was flying around the final bend of his 400m semi final when he tore his hamstring and fell to the ground. He limped slowly to the finish line (half carried by his father, who had fought his way down to the track) and became a symbol of grit and perseverance.

This story always tugs at the heartstrings for me. The thing I can’t figure out is whether it’s because I identify with that moment where he realises his dream has ended, or because I’m inspired that he refuses to accept it.

Fast forward to the 5000m heats at Rio 2016. Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino both tripped and injured themselves in the middle of the race, but pulled one another up (twice) and made it to the finish. Just as Redmond needed his Dad to get him over the line, sometimes a kind word or a hand from a stranger is enough to keep us going when it feels like our dreams have been crushed.

“How long should you try? Until.” Jim Rohn

We’ve recently been watching the TV show ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’ (where ex-Special Forces soldiers put recruits through a recreation of the SAS selection process) and there have been a few genuinely inspiring stories. Every recruit’s breaking point is different and there have been some clear examples that you can achieve something personally meaningful and far beyond what you thought was possible – even if you don’t actually reach the finish line.

Think of the phrase, “throwing the towel in”. It originates from boxing, where a combatant’s trainer would literally throw a towel into the ring to indicate his charge was withdrawing in the face of almost certain defeat. Nowadays, we often use this phrase when we think someone is giving up too easily, but the original context was about self-preservation and physical survival.

Of course, often we have more choice than the nearly-defeated boxer. So what is it that stops us from stopping? Is it pride, ambition, will power, concerns about what other people will think, or simply that niggly little question, “What if?”

I think we sometimes need to apply that question in the opposite direction, too: “What if I carry on?”

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should give up as soon as the going gets tough. Dreams, goals and greatness require resilience and tolerance for a fair amount of pain, criticism and self-doubt, among other things. What I do believe is that if your commitment to perseverance is seriously damaging your sense of self or your chances of long-term happiness, it might be time to ask the question. Walking away or changing your goals can take as much courage as carrying on.

“Never, never, never give in!” But here’s the thing about Churchill’s famous words. What he really said was this:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

The easy thing, the right thing and the brave thing aren’t always the same. So be courageous, be resilient, be inspired, believe in yourself… but don’t forget to have a little good sense.

Mum or Manager? Getting it Right as a Sporting Parent

pushy parents

Parents in Sport Week – 2nd – 8th October 2017

For many young sportspeople, their parent(s) are the most significant influence on the early part of their sports career. While I’m a little way from watching any of my own sprogs run around a sports field, my coaching and playing experiences mean that I see and hear behaviour at both ends of the weird and wonderful spectrum when it comes to ‘hockey parents’.

There’s a fine line between being supportive and being ‘pushy’. When integrated in a healthy and positive way, sport can create a powerful bond, a weekly routine, a topic of conversation and a sense of purpose in the wider fabric of family life. However, when a parent projects expectations or ambitions for sporting success onto a child in the wrong way, this can be detrimental or even damaging.

My immediate family has always been very supportive of my hockey career, but I feel fortunate that this never transmitted itself as a pressure to play or achieve something. My parents watched games, provided a taxi service and took an interest, but never made decisions for me, and didn’t make me feel bad or externalise blame when something didn’t go my way.

I think of this approach as being interested rather than involved. For me, interested means creating an environment where a child has the space and (where possible) the means to develop and prosper in their own time and way. Involved is the overbearing, highly opinionated adult who seems to ‘want it’ more than their child does.

Talented juniors usually have a packed schedule, but self-sufficiency is a learned skill. A little help is allowable, but if Mum or Dad is constantly making decisions or communicating with coaches, teachers or mentors on their child’s behalf, this doesn’t encourage them to develop into a responsible and accountable individual on the field (or in life).

There’s obviously nothing wrong with having dreams and working extremely hard to achieve them, but the pushy parent often forgets (or even actively ignores) the importance of having a balanced life outside sport alongside this work ethic. Study, spending time with friends, making mistakes and learning from them… just being a kid every now and then is vital.

