Is the fostering of the elite performance mentality necessary or dangerous in young athletes?


“Care and consideration for us young athletes outside of the game is very reactive, never proactive.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 110280501_635706967067928_115331756201527216_n.png
Lydia Macdonell on her experiences with elite level hockey, ‘off the pitch’

At the highest level of sport, development takes a back seat in a fiercely results based environment. Premier League Managers get sacked when they lose games. Cricketers get dropped if they don’t perform. Golfers are cut halfway through a tournament if they can’t keep their score low enough. With the accountability towards stakeholders, media, fans, and billionaire chairmen, this formula for sporting success is an accepted necessity at the highest level. But what happens when this uncompromising culture infiltrates the developmental and youth side of the game? Is this fostering of elite performance mentality necessary to ensure future success or dangerous in impressionable and ambitious young athletes?

When breeding and teaching success, a recognition of potential failure is surely a must.

Stuart James recently wrote an article for The Athletic entitled ‘Failed players sacrificed childhoods too – does football care about their futures?’. In Football, from the outside it’s widely acknowledged that only a tiny percentage ever ‘make it’. However, during this developmental process, it’s almost forbidden to think of the worst, sacrificing yourself to the pursuit of greatness in your sport. James asks if football does enough to prepare its young players for a life outside of football. When breeding and teaching success, a recognition of potential failure is surely a must. However, this pursuit of success and the elite mentality that it requires, encourages a lack of perspective and forward thinking.

In many ways, the youth setup within hockey appears to be no different in its absence of care off the pitch. However, unlike football, its inability to potentially promise million-pound salaries and global stardom at the end of it makes hockey, at its core, an even more interesting case. For hockey, considered a mainstream sport for young girls, as well as a sport in which Great Britain currently are the Olympic Champions, life off the pitch at the highest level can often be overlooked and forgotten.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is gb-gold.jpg

Lydia Macdonell is perhaps a glaring example of how raw talent and love for the game can play second fiddle to results and performance. A 23-year old hockey player from Buckinghamshire, Lydia loved the game of hockey since she first picked up a stick 15 years ago. Lydia would go on to have a glittering school, county, national and international junior career, having played for England and Great Britain at U18, U21 and U23 level. She can boast a Senior European Bronze Medal at Indoor Hockey, an U21 European Bronze Medal, a club European Gold Medal whilst also having been to a Junior World Cup in Chile, and now playing for the Premier League Club, East Grinstead. From age 16, Lydia has achieved nearly everything that a young player would want to at a Junior level. However, her journey with the sport has neither been smooth nor forgiving.

Lydia’s first experience with the England development hockey setup was when she was 15 at U16 level. At this point, Lydia was playing for top-level club Leicester and was undoubtedly the superstar at school and even at regional level. Ultimately, she didn’t get picked for the final squad and as such, she first had her feelings of ‘maybe I’m not good enough’. As a pretty impressionable teenager who just loved hockey, she was told she wasn’t fit enough and that it was essential for her development to remedy her fitness habits.

It was the first indication of this performance-based mentality infiltrating all aspects of young athletes’ psyche.

Wholly willing to answer these demands and do what it takes to make that final squad, Lydia, without question, began to hone her ability around the physical game. As Lydia got fitter, she inevitably got better and was edging her way back into contention for selection within the England setup. To a degree, she realised there wasn’t much more she could do in terms of perfecting her skill or natural ability, but weight and fitness became something tangible that she could change. At this stage, Lydia’s relationship with her diet, in particular, showed early signs of perhaps something more concerning. This simultaneously occurred against the backdrop of being surrounded by girls at school who were facing their own body image issues, whereby not eating became a trend, and losing weight became normalised. In a purely sporting context, for Lydia, this shift was arguably a necessary ‘kick up the backside’, however perhaps it was the first indication of this performance-based mentality infiltrating all aspects of young athletes’ psyche.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7036.jpg

In the international set-up, this occurred with the added pressures of turning up to a pitch with girls you don’t know, all wanting the same thing. Teenage girls who had all shone at all previous levels, yet now they had to prove their worth in every drill, every match and every fitness test. It was a matter of both internally and externally competing against 30 girls who all could hit a ball as hard as Lydia, who all could tackle as well as Lydia, and ultimately who all had the same goal as Lydia – getting picked and becoming the best.

