Episode 31 is an interview with Performance Lifestyle Advisor to GB Hockey – Emma Mitchell. Emma is also a former international rugby player and 1994 World Cup winner.
We talk about the issues and challenges of her role, what it was like on the inside when England women won gold, and how she supports athletes to develop the skills and qualities needed to cope with the special demands of high performance sport.
Emma joined the EIS as a Performance Lifestyle Adviser in February 2007 and has experience of supporting over 100 elite GB Hockey athletes and coaches over three Olympic Cycles. Before joining the EIS, Emma was a successful senior executive with twenty years of experience in the publishing and sports clothing business sectors in the UK and USA.
From 1987-2002 and whilst working full-time, Emma played rugby for England winning 52 caps at scrum half and competing in four World Cup campaigns, with the 1994 World Cup win being her career highlight. Following her retirement, she went on to coach at club, regional and international level in the USA, Canada and the UK.
Emma is a History graduate from Loughborough University, holds an ILM Level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching and Leadership Mentoring and is a UK Sport endorsed mentor. Over the last 5 years, Emma has also provided support to a number of UK Sport ECAP and sports coach UK Aspire coaches from Tennis, Squash, Sailing and Boxing.
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: 17.7.18 – Ep 31. Emma Mitchell – Managing the off pitch distractions
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.
I’m with Emma Mitchell today. Emma is a former international rugby player a 1994 World Cup winner. She now works for the English Institute of Sport as a performance lifestyle advisor to GB Hockey. We talk about the issues and challenges of her role; what it was like on the inside when England women won gold and how she supports athletes to develop the skills and qualities needed to cope with the special demands of high performance sport. But before we get into any of that, I asked her what led her to sport in the first instance.
EM: To start with probably boys in the village. I grew up in a little village called Puddletown in Dorset and myself and Jane, my twin sister, used to be called on to just go and play football pretty much every evening in the summer and we’d just run around and loved it. And from there, just played pretty much every sport that was going all the way through school and into university.
TP: I’m surprised to hear you say football because you’re a former international rugby player [laughs].
EM: Yeah, that’s right.
TP: How did the rugby thing happen?
EM: Well rugby…rugby happened at university; I chose to go to Loughborough University and at that point I was a reasonable discus thrower and an ‘okay’ club sprinter. I decided on Loughborough because that’s Sebastian Coe went so I thought well, that would be good for athletics, got there and it was nearly all middle distance coaches and not really anyone to coach throwing. So I played hockey for the Threshers team and we used to train against the Third 11 at Loughborough, and along with three other of the Threshers team we got approached and were asked, “You ought to try rugby, you look like you might enjoy it.” So we did and I think within a year all four of us were capped by England, which, again, tells a story of how early it was in terms of international rugby in England, but that’s when I took it up.
TP: You must have seen a lot of changes over the years?
TP: How has sport changed since you got involved?
EM: So many things have changed almost beyond recognition, certainly the level of sport science and sports medicine support that’s in place at the elite level is just incredible. And the conditioning, as I say, the sport science that goes into all that training and nutrition it’s just every detail is thought through meticulously. In those days it was very much a matter of doing all that you possibly could do and educate yourself a little bit, and if you were lucky you would end up with a very good coach and you’d learn that way. Some things have not really changed at all; I think that the attraction of team sports in terms of all contributing to something that’s bigger than what you can achieve just by yourself, I think is always so compelling and so rewarding. I think even 30 odd years ago when we were first playing we pretty much structured our lives around our playing, our training; we would save all our money in order to pay to travel for tournaments, so it’s not dissimilar in terms of the amount of focus and discipline that some of the knowledge that is behind it all is so much. And obviously the funding that sports now receive from the Government and the Lottery is incredible and that’s been something of just a game changer in terms of how a number of sports operate.
TP: You now work for the English Institute of Sport and were part of the team behind the team supporting GB Hockey athletes achieved that historic Olympic gold medal in Rio, what was it like on the inside for you?
EM: Well it was a mixed, that’s going to be my answer. On the one hand, incredibly proud of the group of women who went out there and won gold – and it was something of a fairy tale – so many people watched it, something like nine million for that final; people turning over in the pub from the football and all this sort of thing, which is just fantastic. So to see some people who I’ve worked with for almost a decade actually achieve something that they’ve been so focussed on achieving was incredibly rewarding, and to feel as though I had a small part to play helping them do that was fantastic.
