Episode 29 is an interview with Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE. Over the course of her 17-year international Hockey career she amassed 19 medals including an Olympic bronze at London 2012, the European Championship title in 2015, World Cup bronze and Commonwealth silver, before finally reaching the pinnacle of her sport with an Olympic gold at the Rio Olympics 2016
We talk about how hockey has developed as a sport and what it’s like to play at an elite level. Helen also also talks openly about mental health in sport and her own battle with depression. For those of you wanting a bit more on the stories we both reference – I’ll pop some links below.
Hope you enjoy our chat.
More information / links to stories mentioned in this episode:
- Rio Olympics 2016: GB women win first hockey gold on penalties – click here.
- Helen Richardson-Walsh: GB hockey player talks about depression – click here.
- Tammy Parlour on her own experience with anorexia and bulimia – click here.
- Stories of other athletes and their challenges with mental health – click here.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 01.5.18 – Ep 29. Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE – Journey to Gold.
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
I: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way. Today I’m talking with Helen Richardson-Walsh. Over the course of her 17 year international hockey career she amassed 19 medals including an Olympic bronze at London 2012, the European Championship title in 2015, World Cup bronze and Commonwealth silver before finally reaching the pinnacle of her sport with an Olympic gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016. We talk about what it’s like to play it at an elite level and how she’s seen hockey develop as a sport. Helen’s also talked openly about the mental health of athletes and her own battles with depression. For those of you wanting a bit more on the stories we both reference I’ll pop some links on the episode page of the website. Hope you enjoy the chat. Now I read somewhere that you have 293 international caps for England and GB, that’s quite a career. Did I get that number right?
R: Yes, I think so, around about.
I: When you were at, I don’t know, number 127 or 206 or whatever it is, does it get to a point that it’s just normal?
R: Do you know I don’t think for me it did because I was always someone who was kind of striving to be better and striving to win that elusive gold medal in whichever tournament it was. So no putting on that shirt was always a special thing to do and I think particularly because quite early on in my career I had an ankle injury which kept me out of the game for two years and I needed three operations on that ankle and I was told by one surgeon that I would never play. You can get back to a certain extent but you probably won’t be fit enough to play at the top level again. So to hear those kind of words was difficult at the time but I got through it and then it made what I was doing even more special if it could be. I didn’t take it for granted because I mean as athletes you know it can end at any point anyway. But you don’t think it’s going to be you. So when it nearly was me it made me really value I think a little bit more what I was a part of and yes the opportunities that I was being able to have.
I: We’ll talk more about injuries and difficult times and so forth a little bit later. Do you remember that first cap?
R: Yes. Against Japan at Milton Keynes.
I: Did you win?
R: In the lovely stadium, yes we won 3-1 and it was part of a training camp, so I think my first senior training camp for probably four or five days and part of that was a few matches against Japan. Yes, so a very young 17 year old.
I: What year was that?
R: In 1999. Yes a long time ago.
I: For those who aren’t as knowledgeable about hockey can you talk a bit about the journey travelled for hockey as a sport? In other words what it was like when you started and that first international cap and what the future looks like?
I: Has it changed?
R: Yes, oh dramatically. I mean sport on the whole has changed incredibly. I mean since I started way back then, as I already said, we had training camps so we would travel from all around the country wherever we lived to a training camp, either at Milton Keynes, which was the national stadium back then or Bisham Abbey or Lilleshall, one of those national sporting venues and we would come together for a week or a few days and then after that go back home. It always felt like we were kind of two steps forward, one step back and that’s how it was and also in terms of the sport itself and going to the Olympic Games. So Great Britain at the Olympic Games but in all of the other tournaments are the home nations. So you go to the World Cup, the Europeans, all the other tournaments as England, Scotland, Wales and then we come together for one year before an Olympic Games and think we can try and compete with the rest that have been training for four years and it was a very difficult job. Went to Sydney thought as a young 18 year old that we’d done everything that we could and in all honesty we were way off where we needed to be.
Fast forward what 12 years and then the London Olympics that was the real change. So we failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics as a women’s team, funding cut by 70 per cent, London got the Olympics which saved our sport I think in this country, so we got some money back and for the first time we were able to start to train full-time. As a women’s squad we were like yes we don’t want to waste this opportunity, home Olympic Games, we want to go there in the best shape possible. So we now have a centralised programme which has its challenges. It’s not the best for everybody and everything, it struggles with club hockey, it’s not perfect but in terms of the international team it took us from a team that was decidedly average to one that was not just competing at the very top but actually winning the Olympic gold. We now train and have competitions and test matches out of Great Britain throughout that whole four year cycle as well. So that’s a massive thing that’s changed since I started. So yes I’m not involved anymore but feel like I’ve left it, well not me, but I’m leaving it in a better place than where I joined it.