Incidentally, the pushy parent rarely goes unnoticed. As a coach, it can take considerable time and patience to manage the demands and expectations of this type of parent and ultimately this only reduces the intellectual and emotional energy we can invest in developing our players and teams.

Of course, this requires a bit of trust on the part of a parent. Most of us coach for the right reasons – we are passionate about helping every single one of our players reach their potential… **including your child! A friend of mine recently attended a Q&A session with ten-time Paralympic medalist David Weir. When asked the biggest piece of advice he would give the parents of a promising 14-year old sportsperson, his answer was, “Just let the coach do his/her job”…

In hockey, there now appears to be a sense that a player’s ultimate success will hinge on doing as many 1-to-1 training sessions as possible and being fast-tracked or playing 1X1/adult hockey as a teenager. These may play a role in the performance pathway, but I don’t believe there is such thing as a perfect route to the top and every player has their own story.

To illustrate this point, I didn’t play National League Hockey until I went to university and I know several GB Olympians, including Rio hockey gold medalists, who didn’t represent England at junior level or play Premier League hockey until they were in their 20s. If a player isn’t involved in first team hockey aged 15 or misses out on a selection, it doesn’t always mean drastic action is needed. With a supportive and nurturing background response, it might actually be the best thing that ever happens to them in terms of development.

Setbacks – whether an injury, disappointing result or missed selection – are an inevitable part of sport at any level. This might sound a bit weird, but I believe resilience is part grit and part love. Grit is what you do (crack on when it would be easier to stop) and love – of what you do, your team and yourself – is the reason why you manage to keep going. If you don’t love or at least value these things, it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep doing it when the going gets tough.

Ultimately, pushing kids might be a factor in propelling them to a certain level of success, but it doesn’t tend to make them mentally tough or self-sufficient, and most importantly it might mean they aren’t fostering a love of the sport for their own reasons.

Why is this important? I believe that loving the game has motivated, protected and strengthened me during my hockey career. Some of the setbacks I’ve had have hit me pretty hard mentally and emotionally, but I am convinced that I was able to play under some tough circumstances (and even enjoyed playing during these times) because the drive came from within me.

Clearly some players with pushy parents will “make it”, but is this what it’s really about? Wearing an England shirt doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve actually reached your potential and standing on a podium doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be happy beyond that moment. Grit and love can be just as powerful and important as ambition and hard work in the grand scheme of things on and off the field.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a sporting parent is figuring out whether your hopes and dreams for your child are the same as their own. Maybe one day I’ll learn that this isn’t as easy as it looks, but I hope I’ll remember to try and be more like a mum than a manager.

 

@inkingfeeling

 

If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, I’d highly recommend the following:

‘Parent Power: In Support of Parents in Sport Week’
http://www.ukcoaching.org/blog/parent-power-support-parents-sport-week

‘How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over Parenting’ [TED Talk]
https://www.ted.com/talks/julie_lythcott_haims_how_to_raise_successful_kids_without_over_parenting

Parents in Sport Week 2017
http://thecpsu.org.uk/parentsinsport/

BBC Sports Personality / Performance / Popularity Awards: What is it really about?

spoty-review

As always, the BBC Sports Personality Awards show has thrown up some serious debate. A quick look through social media, digital or print news and you’ll see hundreds of opinions on last night’s show expressed with varying degrees of class, open-mindedness and decency.

The purpose of this article isn’t to add my two pennies’ worth to the ‘Leicester City vs GB Women’s Hockey’ argument (although I will refer to it), but to examine why awards like this always seem to elicit so much discussion.

The obvious answer is that the nature of the award gives everyone a reason to have an opinion. It’s fundamentally difficult to challenge why someone has won a league trophy or a ‘Golden Boot’. This silverware is given out on the basis of statistics, so our opinions don’t come into play. However, when we try to answer subjective questions about who is ‘the best,’ our own biases – and perhaps more importantly, our emotions – start to affect the answer.