But why I say mixed is it was 16 women there who actually ended up with gold medals round their necks, there was another three there who were travelling reserves who had done all of the work but don’t come away with medals. And there was another 12 back at home who weren’t selected but who had been in that training squad, and even on top of that, another 6 had been in the squad but left at one point or another through a cycle. So once you step a little bit further back you see that there’s even more going on and some of the players that were very close to selection but just missed out, obviously for them there was a real contrast of ‘that could have been me’ very happy for the squad and very proud of the achievement of the wider squad of 31, but also a big feeling of ‘what if.’
And then the other piece of it, of course, is that I worked with both the men and the women and when both squads left for Heathrow to fly off to Rio the support team felt very confident in both squads and really quite excited at the potential in terms of what they could both achieve? So we then had the contrast of the women doing incredibly well and the men really ending up being…it was very disappointing by their standards most definitely, so we were dealing then with athletes coming back absolutely devastated with how their own performances have gone, some of them individually and then also as a team as well as staff in that same boat. And then you had athletes who were on cloud nine coming back into a wider squad where there were people [laughs] who were very happy for them, but also wishing that they had perhaps had the chance to go as well.
TP: So, what’s your role within that system?
EM: So, my role with performance lifestyle is to really help them manage their lives around performance. I sometimes describe as it’s about managing the off pitch distractions and, as far as possible, making those distractions positive ones. So, whether it’s opportunities that help athletes develop other identities away from sport; helps them perhaps just develop personal skills and attributes that they can use both on the field but also away from it; continue with their education sometimes; it can be things like helping them find somewhere to live; helping when relationships start to get into trouble or they’re facing difficult conversations with coaches possibly and wanting to work out how to approach those. So it can almost be, and I can say hand on heart over the last 11 years, it can almost be [laughs] anything and everything that happens to anyone in the general population but happens to them within that elite sporting environment.
TP: So, from your perspective the performance lifestyle perspective, how do you grow a Maddie Hinch or a Richardson-Walsh?
EM: They grow themselves.
EM: I like to think that all of the staff, but my role in particular, it’s about being with them on their journey, their own personal journey. When new athletes come into the squad I do a one-to-one induction with them and that’s a little bit about explaining what the service is about, but it’s also about getting to know each other and really getting to know their background, their family – who’s in their support network; what their dreams are what it is that they want to achieve long term. And once you get beyond the first question or two, everyone is completely different just again like any group, so it’s being able to really listen to them, really hear what they’re saying and be able to tailor support according so that they can then develop in the ways that they want to.
TP: Well your gorgeous dog is licking my toes at the moment, so…
EM: I thought she might sleep, but no, she’s interested in your toes.
TP: Yeah, very interested in my toes, which is lovely, by the way.
Obviously everybody is different and they have individual issues that they’re going through, but do you find there are common things that each athlete has to get through on their journey?
EM: So, some of the common experiences that they will go through, very few athletes manage to go through their entire careers without some sort of significant injury – some of them will and they will be lucky, but quite often just because of the demands of the training environment and the fact hockey as a sport with a hard ball and a hard stick sometimes – and a lot of twisting – sometimes there will be injuries that lay people off for quite a period of time, so dealing with that. Dealing with a miss-selection, as I mentioned you’ve got squads that are 31/32 up to 34 in size, it’s only 16 that are selected for the Olympic Games, 18 for a World Cup, so almost 50% of the squad is not going to go, and yet you don’t want those athletes to give up and walk away, you want to help them be the sort of people that – and they usually are naturally anyway, but you want them to be the sort of people who re-set their goals and are able to be resilient enough to go, ‘Okay, well, I miss that but I’m going to learn from that and I’m going to be a better athlete and a better person from the experience.’
And back to the success of the women in Beijing, of those 16 there were 4 who missed out on selection for London who were in the wider London squad, but they sort of reset their goals, came back in, worked their way back into the team with a new cycle and ended up as Olympic medallists. There’s actually one of that group who missed out on selection for Beijing and London so it was third time lucky that she actually was selected and went onto be involved.
TP: It’s determination, yeah.
TP: And do you think elite athletes are a different breed or do you think they’re just in a different circumstance?
EM: I think they’ve got qualities that are sort of at the high end of the spectrum a number of qualities, so I’ve already mentioned resilience, I think there’s determination and focus, which is probably beyond the general average within the population, well it definitely is; they’re very dedicated; they need to focus on themselves in a way that some people would almost interpret as a sort of selfish attitude, but in order to be the best they can possibly be they’ve got do that, so it takes a sort of single-minded incredibly dedicated person to get to international level in this sport. And obviously within hockey, as within rugby, you also need to be very good at working within a team, nobody how talented you may be as an individual you’ve got to be able to work with others and problem solve together on the Astroturf on the pitch, figure out a way win. And again, that links back to the reward can be so great as well because it’s 18, 16/18 of you, 15 on a rugby pitch or up to 22 who’ve done it together, which makes it all the more special.