I: You’ve been at four Olympics.
I: Bronze in London, gold in Rio. How much of your performance do you put down to fitness, skill or psychology?
R: I’ve never been asked that. What was it, fitness, skill and psychology?
R: Well I think once you get to the elite level for me the difference is what’s in your head. So you clearly need to be at a certain standard but I certainly think that the psychology of sport is massively important. Because I was always looking at the other teams, I was thinking why are the Dutch consistently good? How do they manage to win time and time again and the Australians of old when I first got into the team that was then, they were the Dutch. Because I guess their skills were very good, their understanding of the game was good. But I didn’t feel like we weren’t as good or couldn’t be as good and so I didn’t understand why they were always winning and we weren’t able to and so that’s why I started my psychology degree actually, because I just thought it’s what going on in between your ears. It’s how you control yourselves, how you make the situation the best for you and then obviously you’ve got all the tactical stuff is hugely important. But yes so much of it for me is psychology.
I: I want to talk a little bit about darker times, because you’ve spoken openly about your struggles with depression. Do you think sport enabled there to be kind of a tipping point or was the [s.l. valance 00:08:36] or whatever you want to call it in you that was always going to sort of pop out at some point?
R: Interesting question. Do you know what? I don’t know. I have often wondered that myself like whether I would’ve struggled at a point in my life without that. But sport has been so part of me since literally day one. I can’t separate the two. My identity as I was growing up was as a sports person, I played all sports not just hockey. So yes I can’t separate those two.
I: Why talk about it?
R: It’s simple. Because I think the majority of people, if not everybody, will struggle at some point in their life and if they don’t then I don’t know. But if you’re pushing yourself, you’re challenging yourself, stretching yourself, taking yourself out of your comfort zone, it’s not going to be easy at times and certainly not everything is going to go your way. We know the stats in terms of mental health that one in four at the moment will suffer with a mental health problem, so if you haven’t then you will know somebody who has and does and is. So I just think the more people that can speak out about it and make it as part of life.
R: Yes acceptance and awareness and then I think the more we can start to help one another. I got to the point where I was really low in the deepest, darkest depths and didn’t necessarily need to go there and I think the more we talk about it, the more we’re open about it, the more that workplaces and schools really value this as a subject and the well-being of people in general hopefully means that people won’t get to that darkest place. You know you can start to highlight it a bit earlier and start to do something about it before you get there. So yes to raise awareness and if I can help one person. I know a lot of people say that, but it’s true, if you can help one person feel a bit better about themselves then why not.
I: We’ve spoken offline and I’ve mentioned my own struggles with mental health through the years. I think at the core of why I talk about it is that it’s a way of reminding me that I am strong, reminding me that I can overcome. Is that something you can relate to at all?
R: Yes absolutely. I was giving a talk actually last week for the Open University conference and it was about mental health in sport, which was great, and I used a thing that I’d seen recently online, it’s a Japanese philosophy, I think you pronounce it Kinsugi, I don’t even know, it’s about a guy broke his beloved bowl and he got it fixed, put back together with lacquer and gold and it was actually a more beautiful object for its broken bits and that’s how I try and think of it. What happened to me is part of me and I’m not ashamed of it and yes you’re right I do get strength from remembering what I went through and that I got through it. I do think sometimes it is so easy to … I sometimes look back and thing could I have dealt with it better? But I try and remind myself of what it was like and you deal with every situation as best as you can and it’s not good or bad, it’s not better or worse, it’s just how it is. So yes I do definitely take strength from that, yes.
I: Do you think sport is becoming more mature in dealing with the mental health of athletes?
R: Yes, I think certainly the Olympic sports and Paralympic sports definitely with the new government promise that they’re going to now look after the well-being of athletes, that’s going to be an important thing for them over the coming years. I had available to me through the English Institute of Sport access to The Priory, which only came in in 2014. So it was the perfect timing for me. But having that access there was honestly, you know, I can’t say how helpful it was, it was incredible to have that support. So yes I do think it is changing. Obviously there’s been loads of stuff about duty of care of athletes and quite rightly and this whole thing about winning at all costs that UK sport have maybe portrayed and wanted. I don’t know. But I think if they get this right that whole thing of winning I think will improve anyway. I think my experience of when I’ve been at my best and been able to thrive and been in teams that are thriving and really doing their best is when people are able to be themselves and really know who they are and value themselves. That’s such a powerful thing. So when we do really start to look after the well-being of not only the athletes but the coaches and the support staff and everybody, I think we will perform even better. So it won’t be about not winning medals, I think we may even win even more if that’s possible, because we’re not too bad at the moment. So yes I certainly think at that level it is and I know that rugby have obviously had big campaigns with Lift the Weight. Yes I think sports are really getting on board.
