By John Hurst, England & Great Britain Goalkeeper 1977–1988, Goalkeeper Coach, Video Analyst and Manager 1989–2019

The last training session before the Rio tournament began, with keepers Kirsty Mackay and Maddie Hinch

Thinking about what to contribute from my long hockey career I came across a theme, the last example of which was my time as Manager to Great Britain Women at the Rio Olympics. This theme is psychological rather than physical and explores how everything can, occasionally in hockey and many British sports, come together to reach an unforgettable conclusion.

I was part of the Great Britain Men’s squad and ended up as non-travelling reserve goalkeeper for the Seoul Olympics in 1988, having been part of the previous 4 years as the team grew in confidence after Bronze in Los Angeles and Silver at the 1986 World Cup (as England). This was a time in my playing career when confidence was high; there were others too, notably in the Indoor European Cup in 1984. On these occasions there was a feeling within the squad that we would, if not win, at least reach the final of major events.

Having since been to 6 Olympic Games as part of the hockey support team with both men and women, the feeling of athletes, as they enter the Olympic arena, is that they will win Gold even if, most of the time, this is an unrealistic expectation. Thus, if an early result went against us, the feeling of despair was absolute. There is a fine balance between managing expectation and reality at an Olympic Games and, as sports psychology has improved, the ability to do this has become more advanced. Managing “what-ifs” and “controlling the controllables” are now seen as major keys to achieving the ultimate goal.

Even if preparation has been perfect, psychological input exemplary and confidence is riding high, a degree of “luck” is still needed at the right time although the better the preparation and leaving no stone unturned, the less luck comes into it. “You make your own luck!”

So what happened that led the GB women to win Gold in Rio? Obviously the above, preparation had been good but at the Champions’ Trophy, a couple of months before the Olympics, the team had been mediocre. In building for an Olympic Games, this is no bad thing and the performance was turned to advantage psychologically. The team improved throughout the Champions’ Trophy and finished with a win. Messages like “We are going in the right direction” and “We don’t need to peak too early” were common and the athletes believed them as they were true!

The “team within the team”

As already mentioned, arriving at an Olympic Games is an adrenaline rush for an athlete and being fully prepared for the “greatest show on Earth” is vital. The same routines used in training at home, planning, preparation, and a calm relaxing environment are vital as the tournament approaches. Great Britain athletes are fortunate as the BOA (British Olympic Association) involvement gives British athletes an advantage over most of their rivals. The BOA have grown from a glorified travel agent in Barcelona (1992) to being a slick, professional organisation who develop a sense of “team” for British athletes of all disciplines. This is a major reason that since Beijing (2008) the medal count has continued to rise. Those who embrace it exceed expectations, those who do not tend to underachieve. This background adds a tier of confidence above that already achieved in the individual disciplines.

There was one important extra component that was pivotal to success for GB Women and that evolved in the preceding months. Our psychologist embarked on a series of meetings called “Good Day, Bad Day” scenarios. Athletes met in groups over a long period of time and were encouraged to be brutally honest with themselves and each other about how they were perceived when they were having a “Good Day” or a “Bad Day.” The staff did this too and each group was confidential. I can only speak about the staff experience but the self-perception and team spirit that developed from these meetings was like nothing I had experienced before. As the Games approached we knew we would do anything for any of our colleagues and they would do anything for us. Through a series of meetings, skilfully handled by the Team Psychologist and which often ended in tears, we painstakingly developed absolute trust in each other. For me this was the added extra that aided belief, confidence and performance.

When the first match began, against Australia, we had a sense that we would win even though matches in recent months between us had been very close. Our philosophy was to take one match at a time and succeed step by step. An Olympic hockey tournament lasts the length of the Games with a match every other day for two weeks; two pools of 6 play each other and the top 4 play quarter-finals, semi-finals and then the final and bronze medal match. Winning the first match is so important for confidence and momentum. We won and the seeds of momentum were sown, whereas Australia struggled after their loss even though their defeat had been narrow. They did reach the quarter finals but were defeated by their Antipodean rivals, New Zealand; a side they beat more often than not. Their confidence had been rocked in that first game whereas ours had been enhanced.