TP: It sounds a very special and very intense time, how do people cope with when it’s coming to an end that transition the other side?
EM: Again a mix of how people cope. The ideal is that they’ve already thought about and have spent some time preparing. Again, in that induction, I spend a bit of time talking about you’ve just come onto the programme – fantastic, really hope you’re here for as many years as you want to be, or that the programme decides that you will be, but the reality is it could come to an end quite quickly. And even though it’s in their first few weeks they have this induction, I’ll say, I’m going to say from a career development perspective, ‘Start at the start. You’ve got a number of years now where you’re going to be training hard, but you will have time and you will have break weeks or break periods where you can try out a few careers, go and do some experience or some shadowing and get a real sense as to what that next career will be beyond international sport.’
We have a lot of young athletes now who come almost straight from university or they’re just finishing university when they come to us, and with the programme as it is at the moment and the funding level and it being centralised, some of them can be on the programme really as a fulltime athlete for anything from 4 to 10/12 years so they could be leaving in the early 30’s not really having experienced the working world, and that can be very challenging. So encourage people to plan ahead, to develop skills whilst they’re on the programme, and they can mostly definitely do that whether it’s volunteering or either finding some part-time work or just, as I said, exploring other interests that help them develop other identities. The athletes who struggle the most are quite often the ones whose main identity is that of themselves as an athlete, and it’s almost exclusive to all other identities so they’re even known very much as the GB rugby player/hockey player, England hockey player/rugby player by their family and friends as well, so they’re having to recreate themselves when they leave the programme and that can sometimes take – to be honest years. I’ve seen more like 2 to 4 years before I really feel like people are moving forward with the next chapter of their lives. It’s also getting used to quite a big change in routine and structure, our programme is sort of organised throughout the week, they know exactly when they’re on the pitch, when they’re doing the priming, when they’re doing their cool downs for when they’re in the gym, when they’re running, when they’re seeing the physio/the doctor/myself/the psychologist/the nutritionist – all of that, and then suddenly, that stops.
TP: That structure’s gone, yeah.
EM: And also that time with quite often the number of people who have become very good friends and that just happens every day, and suddenly, there is no structure to their day or their week or they’re having to adapt to a 9 to 5 office job where they’re quite often a lot less active [laughs] and that, again, can be quite challenging. Also depending on what they have managed to do whilst they’re on programme quite often that first job beyond international sport is at an entry level, so you’re going from being an international athlete, sometimes world class, to having to enter a new area on the very bottom run of the ladder.
I spoke to a chap this morning actually he left 6 years ago and he said, “I joined an organisation I was doing a temping admin job and my manager was 8 years younger than me,’ and that was step one and he’s now gone on and he’s actually very successful now within sponsorship, and the trajectory was therefore very steep, but to start with he just had to really adjust and realise that he had to learn new skills in order to then move forward.
TP: I want to shift things to you. You’re obviously very passionate about your role and what you do, what is it that you enjoy most about what you do?
EM: My strongest driver/value is to help others, so in many ways this is a perfect job [laughs] for me because I get to do that every day. I just enjoy helping others achieve their aspirations whether it’s the hockey group that I work with, whether it’s some of the support staff and coaches, and whether it’s friends and family as well, so I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I’m also a very natural team player so I love working within a team where we’re got a very common goal and common vision and again that’s very much the case within the hockey team.
TP: It can’t all be roses.
EM: No. It’s not.[Laughter]
TP: Talk to me a bit about the sides of it that you find more challenging?
EM: The more challenging times are usually when people are struggling and it’s difficult to be able to help and actually the best thing that you can do is simply support and be with them to get through the rougher times. When athletes are struggling from mental health issues or major disappointment around a selection or an injury, you don’t want to see someone in a lot of distress and when I do I’ll very much be there for them and I will take away some of the worry and the anxiety and you can’t help but internalise it a little bit, so that’s certainly…
TP: What do you do with it?
