Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by Shona McCallin. Shona is Olympic Champion, 2016, representing Great Britain in Field Hockey. Her further achievements are European Champion, 2015 and bronze medalist at the European Champs in 2017.
Shona: Thank you very much.
Why she decided to double down on Field Hockey
Christian: Shona, I saw in an interview of you, that you have a multi-sport background. What made you love hockey the most and why did you decide to double down on hockey?
Shona: Yes, that’s right. Growing up, I played loads of sports and that was really key for me as a junior to do that because there are loads of different skills that you can learn from different sports. Two sports that I excelled at as a junior was be football and hockey.
They came at a time in my life when I was about 14 or 15 where I was playing at a high level for both, but I just couldn’t commit to both at that level. So I had to make the choice. Now, they’re both quite similar and they’re both team sports.
As a junior, I excelled at football and hockey, where I was playing at a high level for both, but I just couldn’t commit to both at that level. So I had to make the choice.
The aim is to score goals so you can cross-reference skills, spatial awareness, tactics and that sort of stuff. But the reason, why I chose hockey rather than football was the route to getting to the top was perhaps a bit more structured and also at that time, hockey was in the Olympics and football wasn’t.
I grew up watching the Olympics and watching all sorts of sports on TV and wanted to be part of that. So, that was the reasons why I chose hockey instead of football.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Shona: There’s a couple. As an athlete, it’s not all high flying and high sailing. There’s good times and bad times. Perhaps the good times, you feel more than the average person and the bad times, you also feel more than the average person.
As an athlete, it’s not all high flying and high sailing. There’s good times and bad times. Perhaps the good times, you feel more than the average person and the bad times, you also feel more than the average person.
A real dark point of mine was when I was injured in 2018 with a concussion. I got a head injury. I got hit on the head in a test match in Argentina and got worse over a couple of months and recovery was really slow.
It was very up and down and it was very unknown how it would be going to end. Not only did it take away my ability to play hockey, it also took away my social life and sometimes my independence. This contributed to a very lonely and isolated time in my life and that was probably one of the lowest points.
I was feeling rubbish as a person, having all aspects of hockey taken away. I was also missing out on tournaments, such as a home World Cup, which I’ll never get a chance to be part of again, in my hockey career, certainly not as a player.
2018 was a real kind of dark and tricky year for me. Thankfully it’s all now in the past and I’ve fully recovered and I definitely have a lot more perspective on life because of it.
I’m thankful for every day where I don’t have headaches because I did go through a nine-month period where every day I was having headaches, which is not nice. It’s quite debilitating. So yes, I reckon that was one of the low points of my life and as I said, I’m glad it’s in the past now.
Christian: When I did my research for this interview, I also saw that it was not certain during this period that you would come back to professional sports, right?
Shona: Yes, there were doubts, certainly in my mind, whether or not I would make it back. There were periods of weeks where I wasn’t really able to leave the house very often without feeling unwell and getting symptoms. So being able to play international hockey was feeling a long way off.
There were major doubts from my side, whether I would be able to get back to full fitness, and the longer it goes on the stronger those doubts become.
There were major doubts from my side, whether I would be able to get back to full fitness, and the longer it goes on the stronger those doubts become.
Thankfully at the back end of 2018, I really started to make quite rapid progress and developed more confidence, in myself and the belief that I would be able to get back to do it.
Check out the short clip from BBC Sport, where Shona talks about the concussion.
Christian: How did you stay strong during that time?
Shona: Honestly, I didn’t at some point. I really wasn’t that strong. But looking back to how I got myself out of those low points was just reconnecting with who I am in myself and making time for things that I wanted to do.
Whether it was just going outside, it sounds very simple, but just going outside for a walk with my headphones and a podcast in, often helped me out. Or whether it was if I was able to, just to reconnect with friends or whether it was just to phone a friend who I haven’t spoken to for a while. It was very much the simple things in life that kept me going.
I really wasn’t that strong, but it was very much the simple things in life that kept me going.
And then also from the medical point of view, the support of the physiotherapist and the doctors that we have at GB hockey and the English Institute of Sport really helped me and motivate me and made sure I was on the right path and doing the right things. Yes, there were tough times for sure.
Christian: I believe that.
Her best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Shona: I don’t think I can look much further than the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. It was my first Olympic games, first experience and I am not sure it could have gone any better. We won eight out of eight games, came away with a gold medal, and created history within the sporting world of the UK, especially with hockey.