Boosted by our 2-1 victory momentum grew both on and off the pitch as, taking each game at a time, we rolled up victory after victory. Superstition grew too! We were careful not to mention anything that might “rock our boat”! No hint of excitement, taking each day as it came, maintaining our processes and changing nothing. We sat in the same seats on the bus from Village to Venue and if anyone inadvertently sat in the wrong place they were quietly and politely asked to sit where they had sat previously. I always wore the same shorts and the Head Coach, Danny Kerry, wore the same underpants (he did wash them in between!) Others had their own rituals.

The momentum continued and success continued until we had won 5 from 5 and topped the Group. In a hard-fought quarter-final we came through against Spain 3-1 and now it was semi-final day. We made our way to the buses and arrived at the transport mall at the same time as our opponents, New Zealand. The difference between our two groups was stark. We were our normal jovial selves, light of foot, exchanging chat and seemingly relaxed. They were the opposite. I could see in their eyes that the belief that we exuded was not there in them. This was strange as they had triumphed against Australia in the Quarters, come second in their Group to The Netherlands, with whom they had drawn, and had lost only one match, to Germany. I am sure our team sensed that their opponents were not “quite there” and we dominated the match, winning 3-0.

The knowledge that a Silver medal was assured and a highest finish for a GB women’s hockey team at an Olympics was guaranteed, boosted us even more if that was possible but, most importantly, we had now won 7 from 7 and our opponents, The Netherlands, had drawn with New Zealand in their Group match and had a similar result in their semi against Germany before edging the match in a shoot-out. Shoot-outs emotionally drain a team and it is rare that a side wins consecutive penalty shoot-outs in a major competition. This did not consciously cross my mind at the time but that subconscious knowledge, which we all probably had, would have done no harm if we were to find ourselves in a similar position in the final.

The Netherlands are the best team in Women’s hockey. Hockey is a major game in Holland and the Dutch women have dominated the International scene for many years. Thus, playing them, there is little to lose and everything to gain. We expected to be under pressure and we were! Our self-belief was boosted early on when Maddie Hinch, in goal, saved a penalty stroke and made many more fine saves as the match progressed. We held them, scoring pretty much every opportunity we had, defending well and finishing normal time at 3-3. Onwards to a shoot-out as, back home we found out later, the BBC News had been delayed so that coverage of the shoot-out could be viewed live by millions of enthralled viewers. There is little in sport that is as exciting as a penalty shoot-iut in an international hockey match and the fact that this was an Olympic Final made it something else!

In the stadium, however, the staff were strangely calm. All the preparation and practice, the tears, the ups and downs, the building of momentum and confidence had led to this moment. Deep in my heart I knew we would win. I can’t explain how sometimes you “just know” but I, and others, “just knew!” Maddie Hinch was simply superb; she saved the lot meaning that the two we slotted were enough. The rest, as they say, is history…

Team celebrations at the end of the final

The winning goal in the shoot-out goes in. Those in the middle see it before those at the end!

I have thought a lot about what made the difference in 2016. The team had won the European Cup in 2015, again beating The Netherlands in the final in a penalty shoot-out. The psychological advantage was ours at that point. They had beaten Germany in a tense and close shoot-out in their previous match and, as already mentioned, teams rarely win consecutive shoot-outs. Again, the psychological advantage was ours. We had to get to that stage however and why was it that we had been able to create such confidence, momentum and belief? Preparation had been good, but it always is. The exhilaration of being at the Olympics and winning our first match were equally important but what made the real difference, in my opinion, was the sports psychology work we did. Only by really “knowing” what makes your colleagues function and with total mutual support can you create an ultimate team experience.