Hockey WAGs on Tour 3.0: The Spicy Edition

 

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It’s been a while since my last “WAGs abroad” post, but I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in India, where the husband (I’m now a ‘W’ rather than a ‘G’!) is playing for Ranchi Rays in the Hockey India League so here goes with edition 3.0…

After a slightly cramped overnight flight from Heathrow, I arrived at Mumbai Airport. My first task was to find my driver, who I’d been told would be waiting for me. ‘Should be easy enough,’ I thought. Rookie error. I emerged from the arrivals hall to see approximately 150 taxi drivers holding identical-looking signs with tiny writing. Twenty minutes and several text messages later, we figured out my driver was actually waiting in the car park (and his sign didn’t have the right name on anyway…)

Anyone who has been to India will know the rules of the road take some getting used to. In reality, ‘rules’ is a loose term. Pedestrian survival requires bravery, confidence and a bit of luck. You become used to the constant sound of car horns, four lines of cars squeezed across two lanes, drivers weaving through impossibly small spaces (sometimes literally impossible – every vehicle has bumps and bashes), and the random appearance of handcarts and cows on what seem like major highways.

I began to almost enjoy the craziness of the Mumbai roads, but even rush hour on the M25 seemed quite tranquil when I arrived home, and I felt unexpectedly warm and fuzzy at hearing the gentle, reassuring bleep of a pelican crossing.

So other than three fascinating paragraphs on the road system, what else can I say about Mumbai? It is noisy, colourful, vibrant, smoggy, cricket-obsessed, warm, dirty, intriguing… and for a weedy westerner like me, it requires fastidious use of hand sanitiser gel. While I could appreciate the grandeur of the Gate of India and the Taj Hotel (built during the Colonial era), when you look beyond the architecture and the chaos, it is the people that make Mumbai a beautiful place.

I only had three full days in Mumbai, and having already spent much of my life at hockey pitches and in hotels, I wanted to try to see “the real India”. Relatively intrepid traveler that I am, I still had to make sure I did this safely and authentically, and I was lucky enough to stumble across a brilliant company on TripAdvisor (details below). My first guide, Salman, picked me up from our hotel and my adventure began.

Our first stop was Sassoon Docks. When we arrived at around 9am, circles of women in colourful saris were crouched picking prawns and had already been hard at work for hours alongside the fishermen, truck drivers and crushed ice traders since before first light. We wandered past big piles of squid, surmai and ‘Bombay duck’ (a local seafood delicacy that bears no resemblance to the bird) being squabbled over loudly in Hindi and Marathi.

Next up was the Cuffe Parade Laundry – a large outdoor laundry where specialist washermen soap, scrub and rinse everything from trousers and shirts to saris and bedsheets. Thousands of items are washed every day and the work looked surprisingly physical – going here would certainly be an eye-opener for anyone who grumbles about having to hang up a few socks and pants after pressing a couple of buttons on an electric washing machine. (As a bit of a Monica, I fully appreciated their awesome laundry skills.)

A short drive later and we found ourselves at the Arthur Crawford Market, a famous open bazaar selling a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, spices and (live) animals. I spent five minutes having a variety of spices shoved under my nose to smell, but I finally managed to convince the persistent vendor that I was sorry, but I really wasn’t going to take a 3kg pot of vindaloo powder home with me.

We explored the famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (this is the train station in Slumdog Millionaire) before going to watch Dabbawalas deliver lunchboxes. This is an amazing hundred-year-old system where wives cook their husbands’ lunches and send them out for delivery via a complex four-part chain of ‘Dabbawalas’. (I can’t really describe it properly other than to say it makes Amazon Prime look a bit amateur… but this article explains how it works if you want to know more.)

Salman hesitantly asked whether I’d like to experience the famous Mumbai local train. I agreed straight away and he looked happy, if a bit surprised. The safety record on these trains is pretty horrific, but it wasn’t as if I was going to sit on the roof and I backed myself not to fall out of one of the always-open doors (which provide air conditioning far more effective than that on the Central Line).

We got on at Churchgate Station and rode north. Two stations before alighting an outrageous number of people simultaneously decided they could all fit into our carriage and I experienced what Salman described as a “free body massage” (don’t worry, it just means being squashed in the crowd – nothing sinister) before jumping out of the moving train and heading to a local restaurant for a traditional Thali.

After lunch, Salman introduced me to Oves, who was to take me on part two of my tour – a walk around the Dharavi slum. This is the third biggest slum in the world, and the second largest in Asia: approximately one square mile in size, home to one million people (including both Salman and Oves), and it generates an incredible US$1 billion per year.

The industrial quarter is busy and efficient – plastic, scrap metal, aluminium and cardboard recycling occurs to an unbelievable degree. Textiles, soap, leather and pottery are the other main areas of commerce. I was lucky enough to see many of these industries in action and the people waste nothing, work hard and fast, but still find time for a quick smile or a hello.