This goal materialised at U18 level, where although a self-professed ‘periphery player’, Lydia became a consistent feature in the squad, solidifying that the combination of her natural talent, her improved fitness levels and her amended diet were adding up to a heady cocktail of success on the hockey pitch. This confidence continued when Lydia joined Birmingham University, a top hockey university where she quickly became an integral component of the team. However, after having sacrificed a lot at school, to now be surrounded by other talented players who seemingly could do everything, she became somewhat complacent in terms of believing she could successfully balance a hockey career, a degree and an active social life.

Lydia realised that she deserved some ‘fun’, which was still seemingly possible alongside a successful university hockey career. Due to all her teammates managing a degree whilst playing at the top level, that became the minimum expectation. The nature of Hockey means that the investment of your time and commitment will never reap any financial benefit, unlike Football or Rugby for example, and so also achieving a university degree becomes the norm. However, Lydia says she has friends that understandably found the pressures of their degree alongside their hockey career too much, so dropped out or split years, only to then potentially get dropped from the set-up altogether.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7038.jpg

Lydia loved the thrill and demands of competing at the top level, but perhaps this was ultimately the problem.

At university, Lydia gave up a lot for hockey and the notion was that little else in life mattered as much as international hockey. With no pay, England training two days a week, travelling long distances, committing in every other aspect of life, missing university games and missing lectures, a leap into international hockey asks so much. Lydia loved the thrill and demands of competing at the top level, but perhaps this was ultimately the problem; hockey wasn’t giving much back.

Every time she was running, it was about hockey and her performance, because ultimately that was the message from the top.

However, when Lydia began fitness testing badly in the international setup, she did not get picked for 6 months. Having concurrently put on a stone in weight, her underlying issues with body image and food came to a head. Lydia quickly realised, with the goal of reaching the Junior World Cup in Chile, that the quickest way to lose weight and regain her fitness, was simply not to eat. She may not be able to play the game as well, but she can do this. This coincided with a growing culture of eating problems amongst her team mates. However, she was losing the weight she wanted to and began getting picked again, so it solidified it in her mind that she was doing the right thing. Every time she was running, it was about hockey and her performance, because ultimately that was the message from the top.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7037.jpg

Previous competitiveness over skill-level had taken on a whole new face, to ‘who could eat less’ and still succeed. On the odd occasion that Lydia would go out and drink, she would wake up at 7am the following morning to go for a long run to cleanse herself of any ‘harm’ she had done to her body the previous evening.

This self-imposed pressure ran alongside pressure from the top in the build-up to the World Cup. Girls like Lydia were not allowed to play university BUCS hockey and their social life became non-existent, and eventually Lydia missed 6 weeks of university to go to Chile. Lydia claims that throughout this, no one at the top noticed her body image issues, with only a single quip from the coach of “I hope you’re refuelling yourself properly.”

Care and consideration for us young athletes outside of the game is very reactive, never proactive.

It was only when Lydia began to recognise that the demands of the game were sometimes having even more detrimental effects on some of her team mates. It became obvious that this culture of not-eating and over-working yourself was quite prolific in the setup. It was this realisation that others felt as she did that led Lydia to begin to change her outlook slightly and recognise that her mindset was becoming detrimental to her mental health, as well as to her game. Lydia brought the issues to the coaching body’s attention. However, it was at this point Lydia realised that “care and consideration for us young athletes outside of the game is very reactive, never proactive”.However, after claiming she counted exact macros for two years, it is not easy to switch off that kind of obsession and she laments that she still knows exactly what is in everything and exactly what each bit of exercise is doing for her body.

It’s no secret that issues surrounding female body image are one of the biggest contributing factors that hold women back from being physically active in the first place. A recent Sport England report found that 75% of the women they surveyed wanted to take part in sport, but were inhibited by fear of being judged on their appearance and ability. Similarly, in a recent poll of Britain’s elite female athletes by BT Sport, 67% said they feared that the public and the media valued their appearance over their sporting achievements. Even Jessica Ennis-Hill was allegedly called “fat” by a senior figure at British Olympics before London 2012.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is unnamed.jpg

On social media, the topic of skinny girls portraying unrealistic body ideals has been well-documented and researched. However, the new phenomenon of ‘fit and healthy’ girls (and men alike), have created a whole new aspirational image. Gym selfies and fitness modelling display this image that exercise equates to perfection, with exercise too often being associated with losing weight and achieving that ‘perfect’, desirable body.

Often the perception of elite athletes is that because they’re competing at the top level and they are objectively fit and healthy, their body image issues would be less severe than the average person. However, to get to that objective level of ‘fit and healthy’, you ultimately have to do the same things as you do to get skinny and as such, it becomes a disguised obsession.