EM: We’ve got sort of an informal supervision setup within the English Institute of Sport, so I’ve got some fantastic colleagues at Bisham who I can talk to about what I’m dealing with and how I’m looking to deal with it, and I can do that in complete confidence and that helps to let it out and just double check. We’ve also got a brilliant sports medicine team so we’ve got doctors on site the whole time and it’s very easy to then go and have conversations with them. What usually I do if an athlete needs to see the doctor is I encourage the athlete to do that, but sometimes it’s the athlete will ask me arrange that and then just let them know.
TP: You’re very much focussed on everybody else’s performance, what about your own, what’s performance for you, what do you want to achieve?
EM: Performance for me is being successful at what I enjoy most, which, as I said, is really about helping others. So if I feel that I’m making a difference, and it’s often behind the scenes, I’m not someone who needs recognition or anything like that, if I know I’ve made a difference and I’ve helped someone that feels like that’s me performing. It’s probably as close as I’ve been able to get to the feeling of being on the rugby pitch and having sort of one of my best ever games and everything just being exactly right. And I genuinely thought that having stopped playing sport at that level that it would be hard to find something similar, but I do get that enjoyment from performing well in this role.
TP: If that’s what performing well is, do you perform well? Are you successful?
EM: Oh, you need to ask a few other people I work with…[Laughter]
…that’s what I would say. It’s a bit like the old boys back in the 80’s who said, “Women shouldn’t be allowed to play rugby,” and I sort of politely say, “Well come along and watch and then let’s have a chat and see what you think,’ and…yeah, it’s up to others to comment on that. I think from the feedback I get sort of just at Bisham Abbey or within the reviews that we do people find my support helping – sometimes the most important thing to them is to just know they’ve got somewhere safe to go and be listened to about things that might be bothering them and I can help the work through that. Or they can just get it out and that makes them feel better.
TP: Any advice you would give to someone starting in competitive sport now?
EM: Make the most of every opportunity. It doesn’t last as long as you think it might, so be sure to be in the moment and very much enjoy the journey that you’re on. It’s not all about the outcome, if you become the best you can be and do the best that you possibly can for yourself and your team mates there’s an awful lot of intrinsic reward from that and the outcome then tends to take care of itself.
TP: I’m just going to end with a little bit of a few quick fire questions.
TP: What did you eat for breakfast?
EM: I had a bowl of cottage cheese, chopped apple and some berries.
TP: That’s very healthy!
TP: Favourite piece of kit.
EM: Well it will always be my rugby ball probably, not that it gets used very much now apart from playing with my niece and nephew, but rugby ball, yes.
TP: Sporting hero?
EM: Someone called Karen Almond.
TP: Tell me more.
EM: She was the first fly-half for England and Great Britain; she came from a mix of football and middle distance running and was absolutely an extraordinary athlete and rugby player. She set the standard for women’s rugby in the mid-80’s through to mid-90’s; she was our captain at the 94 World Cup and played one of the best games I think I’ve seen any fly-half ever play, and just a very quiet inspirational woman who just did everything she possibly could to be the best she could be. Yeah, and I was lucky enough to be her half-back partner for – gosh, nearly 10 years, so really enjoyed playing with her, but she taught me what it meant to be professional with a small ‘p’ about your sport and…yeah, she was just fantastic.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you’ve been given, or given to somebody else?
EM: That I’ve been given, it would probably be when I was at primary school and the headmaster of the primary school pulled me into his office to say girls shouldn’t play football.
EM: So I disagreed than and I certainly disagree now! That I’ve given? I try not to give advice Tammy because most people don’t like to hear advice it’s far better asking the right questions that help them work out what the answer should be.
TP: That’s a very professional answer that.
EM: Ah, well, there we are!
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
EM: My family. My twin sister lives in California and has been there for 25 years, she moved there for 6 months 25 years ago and still there, so seeing her. My wife is Canadian so that part of the family is another long flight away and my Mum’s down in Dorset. So seeing my family as much as possible and my really good friends that’s the passion that sort of has replaced rugby in a way and sport stays there with hockey as well.
TP: And last question: best performance enhancer?
EM: Erm, ooh…probably happiness and wellbeing, good emotional wellbeing. I think that how we ever measure it I’m not sure, but my sense from watching people and working with them, if you’re in a good place about yourself, about what you’re looking forward to, about what you do and you’re much likely to go out there and perform. If there’s anything that’s worrying you it’s probably going to be a distraction that could take away from the performance you’re able to deliver. So it might sound a little bit simple but I would say, yeah, a level of happiness and wellbeing.
TP: Brilliant. Well, thank you very much for talking today Emma.
EM: You’re welcome Tammy, thank you.[Music]
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