Oves had asked me to avoid pulling a face if I saw or smelt anything bad, but to be honest I was so busy trying to take everything in that this wasn’t difficult. However, as we walked past the open sewer that divides the industrial quarter from the main residential area and flows directly into the sea, I did make a mental note that a cooling dip at Chowpatty Beach wouldn’t be a good option.

We walked around the residential area through a series of narrow passageways. It was dark, the stone floor was unstable and even at my limited height (Oves actually mentioned this and I’d only just met him?!) I had to duck under low-hanging metal sheets and loose wires. The air was thick with heat and spices and cooking, and the occasional waft of sewage. Children playing hide and seek wriggled past me as we walked through the maze, sometimes hesitating to say, “Hey lady,” and give me a wave or a high five.

Large extended families cram into tiny huts to eat and sleep. Different religions live alongside one another in harmony. Each house has its own electricity meter and slum postmen somehow know their way around to deliver the monthly bills. The water is only switched on for three hours in the morning and three in the evening. There is a tiny cinema, an Internet shop and a school. It’s another world – not a sad place, not a dangerous place, just a very different one.

I can’t do this experience justice in this post, but going to Dharavi was genuinely amazing. The lives of the people there contrast so greatly to my own (and to those of most people who will read this), but the community is vibrant, resourceful and friendly. I didn’t really ever feel unsafe in Mumbai – except while trying not to get run over – but in many ways I felt safest of all in the slum.

On the last night of my trip, I finally fulfilled my WAG duties and watched Ranchi Rays take on local boys Dabang Mumbai. I was ushered into the VIP section, which basically meant a seat rather than a wooden bench and waiters constantly offering me “fish balls” during penalty corners and at other particularly inopportune moments in the match.

The game itself was pretty cool to watch. The atmosphere ebbed and flowed, but the fans danced, cheered and waved flags throughout. Ranchi were 3-1 up, but conceded a double-points goal with 30 seconds to go, so it finished 3-3. Perhaps not the highest quality game I’ve ever seen, but a fun experience to be adopted by the Ranchi fans next to me – and better than the other draws the team have had since – both 0-0! I’d have been pretty upset to go all the way to India and not see a single goal.

In summary, this was not your average WAG trip. If I get another chance to go, I’ll waggle my head Indian-style, pack my dodgy Aladdin-trousers/comfy shoes combo and take on the complex Visa process without a moment’s hesitation. Incredible India: beautiful chaos.

 

Big thanks to the Ranchi Rays management/sponsors for arranging my flights and accommodation, and for making me feel like part of the team!

If you ever go to Mumbai, please check out ‘Be The Local Tours and Travel’. They offer several different tours and you’ll be guided by a friendly, insightful local from Dharavi who knows the city inside out. This is their website.

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

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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?

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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.

Locker-Room Talk and the Biggest Challenge for Women’s Sport

After a big week for women’s sport, a good friend, fantastic ambassador for equal opportunities in sport and Olympic hockey gold medalist Alex Danson tweeted something a few days ago that very much resonated with me.

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I couldn’t agree more. Any campaign that makes a positive difference to people’s experiences of sport and physical activity is a good thing. Women’s Sport Week and other similar initiatives are inspiring and exciting tools for women’s sport in particular, and wider sport in general. Unfortunately, they’re also a powerful indicator of how much progress is still required.

I suppose I should also add my reluctant thanks to Donald Trump for providing me with some other ammunition for this blog over the weekend. For anyone who has managed to avoid the circus of the US presidential race, a recently released video of Trump has added to his already outrageous collection of sexist, racist and offensive soundbites. Luckily, all can be forgiven now he has issued a half-hearted apology and explained that it was just, “locker-room talk”. Let’s be clear, Mr Trump: this does not make it okay and what I’m about to say next doesn’t get you off the hook either. History and society create an environment where such justifications exist. I think Trump is a first class idiot, I have a big problem with his rhetoric in general and it’s not exactly an accurate representation of what sportspeople talk about… but I’m just as concerned about the fact that he can cite ‘locker-room talk’ as an excuse at all.

This is something I’ve touched on before. The current reality is we do need campaigns like Women’s Sport Week and This Girl Can, and we must continue to pressurize the media into valuing female sport properly and covering it accordingly. However, the real challenge runs much deeper than this. Measurable statistics on gender representation – increasing participation levels and column inches and the number of active female coaches/commentators/referees – are all very important. True gender equality, though, is about more than what sport and wider society look like. We can only get close to it when our subconscious biases and thought patterns change too.

I’m talking about the deep-rooted, often unnoticed prejudices that pervade our perceptions about sport. This is usually framed through our language, both internal (in thoughts) and external (in speech) – for example in the subtle differences in words used in men’s and women’s sports commentary. I see myself as a supporter of women’s sport, but if I‘m honest, I know I’m affected by these underlying prejudices too. I try to add another little whisper to the growing voice of women’s sport, but the majority of examples I use in most of my blog posts are probably from men’s sport – either because the media has pushed more of them into my brain, or because I have a subconscious awareness that these examples might be more readily known or interpreted by you as a reader. I have a feeling it’s all more ingrained than we realise. As well as saying and doing some powerful things, even the most ardent of feminists might somehow have to learn how to evolve socially, mentally and emotionally too.