This is largely why it’s basically impossible to find a definitive answer to single-sport debates like who should win the Ballon D’Or or ‘Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic vs Murray’. The team or individual we support, the qualities we particularly value or admire in a player, our age, nationality and gender may also impact (consciously or subconsciously) on our preferences, and indeed on the strength of our feelings.

We also love to try and decide who is the greatest of all time, but how can we truly compare Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams while also trying to account for changes in technology, equipment, professionalism, social attitudes and different contemporary competitors? These variables also make it trickier to compare the achievements of Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt if we look beyond the simple statistics.

The Telegraph recently published the results of a project titled, ‘The UK’s Greatest Ever Sportsperson’. This throws another factor into the mix: how do we compare performers from different sports?

Our feelings about the Sports Personality Awards are complicated further by the fact that (despite its name) I’m not sure anyone really knows exactly what many of the SPOTY trophies are based on anymore. Is it about personality? Performance? Popularity?

So let’s have a quick look at the debate about the 2016 SPOTY Team of the Year Award. It’s difficult to directly compare the achievements of Leicester City across the course of a 38-game season against the GB Hockey Women’s 100% win record and gold medal in Rio. Leicester were 5000/1 to win the Premier League before the season started; GB women were around 9/1 to win Olympic gold. Their journeys and their challenges were very different, but both of these teams have achieved amazing things in the last 12 months. Incidentally, so has every other team that was nominated for this SPOTY award.

The thing I haven’t read anywhere in the debate this morning is that both Leicester and GB Hockey have achieved their success based on similar qualities: Trust in one another, commitment to and belief in a shared goal, and a few outstanding individual performances set against the backdrop of teamwork. Rather than comparing the differences between their achievements, wouldn’t it be great if a few more people could identify the similarities?

Both teams will also face challenges in their quests to match the heights they have done in 2016. Leicester have struggled to get close to their performances last season in this year’s Premier League, but have done well in the Champions League so far. The GB Hockey women will have to manage retirements, new players and the challenge of replicating their success in upcoming tournaments with the unfamiliar tag of ‘favourites’.

The slightly muted reaction of Leicester City’s players on winning the award seems to have contributed to some of the negative reactions. This may be contentious, but to be completely honest, I don’t regard their reaction as being particularly important. You’d like to think the award means something to the recipient, but it isn’t given out based on who wants it the most.

Meanwhile, I’m sure a few criticisms about the result are based on the fact this might have been an opportunity to buck the trend and celebrate a female sports team. However, I think SPOTY is one of the few mass-broadcast sports ‘events’ that is gender-balanced and I’d argue social change isn’t the role of this particular award.

Ultimately, both teams have been extremely inspiring and exciting examples in their sports and beyond, and I have no doubt that not a single player would trade the Premier League trophy or an Olympic gold medal for the title of SPOTY Team of the Year.

Playing in Pain: Courageous or Crazy?

playing-in-pain

Pain and sport go hand in hand. To a degree, pain is an inevitable consequence of pushing our bodies to their limits and to actively engaging in activities that place our physical wellbeing at risk. Pain is accepted, managed and even embraced by sportspeople from amateur to elite level – that’s why we refer proudly to our achievements taking ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ and when something hurts we pop a paracetemol, hold ourselves together with tape and take to the field anyway.

“There is a difference between the brave that will be there at any cost and the ones that a little pain can make a difference”

The not-so-subtle message behind these words from Jose Mourinho yesterday: toughen up. Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw aren’t the first footballers to be confronted with this type of accusation. Daniel Sturridge is praised for his talent but criticized for how often – and apparently how easily – he is on the injury list. Is it fair to expect sportspeople to suck up the pain and get on with it, or are we being too hard on them? Does playing through pain indicate courage and selflessness or shortsightedness and stupidity?