I don’t think I can look much further than the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. We came away with a gold medal and created history within the sporting world of the UK.
For me, it’s not just the medal that sticks with me, it’s the way we were as a team and how we approached things and how we went about doing things. It was a cumulative effort of the whole squad of 31 girls that we had training and also the staff that we had.
They put in so much effort and researched and went to so minute detail on everything that we were the most prepared we could have been and that just allowed us to play hockey. Yes, it turned into a magical situation.
Team GB’s believe to be able to win the Olympics against the odds
Christian: You guys, the Team GB Hockey, you went into the Olympics as number seven in the world and not a lot of people thought you could make it. What made you believe you could do it?
Shona: Yes, that’s the beauty of hockey ranking systems. They can be a little bit behind the performance, or they can be a little bit skewed. It was because we had a poor World Cup in 2014 and we dropped significantly.
Whereas, if you actually look at results, GB had constantly been hovering around the third and fourth place at quite a lot of major tournaments. However, with a bad World Cup, we already dropped our ranking.
So it didn’t bother me going into it, what that ranking was. I knew that we could beat any team on our day and we had done in the 18 months leading up to Rio 2016. But also any team could beat us on their day as well. I knew it was going to be close, but I knew that we were the most prepared team that we could have been.
I knew that we could beat any team on our day and we had done in the 18 months leading up to Rio 2016. I knew that we were the most prepared team that we could have been.
When you go into a competition or a match, knowing that you couldn’t have done any more, well, it kind of takes the pressure off a little bit, because you couldn’t have done any more and what will be, will be.
Yes, there were some tight games in the tournament, not just the final, but a group game against Argentina stands out when we were 3-0 up and looking quite good and they got it back to 3-2, and we had to grind it out the last 10 minutes with nine players. We certainly had some players down and that showed a real gritty side to us.
Then I remember that this quarterfinal against Spain, we were dominant. We played exceptionally well and came away quite comfortably as winners. And then obviously the final, it had it all. It had goals, it had penalties, it had a comeback, it had one team going up, and it had a penalty shootout.
Check out the highlights of the Women’s Hockey Gold Medal Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
And yes, the preparation that the girls did, both physically and psychologically for those shootouts, both the players and the keeper and the staff came to light and did it, taking that gold medal home.
Her advice to a younger Shona McCallin
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 15 years, what advice would you give a younger Shona McCallin?
Christian: I would say don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s part of athletes’ traits to be a perfectionist. You always want to be better; you always want more. And I certainly had that growing up.
It’s part of athletes’ traits to be a perfectionist. You always want to be better; you always want more.
I was often really, really quite hard on myself and I would walk off a hockey pitch thinking of all the mistakes I made and I couldn’t recall any good things that I’d done.
So I would say that and to really know the importance of being physically and mentally prepared, to put the work in, in training; you put the work in, in training and then matches become easier, both mentally and physically.
Does the mental side influence the physical side more or does the physical side influence the mental side
Christian: That’s an interesting question, especially the one mentally versus physically. What do you think influences the other one more? So does the mental side influence the physical side more or vice versa?
Shona: I’m a big believer that the mental side in top sport is what makes the difference between a good player, a great player, and a world-class player. If you ask a hundred athletes to do the same skill, they’ll be able to do it. Now, if you ask those hundred athletes to do the same skill when pressure is applied, whether that be physical pressure or external pressures of people watching them or both, then the execution level will go down.
If you ask a hundred athletes to do the same skill, they’ll be able to do it. If you ask those hundred athletes to do the same skill, when pressure is applied, then the execution level will go down.
I’ve certainly experienced, when I’m not mentally on it, my performance drops. And I believe that the mental side does drive the physical side.
It’s important to train both because they are as important. They are important for international athletes and it’s about accepting that the mental side will have a part to play, so you do have to train.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?
Shona: I am organized which then allows me to give it all at training. This way you can compartmentalize things and when you’re at training, you’re just at training and you’re prepared as you can be.
You need to be very disciplined. It’s not just a nine to five job where you can turn up at 9 o’clock, having not eaten and not slept well, do your job and then you can go home and relax. It’s a lifestyle and you’re constantly on.
Now, of course, there are certain times where you have more downtime. But you do need to be very disciplined and you need to be willing to put in the hard work when nobody’s watching.
You need to be very disciplined and you need to be willing to put in the hard work when nobody’s watching.