Of course, it’s a fine line. Some fundamental aspects of sport are framed in terms of gender and this isn’t always a bad thing. The best example of this is probably that most competitions have separate men’s and women’s events. I accept that perceptions of what is or isn’t acceptable to label, analyse or categorise according to gender will probably differ from person to person. What I don’t accept are the barriers to opportunity and fairness that are created not just by what sport looks like but also by deep down, how we actually see it.

I hope there will be a day when an Andy Murray of the future hires a female coach and it isn’t newsworthy, it’s normal. It took 272 years for Britain to have its first female Prime Minister. On that basis, the first female coach of the England Men’s football team may have to wait another couple of centuries to get an appointment. A female coach for the men’s national football team!… Imagine the uproar in the press and the ‘light-hearted’ jokes in the pub. Or better still, imagine she just gets the job because she is the best candidate, and the fact she is a she… well, it would be irrelevant really, wouldn’t it?

 

 

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Magic, Gods and the Baying Mob

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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.

Game, Set and Mismatch: Is Djokovic missing the point?

Novak Djokovic

Prize money should be “fairly distributed” according to “who attracts more attention, spectators and who sells more tickets”

In the name of fairness, before I get stuck into this topic I do want to spare a thought for Novak Djokovic. He probably just wanted to answer a few questions about the tournament he’d won, humbly pay his beaten opponent some compliments and get out of the press room to enjoy his victory. Instead – and with no small thanks to the idiotic comments of the Indian Wells tournament CEO – a journalist threw him a grenade. Novak was tired and sweaty and his footwork hadn’t let him down all week. But instead of a deft sidestep, a “No comment,” or an “I don’t really want to talk about that right now,” he slipped. He’s allowed to voice his opinion, of course. It’s just that an opinion on this particular topic is always going to cause a bit of a stir.

As usual, I’m not planning to burn my bra or march to Westminster over this. Djokovic’s words might hold some truth and I think it’s important to consider these arguments too. On the face of it, there is a certain degree of logic to his answer. As an entertainment-hungry public, we are prepared to pay a premium to see superstars perform. It would be good to have a situation where lower ranked performers find themselves in a more financially viable position to climb the ladder, but it’s pretty easy to admit I’d pay more to watch a top player than an average one. There’s no doubt that supply and demand have an impact on sportspeople’s earning potential – if you attract more attention, maybe you should be paid more. However, I’d argue that ultimately this is more about your profile as an athlete and your ability to attract endorsements. We’re talking about prize money – should the ‘attention’ you receive really impact on how much you’re paid in the same way your results do?

Of course, it’s still going to be a bit difficult for many people to digest without raising an eyebrow. Does a man who has now earned almost $100 million in career prize money alone need an extra few hundred thousand dollars here or there? The counter argument is easy: you should be paid what you deserve. Top tennis players work in an arena where enormous financial rewards are available. Don’t forget that as spectators, we create this by paying for Sky TV and devouring the sports pages – but the ‘morality’ of this lucrative environment is a discussion for another time.

For me, the biggest discussions Djoko’s comments raise are around this concept of fairness. How can we measure “fair distribution” accurately? Should we rely on a stereotypical inclination to assume that more people buy tickets to watch men’s tennis, or should we focus on the fact that the women’s 2015 US Open final sold out more quickly than the men’s? Every single Grand Slam singles final for both genders is always played in front of a capacity crowd. As spectators, do we bank on a battle between Djokovic and Andy Murray being better, or do we buy into the frequently enthralling unpredictability of a match in the women’s tournament?
…An erudite friend of mine summed that up perfectly: “While I love Andy Murray as much as the next one-eyed Scot, the men’s [2016] Aussie Open final was worth about a fiver. The women’s final, on the other hand, was an absolute cracker.”

The other problem as I see it is that Djokovic’s statement is too focused on ‘now’. Let’s imagine a world where men and women live, work, speak, aspire and are perceived completely equally. In that world, if men’s tennis truly generates more attention and sells more tickets, then maybe it would be reasonable to consider allocating prize money on the basis of gender. But we don’t live in that world. It’s all well and good making an offhand statement that people prefer men’s tennis, but whether or not it is true, in an environment where it’s still pushed more, broadcast more, talked about more, that doesn’t automatically mean it should be “worth” more. And perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t we be concerned about creating and supporting an environment that allows change and enables players’ potential to be realised regardless of their gender?

A great rivalry, an intense battle or a superhuman performance on a sports field isn’t determined by whether you’re a man or a woman. At the moment though, the number of column inches and the amount of discussion about these things does tend to be shaped by the gender of the players involved. Maybe as the guy who wins the most tournaments and sells more than his fair share of tickets, Djokovic has a legitimate claim that money in tennis could be allocated more fairly according to these criteria. But is that because he’s Novak Djokovic, or because he’s a man? Without a magical way to measure what ‘fairly’ really means in tennis, sport and on a wider scale, life, I’d argue that gender simply isn’t a wise yardstick to use.