In recent months, back page headlines have been dominated by accusations of systematic doping in Russian sport and the release of information about TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) granted to athletes to allow them to take certain prohibited drugs for medical reasons. The debate about doping in sport asks many varied ethical questions, but perhaps the one most relevant to this issue is why we punish athletes for masking pain chemically, but allow, encourage and expect them to handle it psychologically. If you have an illness or injury bad enough to require restricted medication, should you be competing at all?

This leads me on to what pain really means. Firstly, let’s consider what the impact of pain on an individual level. It’s important that we distinguish between pain thresholds and pain tolerance because playing in pain isn’t just about what hurts and how much, but also about what an individual person’s ‘ceiling’ is: what we can manage or where our physical and mental limits to cope lie. Pain threshold will affect how bad it feels when a boxer is punched in the face or a rugby player is smashed in a huge tackle. Pain tolerance is what determines whether or not they can carry on playing, and how much it does or doesn’t affect their future performance.

The second aspect of this is how important being at your physical optimum actually is. In sports where performance is primarily determined by peak fitness – whether in speed, endurance or power – a relatively minor injury can be hugely significant. In sports where a more complex blend of physical capacity, strategic awareness and technical execution are required, an injury may have an impact, but doesn’t necessarily make it impossible to compete. Typically, this is why a sprinter doesn’t compete with a tight hamstring, but a hockey/football/rugby player might call it a niggle and crack on.

In some situations, these decisions are taken out of a sportsperson’s hands. Recently updated rules on concussion in many sports are a good example of the wider health of an athlete being prioritized over getting back onto the field of play. A blanket ruling reduces the potential effects of commercial interests and external pressure on sports doctors on duty of care towards athletes, but it is unrealistic to expect every case of pain and injury in sport to be assessed and managed in this way.

“Pain is temporary, glory lasts forever”

There are numerous examples of sportspeople playing on despite bad injuries or severe pain. What is it that made Terry Butcher keep heading the ball despite bleeding profusely out of his stitched-up forehead? Why was Kate Richardson-Walsh prepared to endure extreme pain and risk further damage when she played on after having her jaw broken by a hockey stick during London 2012? Perhaps the craziest of all was Terry Sawchuk – an ice hockey goalkeeper who played before helmets were mandatory and had more than 600 stitches to his face during his career.

Maybe the decisions of these sportspeople are made simpler by what their sports mean to them; perhaps playing in pain is about more than toughness or tolerance. Perhaps it’s a symbol of what you’re prepared to endure for a lifelong goal or giving everything for your team. Having said that, bravery comes in many forms. Sometimes, asking for help or admitting you don’t think you can handle pain might be just as brave as soldiering on. If you can’t do your job properly, you might be letting your team down by putting on a brave face. Is winning a medal or being the tough guy (or girl) enough to risk your long-term health or a ‘normal’ life beyond sport?

There’s often a fine line between brave and stupid, and perhaps in the end it comes down to hindsight. Playing in pain is a bit like attempting an audacious goal – if you go for it and it works out, you’re a hero. If it turns out to be a bad choice, you’re an idiot. It just depends whether you can handle the situation and whether you think the risk is worth it.

Magic, Gods and the Baying Mob

ryder-cup-crowds

I can’t quite make my mind up about golf. I’m sure it’s partly because I’m not very good… not too shabby with a 7-iron or a putter, absolutely abysmal with a driver. I’m vaguely hoping that once I’m at a stage of my life where breaking into a run is less appealing, I might get really good at it. I enjoy going to the driving range, but I think golf clubs tend to be pretty snooty. I quite like watching the majors on TV when they’ve reached the exciting stages, but other than that… meh. But the Ryder Cup. That’s different. The Ryder Cup has a bit of magic.

We talk about fans worshipping sporting gods, but without trying to draw a comparison that’s too sweeping, maybe there’s another parallel between sport and religion: there seems to be an extraordinary power created by the feeling of being part of something much greater than yourself. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I can appreciate the significance of the sense of community and a shared value system that religion creates for many people.
In a sports context, anyone who plays in a team sport can probably already identify with similar feelings to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sportspeople who often compete on an individual basis can often bring out the best in themselves when they are representing a team, country or continent. Andy Murray is Britain’s Davis Cup saviour, Team GB’s Olympic athletes are driven to success as part of something bigger, and the cycling domestique commits repeated acts of self-sacrifice in order to help a team mate to glory.