So yes, you know during those training sessions when people are there and people are helping you with it. But can you motivate yourself to get up and do those sessions when there’s nobody there watching you at the same intensity.
Christian: Yes, really cool.
Her willingness to put in the hard work to grind it out all the time
Christian: That leads perfectly into the note I’ve taken here. I’ve seen in an interview that you basically said you have to be willing to put in the hard work to grind it out all the time. Now the question that I have in my head is, is that something you have been born with, or is that something you have trained?
Shona: I think it’s a bit of both. I’ve always been quite a gritty person and don’t give up easily. If you speak to my parents, as a toddler or as a kid growing up, doing sports, I was always a bit of a battler.
But I do think you can be taught and be taught to be comfortable with being tired and knowing that you can still carry on. It’s often a mental game.
You can be taught to be comfortable with being tired and knowing that you can still carry on. It’s often a mental game.
You think that you’re tired, but you can do more. That is most definitely learned by doing it and also being pushed as well by coaches, whether that be the hockey coaches or the strength and conditioning coaches.
Christian: And at what time do you think came that switch for you, that you worked on it?
Shona: It was probably at the age of about 18 or 19 years. I really upped my training and really pushed myself physically to be in the best shape I could be. I realized that I could keep going and keep going.
I really pushed myself physically to be in the best shape I could be. I realized that I could keep going and keep going.
Even though I felt tired, I still had extra legs in me where I could keep going for another couple of minutes. Then it was just about building on that confidence and carry on pushing myself.
I know that when I come off a hockey pitch, I will not feel satisfied if I’ve not given 110%. If I’ve got some left in the tank, then I feel disappointed. So one of my things is I always give 110%, no matter what.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Shona: Not overly, I do like to take my time in the morning. I do set my alarm probably an hour before I need to leave the house. I always have breakfast and also, I always have a liter of water as well.
If I’m not training straight away, then I’ll always have a shower, but if I’m going straight to training, then I usually won’t. I’m usually pretty good in the mornings. I’m not grumpy and I’m usually quite awake and quite alert.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Shona: For me, preparing myself for important moments means normalizing it and visualizing things beforehand or talking about things beforehand.
Preparing myself for important moments means normalizing it and visualizing things beforehand or talking about things beforehand.
For example, we recently had an Olympic qualifying match against Chile. There were two-game series and basically the winner took an Olympic spot and the loser didn’t. Talking about what it might feel like, look like, and how the whole event will feel beforehand really helped.
So when I was there, I was already prepared for those feelings because I had thought about them and digested them. Then again, just making sure that you try and keep a level head and stay in the presence.
So again, going back to these shitty games, not thinking about the consequences of what could happen in the future. It was just about playing a game of hockey against a team and did our best to win.
It was about making sure that I could do everything I could to bring the best version of myself in that game, rather than getting worked up about if we don’t play well, then we could not reach the Olympics and then we could lose our jobs, et cetera, et cetera because that just doesn’t help.
The preparation towards the Olympic title 2016
Christian: I wanted to go back to that Olympic final in Rio. I know the backstory, but not everyone does. You, Team GB Hockey, were facing the Dutch in the final, the Dutch had won two previous Olympics and were determined to win the third Olympic title.
Shona, you joined the National team in 2013, so you have done the entire preparation. Just outline how did you guys prepare for that Olympics?
Shona: We’re always preparing for the Olympics. But I guess it really ramped up after the World Cup, when we got a new coach and a new psychologist in, and then more details of the Olympics started to come about. We knew how many games we’d be playing, who we’d be would playing, et cetera.
There was a big project done behind the scenes by the English Institute of Sport and GB Hockey, which was just called 8 games in 14 days because that’s what we had to do. That was basically about making sure that we were the best-prepared team, physically, to be able to do that.
There was a big project done behind the scenes making sure that we were the best-prepared team.
Playing eight games in 14 days is a big ask. This is nearly half a domestic season in two weeks, plus training plus, some practice matches. So the preparation in terms of training was all mapped out by the experts in that field, so we didn’t have to think about that. We just had to execute.
Then, as I said earlier about normalizing situations and talking about them earlier, we did a lot of that. We tapped into the knowledge of previous players that had been to the Olympics, how it felt, how do they deal with it, what you would be feeling, what’s normal and what’s going to be expected.
So once we were there, even though it was my first and lots of other girls’ first experiences of the Olympic Games, it felt quite normal. Then the hockey side of it, the coaches did an amazing job of implementing some specific tactics for each team and they seem to work.
