Shifting goalposts: A world without the Olympics
Great Britain hockey international and University of Nottingham psychology student and Sports Scholar, Esme Burge, 21, was just four months away from her Olympic dream when her world turned upside down. Along with 11,000 Olympic athletes, her hopes of going to Tokyo to represent Great Britain this July, were sadly dashed, and she was forced to face a new challenge. In her own words, Esme talks about her personal journey through lockdown and how the unique experience has helped her find a new focus and positive philosophy for the future.
A world without the Olympics
“Having been added to the GB Hockey Squad just 12 months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were due to start, my mind set was fully focused on that significant event. I had worked hard at adjusting to a new routine of personal protocols around training, nutrition, relaxing and performing. I had fallen straight into ‘the business end’ of the 4-year Olympic cycle and I was just about figuring out what was working for me when Covid-19 hit.
"The subsequent emotions were very overwhelming and stressful for a while. To say my world was turned upside down is an understatement. It was a bit like someone had cancelled Christmas, but worse. When the games were finally postponed, there was a sense of inevitability and I felt a small element of relief alongside a massive feeling of uncertainty as we all struggled to adapt to a completely new normal."
Everyone in the squad had their own issues to deal with around the cancellation of the Olympics. Having originally been devastated by the news, my personal journey was around turning the delay into a positive. An extra year would offer me an opportunity to gain more experience and make more physical, mental and tactical gains, which could only improve my chances of selection; so I just decided I was going to profit from the time and work extra hard. The one thing this experience has reinforced is being involved in elite sport is always going to be a roller-coaster!
Life in lockdown
There wasn’t much to do in lockdown so I had no excuses! Routine works for me, so I had a weekly and daily plan that a stuck to rigidly:
My daily routine
8am: Wake up and eat breakfast
11.30am: Training session 1
1-4.30pm: Day time activities: studying, dog walking, Facetiming friends, replying to emails/admin, supporting school hockey programmes via Zoom calls
4.30pm: Training session 2
7pm: Family meal
7.45pm: Relaxation time
Making physical and mental gains
I had made big gains physically in the period leading up to my call up to the squad and I was determined to build on them. Motivation comes from within and when I had a tough day I would mix up my training routine to add variety or try out new methods of training such as suspension training. My sister is a business coach and she has taught me about the difference between motivation and discipline. We have to accept that it is only human that motivation comes and goes in waves, but discipline is different. I have learnt to be disciplined enough to stay focused even when I am not motivated, and that will make me the best I can be.
Yoga and meditation have now been incorporated into my daily life. I had always had an interest in these areas but during lockdown I found the breathing techniques in particular really helped me to stay calm and grounded and deal with the vast amount of uncertainty about what was going on in my life. I also really enjoy cooking and nutrition has become a big part of my life. Lockdown gave me time to try out new recipes and even create some of my own. I find the process of cooking and baking very therapeutic as it gives me something to focus on and takes my mind off other things.
Dealing with stress
The one thing this experience has reinforced is being involved in elite sport is always going to be a roller-coaster. There will always be stressful situations around selection, illness and injury and the potential world-wide events such as the impact of a global pandemic. I’m much more pragmatic about those issues now.
"I think everyone learns from adversity; I’ve certainly developed better coping strategies and I am probably tougher and more flexible to change. I have really worked on developing my mind set. I don’t want to look back and know I could have done better."
The support from GB hockey was brilliant. They gave us enough space to try and process what was going on but also recognised that we needed support and that staying connected was vital through the uncertainty. We had numerous online calls, including one-to-one work with the psychologist, small group video call check-ins and full squad meetings. It was so important to recognise that we weren't alone and all the emotions we were feeling were totally normal.
Probably the most valuable support came from my immediate family who I was living with on a day-to-day basis. They were really understanding, wiped a few tears and stopped me taking myself too seriously. Elite sport is a hugely selfish existence and the pandemic gave me breathing space to reconnect with other aspects of my life.
Changing perspectives, a new philosophy
Recognising that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’ was a major shift in mind set for me. Like everyone, I had some really rough days during lockdown. But because the pandemic was a worldwide issue it made me focus outside myself and think about the bigger picture. 11,000 other Olympic athletes across the world were in the same position as me but many more people were dying all over the world and that was more important than the Olympics.
Elite sport is a hugely selfish existence and the pandemic gave me breathing space to reconnect with other aspects of my life. I had opportunity to reflect and digest the journey I had been on over the last few years. My commitment to hockey alongside my academic qualifications had been intense but I started to appreciate that to play at my best I need other things going on in my life. I had time to consider and work on building my longer-term future outside of sport.
Plans for the future
Playing for GB remains my number one priority. In the short term I am preparing to be at peak mental and physical fitness to be available for selection for our first international fixtures in the autumn. After that I am looking forward to gaining more experience travelling on tour and maybe my first European championships for England as we build towards the rescheduled Olympic Games.
"I’ll be finishing my third year at the University of Nottingham in 2021, and doing online study and distance learning whilst playing for Hampstead and Westminster in the premier next season. I’m looking forward to representing and hopefully coaching at a new club."
I am also fortunate that I have just become the first UK female ambassador for Decathlon representing their ‘Korok’ brand and this will give me opportunity to engage with hockey at grass-roots level which is one of my passions. I’m excited to contribute to help the Korok brand lower the entry level for new players to get into hockey by making the basic equipment needed more affordable.
I also want to continue the work I have started to decrease the gender play gap and participate vocally in the black lives matter campaign. I love working with young players and had opportunity during lockdown to mentor and motivate a number of different school teams which I particularly enjoyed; so I hope to do some more of that.
Esme’s top tips
Three top tips for maintaining mental and physical well-being during difficult times:
- Make sure you are part of a community that exchanges ideas, coping strategies and is open to talk about physical and mental health.
- Taking personal responsibility for looking after ourselves should be a priority, because without our health, we have nothing. Offer and receive emotion support – it’s free!
- Build a daily routine and add structure. It definitely helped me get through. Just simple things like planning when and what I was going to eat, when I was going to focus on work or training and when I was going to relax. Getting enough good quality sleep was also vital. All these things sound very simple but doing them consistently has worked for me.