Of course, an athlete has to truly buy into it if it is to make a difference to their performance. During Rio 2016, former GB sprinter Jeanette Kwakye wrote an interesting article about the changing mindset of the British Athletics relay teams, noting that in order to succeed, the GB women had recognized the need to, “Park their egos [and] personal ambitions and come together with one objective only.” I believe quite strongly that you can’t fake this: you might be part of the team, but is the team truly a part of you?

As example of this, and to bring us back to golf, some have criticized Tiger Woods for failing to truly commit to Team USA and subsequently never really performing at the Ryder Cup. Conversely, Justin Rose was one of only a few golfers openly passionate about being part of the Olympic Games (and in his case, Team GB), and his charge to a Rio 2016 gold medal subsequently seemed to have a feeling of slightly magical inevitability about it.
So is it possible to define the ingredient that makes an atmosphere become particularly special? Sometimes the size, importance or long-standing tradition of an event alone can create a special atmosphere, such as the final of a Grand Slam, the Ashes, the FA Cup final or the Super Bowl. I’d also argue that there are examples in lower level sport, because emotional meaning isn’t just created by the scale of an event. Having said that, more often than not, a crowd creates an atmosphere – and that’s why although there may be a gulf between the relative performance levels of competitors, the atmosphere at the Olympic 100m final and the London Marathon isn’t so very different.

Crowds use many kinds of marker as powerful indicators of allegiance. Patriotism and a sense of identity are indicated by coloured clothing, chanting, cheering, jeering and applause. Crowds vary across sports and between events – and it’s pretty easy to identify the differences between the polite applause of snooker, football stadium chanting and the pub-like atmosphere of darts. The traditions of a sport or competition tend to dictate the expected crowd behaviours, and this is where the Ryder Cup becomes an interesting example of an accepted – but disputed – challenge to the norm.

Many Ryder Cup commentators declare themselves to be opposed to overly vocal crowds and some of the players getting involved in (or in some cases, fuelling) the atmosphere. There are undoubtedly conversations to be had about the lengths spectators should be allowed to go – because there is of a course a fine but distinct line between ‘banter’ and abuse. However, my overriding feeling is that golf might just be on the verge of a big decision about the direction it wants to take as a sport. The Ryder Cup – and arguably the Olympics – have drawn some great performances from players who have already established themselves as great golfers, but there seems to be something extra in these atmospheres that has the power to create the special or spectacular. As well as considering different formats and how it can broaden its appeal from a sport-specific perspective, maybe top-level golf would do well to consider the emotional experience and attachment of the crowd too.

 

Challenging tradition can be dangerous ground, even when it seems obvious logically or even ethically that change is needed – just look at how difficult it can be to implement technology in football or contest antiquated rules about women’s golf club membership. Rightly or wrongly, there is also almost always opposition to change. Maybe it wouldn’t be sustainable for the Hazeltine atmosphere to be reproduced at every event across the golf calendar – for the players or the crowds. Tradition and etiquette can’t just be thrown out of the window either, because they are part of any sport’s identity. And most of all, perhaps the magic of the Ryder Cup lies partly in the fact that it’s unusual… because can something be as special if it becomes the norm?

 

N.B. It’s Women’s Sports Week. Please don’t think I’m writing about the Davis Cup and the Ryder Cup without due consideration to their equally worthy women’s equivalents. I have no doubt that the Fed Cup and Solheim Cup hold just as much meaning to the incredible sportswomen who play in them and supporters who watch them compete, and I hope that in the not too distant future the media and the world of sport itself makes it a bit easier to use them as widely known examples when I’m discussing topics like this one…

The Story of a Not-Quite Olympian

The story of a not-quite Olympian

As I write this, it’s 114 days until Rio 2016 gets underway. However, despite loving sport in general and the Olympics in particular, on August 5th this year I will probably be hiding under a rock somewhere.