They did work for each game and you got it tactically right and as players, we just executed. It wasn’t new for us. We’d been practicing those kinds of situations and scenarios leading up to the games.
We had specific practice games against specific teams and specific scenarios in training. So, we just knew what we needed to do.
What made the difference in the Olympic final 2016
Christian: And that final was very close. You were up then you came back twice from being down. Then it went to penalties. What do you think made the difference in the end?
Shona: A factor that I believed played a big part was probably the European final the year before when it was the same situation we were down with, I think eight minutes to go, and came back to the tool and ended up winning that penalty shootout.
We learned a lot from that in terms of preparation and body language, what clues you can get from the opposition, and how we want to portray all ourselves. Rio was quite similar. We came back from being down to being up and then being level.
So momentum is sometimes going to be a big thing in sport. And if you looked at the two teams at the final whistle, when you looked at the Dutch team’s body language, compared to our body language, it was very different.
If you looked at the two teams at the final whistle, when you looked at the Dutch team’s body language, compared to our body language, it was very different.
I think psychologically, it had a bit of an impact on them that we’d beaten in them in the penalty shootout the year previously. We had capitalized on the learning that we’d had from that kind of shootout and grown. The whole girls and keeper included, stepped up, and delivered what they needed to do.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Shona: Overcoming setbacks – first and foremost, you have to face up and explore why it’s happened or how it’s happened. And then you just got to make a plan as to what your next steps are. There’s no point always going into why me, why this happened, and dwelling on the past.
You have to face it up and have a think about it. Then you have to try and get yourself into the future positive mode and think of a plan, whether that be just for the next day or the next two to three days, whether that be for the next week or month in advance.
You have to face it up and have a think about it. Then you have to try and get yourself into the future positive mode and think of a plan.
Then you have to talk to people that can help you with that plan, whether that be friends or family, teammates, or professionals. I think talking is a big thing that can help you overcome setbacks.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Shona: Yes, I get asked this question quite a lot, but I don’t really have one. I never really looked up to that one person growing up. I remember watching the Olympics on TV and in 2000, and it was the athletics on, and I remember watching some of the girls, especially Cathy Freeman, it was 400 meters and thinking that I want to be in the Olympic stadium one day.
I remember watching the Olympics on TV and in 2000, and thinking that I want to be in the Olympic stadium one day.
That moment stuck with me and that sparked my, excitement for the Olympic games and the drive to being there. I guess off the pitch, away from the sporting field, my role model would probably be my grand.
She’s always pretty upbeat and positive and always sees the good things and keeps everyone’s feet firmly on the ground around her. She always reinforces the importance of being a good human.
“Manners don’t cost a thing.” She’s a big believer in that and so am I, and so is the rest of my family, that being good people doesn’t cost anything.
Being good people doesn’t cost anything.
So she would be my role model.
Her participation in a charity and motivation to give back to the community
Christian: That’s an interesting one because I also read that you participate in a charity. So you’re giving back to the community. Can you talk us through what you’re doing there and for who it is?
Shona: I worked with a sports charity called the Mintridge Foundation. That essentially helps connect youngsters, whether that be schools, primary schools, secondary schools, with sportspeople.
There’s a range of different kinds of services, that we can go in and do. It might just be a one-off assembly, or it could be a coaching session, or it could be perhaps mentoring the younger students or a group of younger students whether that be in sport or life. That’s quite rewarding.
I love going into schools and meeting kids. They have such infectious energy and they can be so pure in what they ask and how they act. It’s always quite an experience going in because you’re just not quite sure what you’re going to get with them, but that’s what I love about working with kids.
I love going into schools and meeting kids. They have such infectious energy and they can be so pure in what they ask and how they act.
Christian: Yes, and I believe it’s also pretty cool for the kids because they get to have contact with high-performance athletes and Olympians.
Shona: Yes, I guess so. I remember when I was younger, I met a couple of high-profile sportspeople, and I definitely still remember that now and remember thinking when I was younger, “Well, that’s really cool. They’ve done this, they’ve done that.”
But it’s also a good opportunity to just show them that we are just normal people. We can have a laugh and give them a high five or whatever they want. So that’s quite nice as well.
Christian: Yes, and I also think it’s quite nice for the kids to see that you are also just human and they can also get there where you are. So I think it’s quite cool for both sides.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Shona: I don’t know who gave it to me, whether I read it online or listen to it in an interview, but the best advice that I had was if you work hard in training, then competitions will be easier. So all the hard work is done in my mind at training. And then when you have competition or matches, you’ve done everything that you can.