I: Have you achieved everything you wanted to with hockey?
R: Do you know I got asked this question in a school recently and I started to give this long winded answer about medals and all this rubbish really and yes there’s a couple of medals that I would’ve wanted, but actually when I look back over my career the thing that I value the most isn’t the medal at the end. People listening might be thinking it’s easy to say when you’ve got a medal at the end, so yes I take that, fair enough. But even after the London Olympic Games when we hadn’t won the gold, we won the bronze, I was content with how I was. Obviously I wanted to go on and try and get that gold but I was content in that moment and I’m content now and the thing that I’m most proud of is how we changed, how we went from that average team to a world beating team.
I: Do you think you would’ve been as content if you’d got silver?
R: In Rio or in London?
I: Yes. Because we often talk about the silver medal being the hardest.
R: Yes I think so, yes I think so, because the processes that we went through is what I was proud of. We changed everything and we were criticised for doing some of the stuff, for going centralised, not everybody agreed that we should do that. But we knew we needed to do something different if we were going to get a different result. But then the team that we built and the culture and being part of that London squad and then the Rio squad, both of those teams were different, they were unique, but at the core of them they had a real trust and respect and a connection that is difficult to describe and we created that.
I: It must be heard to move beyond that. Are you prepared for life beyond that?
R: Yes, it is one of those really interesting things. So I think I am at the point in my life where I am ready to move beyond that. It is difficult sometimes to go on social media and you see the new team and all their hashtags that they’ve now got. But it also makes me proud, so it’s difficult on the one hand, I’m not part of that anymore but it does make me proud that they’re continuing the stuff that we did together.
I: Do you know what’s next for you or are you still trying to figure it out?
R: Yes, I’m figuring it out. At the moment saying yes to lots of stuff and doing different bits and pieces, but I’m starting a masters actually in September.
I: Are you?
I: What in?
R: Organisational psychology.
R: Yes and few different bits and pieces doing a bit of corporate speaking, speaking in schools. But at the core of it all is I guess the stuff that I’ve spoken about a bit in that people being able to get the best out of themselves, getting strength from who they are, their value, their worth and well-being being a massive part of that.
I: So what does success look like for you? Just a small question.
R: I think success it’s really corny isn’t it to say to be happy.
I: Sometimes it’s the best response.
I: What is happy?
R: Happy is different to everybody. Happy is not one thing. For me it’s having that real inner … what is it … inner like peace of who you are and having a purpose, feeling … This is a really bad answer.
I: There’s not a bad answer. It’s a difficult question.
R: Yes. I think yes, being happy, being content. You often hear older people looking back on their lives and they don’t talk about the stuff they achieved necessarily, it’s about the connections that they made and the people that they met. So success, I don’t know.
I: To be continued.
R: To be continued.
I: We’re just going to end up with some quick fire questions for you. What did you eat for breakfast?
R: Porridge with blueberries.
I: Favourite piece of kit.
R: This is where my literal brain is like yes my training kit and then my other bit of my brain is going no say something different.
I: Given I’ve never asked you the question before whatever you say to me will be fine.
R: Do you know when you first said it the first thing that came to my head was my phone.
I: Your phone.
R: Yes, I know, terrible.
I: Sporting hero.
R: I’m going to say Sally Gunnell.
R: Because she was one of the first … so the ’92 Olympic Games was one of the first Olympics that I really remember. I did a school project on it and Sally Gunnell obviously won the gold then and she was an inspiration. But I’ve actually met her a couple of times since then as well and she did a Q&A at an event, an athletics event and she was even more of an inspiration having listened to her then, so yes Sally Gunnell.
I: Best performance enhancer. For me it would be sleep.
R: That did come to mind, but I’ve played many matches without sleep and it didn’t really affect much.
I: Gosh, you’re lucky.
R: But then I’m just thinking about hockey, but actually in life, in normal life, now I’m living the normal life actually sleep does really if I don’t get it it’s not good. So yes maybe I would say sleep as well now.
I: Brilliant. Well it’s been fantastic talking to you Helen, thank you very much.
R: No worries.
I: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a questionandperformance.com.
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