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Lots of things have stopped me – shyness, embarrassment, not wanting to say something I’ll regret, wanting to be honest but not knowing how much of the truth to tell. I know I’ll never be able to convey in a few hundred words how and why my experiences and near misses have been so significant, so tough, so defining. I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not fishing for compliments. It’s not about blame or assessing why I didn’t get picked. So why am I writing this? I guess I just want to let the unlucky few who share similar experiences know you aren’t alone and that you will find a way to handle it. And for everyone else – those who play, those who watch – maybe in the coming months it will help you remember to spare a thought for those whose Olympic dreams aren’t made, but broken.

I know this sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I need to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – I know I’ve been fortunate to experience some pretty incredible things during my hockey career. I made my senior international debut aged 17, I’m a Commonwealth and triple European medalist, I’ve played at a World Cup, I’ve been national champion multiple times with two clubs. I’ve travelled the world thanks to a bit of ability and a lot of hard work with a hockey stick. I still play for a brilliant, successful club with a great bunch of mates. I’ve got a lot of good stuff to look back on. But ultimately, I won’t be able to look back and say I’ve achieved my dreams in hockey.

The problem with dreams is that if they were easy to reach, they wouldn’t be dreams. They’d just be plans. Intentions. Actions. When I was 22, I had my first experience of not being selected for something. Unfortunately for me, that something was Beijing 2008. As reserve, I trained at the preparation camp in Macau with the girls then had to stay there on my own for a week (as a bit of an emotional train wreck) when the team travelled to Beijing. Four years later, I was involved in everything until selection, but missed the cut for 2012. The London Olympics was brilliant, devastating and totally inescapable.

I’m aware that people suffer far worse things in life than not getting selected for the Olympics, but this is where words fail me a bit. I can’t really describe how it feels to miss the tournament you’ve given everything for and dreamed about since you were a kid. I could tell you about things that have happened to me. Randomly bursting into tears at Tesco a few weeks after selection when a cashier asked me how my day had been. Surviving four months on three hours sleep a night. Being a bookworm, but unable to read a whole page for six months when all I wanted was to be able to escape into another world. Sitting with a teammate on the bus home from training at the Olympic Park and admitting to an irrational sense of extreme guilt at letting my family down. I’ve never felt as alone as I did in a stadium of 16,000 people in London – I was inconsolable when the GB women lost their semi final and inconsolable when the GB women won a bronze medal two days later. I could tell you about those and a hundred other things but in the end none of them really get to the nub of what you actually feel like inside.

There’s all this stuff going round in your own head and heart, but of course the world goes on, and thankfully I’ve always been lucky enough to have some pretty special people around to help get me through. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing when people say they can’t believe you haven’t been picked (it still is). Selection, the big pink elephant in the room, has made me feel like an awkward friend/housemate more times than I care to think about (it still does), but the mates I know have really got my back never make me feel bad about it. Sharing a look with one of my best friends when she was on her bronze medal victory lap, and her taking a second to share my pain instead of revel in her elation, was something so powerful to me I don’t think she even realises.

It’s been over two years since my last cap, I’m not even in the GB squad any more and I still find it impossible to get my head around Rio being so soon. It kills me feeling like the odd one out in large parts of my friendship group, not having that same daily routine and camaraderie and sense that I’m part of something. I still believe I should be an Olympian and I still believe I should be in with a shot at Rio, but I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m not. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it exactly, but I guess I’ve learnt to look at things in a different way.

Some time, some perspective and some travel have reminded me of a few things. If I’m going to define myself as a hockey player – and maybe even as a person – based on whether I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve realised I’m devaluing myself. And as for anyone else who judges me on that? I probably don’t need to worry about their opinion that much. Instead, I try to focus on enjoying myself and pushing myself to be better, on and off a hockey field. In that end, that’s what I want to define me.