It’s like going into an exam, knowing that you’ve revised and learned everything. So you go in feeling confident and prepared, and that’s the same kind of mentality that I bring with training and matches.
If you work hard in training, then competitions will be easier.
Christian: Yes. I know probably many people have said it, but one person who said something similar, and who probably is a persona non grata nowadays, is Lance Armstrong, and he said “Make your training harder, so competition becomes easier.” And I believe there’s a lot of truth in that.
Shona: Yes, absolutely.
A typical training day in the life of a Field Hockey player
Christian: How does a typical training day look like in the life of a field hockey player?
Shona: We usually train twice a day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and then either once or twice on Saturdays. Mondays we will have one hockey session and one gym session. Tuesdays we’ll have two hockey sessions. Wednesday we’ll have a recovery day, Thursday we’ll have one gym session, one hockey session and Friday we’ll have one gym session, one hockey session.
Then those days are usually when people play club matches and we will have another hockey session as well. So it’s varied and then obviously now with the new pro league coming in, it’s even more varied. We’ve got a lot more travel and a lot more games, so it’s a little bit different, but that’s the typical week that we have.
Then for the gym sessions, the content varies. One session is usually more speed and power base. One session is more injury prevention and injury management and then one session is more focused on getting stronger.
The role of physical conditioning preparation for a high-skill sport, such as Field Hockey
Christian: Bonus question here. The GB Women’s Hockey team is known for their physical preparedness and their fitness. How do you see the role of physical conditioning versus skills?
Shona: I believe they go hand in hand. The physical conditioning allows you to execute skills under fatigue because, in an international hockey match, you are going to be fatigued. So you’re not going to feel fresh at any point in the game.
The physical conditioning allows you to execute skills under fatigue because in an international hockey match, you are going to be fatigued.
So there’s a real importance to train the body physically and get yourself tired and also then practice skills and the specific hockey skills under fatigue because that’s what’s going to happen in the games.
I also believe you can take it too far and just do loads of physical training and running and get really good at running on treadmills or running in straight lines. But you’re not practicing playing hockey and thinking while under fatigue.
So that’s why I really enjoyed the sessions that we do and believe in them when we’re practicing skills and playing hockey, like under a real good level of fatigue.
Christian: Really cool.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Shona: I can nominate anyone of my hockey team. That’s quite boring. Let me get back to you.
What is going on in the life of Shona McCallin at this moment in time
Christian: What else is going on in the life of Shona McCallin at this moment in time?
Shona: At this moment in time, it just turns the start off for 2020 decades. So 2020 means it’s an Olympic year [the interview was done prior to March 2020], so we’re very much looking forward to Tokyo.
Training hard, fitness testing, hopefully going off to Australia and New Zealand soon to play some matches and some training camps. Then outside away from hockey, I’m busy with coaching that I do. I coach Maidenhead ladies with Phil Roper, one of the GB men. So that’s quite exciting.
Then kind of on a side project, I’m doing an online course in Nutrition to help me understand that a little bit more; what I can do to help myself. Then also doing some kind of improvements to my home as well at the moment to make it how I want it to be. So fairly busy; it’s how I like it.
The importance of the team that supports her
Christian: In our pre-interview chat, we talked about the importance of a team. So, the team behind the team, so the team that supports you personally. Talk us through the importance of these people.
Shona: Yes. So there’s a big support network that helps me be who I am and be the best person and hockey player that I can be. So you’ve got friends and family that have been great to me and then also more professional relationships in terms of sponsors.
So the guys at STX who look after me in terms of my hockey and hockey sticks. They’ve stuck with me through the tough times and been there for me on a personal level. It is the same with the guys at Opro because I think it’s quite easy for sponsors just to look after people when they’re high, but when they’re low, they’re not being on the world stage performing so they can just forget about them.
So those guys have been amazing. And also the guys at Furion who’s my management company, who’ve really looked out for me as a person rather than just an athlete.
Where can you find Shona McCallin
Christian: Where can people find you?
Shona: I am quite active on social media, so I have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, Instagram, and also a website, which has loads of information about me, blogs, lots of different things.
Shona McCallin’s social profiles
Christian: Shona, thanks a lot for your time. And all the best in the preparation towards the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Shona: Thank you ever so much. I am looking forward to the journey ahead.