Just as there is an ‘ideal body’ for modelling, there is an ‘ideal body’ for hockey players.

The culture of women’s sport can lend itself to body comparison, and this can be rife when these periphery or young players like Lydia are looking at those who are successful in the sport. Just as there is an ‘ideal body’ for modelling, there is an ‘ideal body’ for hockey players. Lydia has struggled with this physique being perceived as ‘not attractive’ and has grappled with the lack of femininity she sometimes feels for all the gym work and protein shakes. 

Lydia did go on to have tremendous success at Great Britain and England U21 and U23 level, but this all came to a grinding halt when she dropped herself a week before the Euros in Germany, due to a hamstring injury. From dropping herself out of the camp, she was pretty much dropped out of the system. From that day, she has had little to no communication with coaches and was not on the next trialling list after 6 years of international hockey. She re-trialled last February but was unsuccessful. When Lydia asked for feedback she received no response and has not spoken to anyone at the top since.

The absence of international hockey and its pressures in her life have made her realise that they came at an expense of her happiness.

Lydia now plays for East Grinstead Hockey Club in the English Premier League.Despite still playing at the top level, the absence of that all-consuming pressure from the international set-up has led Lydia to enjoy the game of hockey so much more, as well as being able to prosper in other parts of her life. She has a stable job and lives in Clapham, and was supposed to be going to Australia for 3 months until Covid-19 halted that. The absence of international hockey and its pressures in her life have made her realise that they came at an expense of her happiness. She eagerly mentioned how East Grinstead recently stayed in the same hotel as Manchester City and it affirmed her contentment with how she was now engaging with elite sport. Both being Premier League clubs in their own right, she said she could only laugh when Manchester City players were being escorted by security between every room whilst her and her teammates were freely having a drink in the bar.

For Lydia, she’s come to love food and nutrition because of hockey. As a now qualified personal trainer, she has developed a healthy mindset towards food and fitness and her reasons for doing it have become positive and self-loving. Taking ownership of her relationship to food and fitness has allowed Lydia to see exercise for its social and mental health benefits.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7035.jpeg

Participating at the top level in sport has concurrently stunted and helped Lydia’s confidence. Representing her country and travelling the world has given Lydia so many skills and experiences that are completely incomparable, and in many ways Lydia lived out her dream of being the best. However, she now fully recognises how much she sacrificed to do that – her mental health, her degree, her travel opportunities and her relationships – and yet she hadn’t got where she wanted to be in the long-term in sporting terms. Hockey, as with many team sports, is so interchangeable. You have a squad of 30-40 girls where ultimately everyone is replaceable, yet everyone has sacrificed as much as each other to be in that squad in the first place.

For their athletes to prosper on the pitch, it is surely of upmost importance that they are prospering off the pitch.

Unless you’re in a ‘big sport’ for women, like Tennis, with coherent structures, you do become exposed to being very vulnerable as a young, female elite athlete. Sports like Hockey do not have the money to be providing expertise and help on issues that happen off the pitch, and as such it isn’t in the forefront of their programs. When these athletes are not there all-day every day, it is hard for the coaching setup to coach a group of young girls who say they want to be the best they can be, whilst at the same time providing off-pitch support. However, for their athletes to prosper on the pitch, it is surely of upmost importance that they are prospering off the pitch. This dangerous internalisation of the elite mentality off the pitch that was being drilled in from the top could have been prevented if the set-up was more open to other things and recognised a wider perspective on life.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7039.jpg

Lydia’s final remarks were that “for elite sport you have to be totally committed but I also think there are ways that you can manage it, so that it is better for mental health and better for preparing people for the future.” She loved her coaches, loved playing hockey for England and accepted that many of her issues came from a necessary and all-consuming commitment to the game. However, there are clearly some flaws in the setup of international hockey. Recognising the impact that this ‘all-consuming commitment’ can have on young and impressionable individuals is essential. Ultimately, with little support on life outside of Hockey, it is no wonder that girls like Lydia, struggled with switching off that elite mentality when they walked off the hockey pitch. Lydia has by no means ‘failed’ in her hockey career and she still plays at the top domestic and European level with East Grinstead. However with her absence from the current international setup, one can easily draw stark comparisons with Stuart James’ article by asking ourselves the same question of hockey that we asked of football – ‘failed players sacrificed childhoods too – does hockey care about their futures?’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: