*Olympic gold medallist claxon!* If you were one of the 9 million people in the UK who tuned in to watch the England Women’s hockey team scoop gold against the Netherlands in last year’s Olympics, you’ll be familiar with 31-year-old forward and all-round hockey legend, Alex Danson MBE.
A senior England player since the age of 16 (wow) and a pivotal member of the Olympic team, Alex took time out of her busy schedule to chat training, nutrition and how the team built their winning mindset.
Can you explain a bit about how you got into hockey?
I first started playing when I was about 6 or 7 in my back garden with my mum. I’d seen it being played locally and pestered mum to get a stick. I was about 12 when I joined my first club at Alton HC.
You had England trials at 16 but initially failed due to the bleep test, yet 6 weeks later you were part of the squad. How did you turn it around?
I remember being sat in a room at the end of the trials and the coach said she was inviting us all back for trials in 6 weeks’ time. I hadn’t done as well at the hockey sessions so I remember thinking I had 6 weeks to get really fit. I went home and woke my dad up nearly every morning before school and went running – I was determined that I was going to be better when I went back for the second trial. When this came around, the first thing we did was a bleep test but this time I managed to get level 14.2 and that year I was selected for the u16s. I’d say at this stage I was the least talented hockey player but I showed the coaches I was willing to learn. I believe I was very lucky to have learnt this lesson at a young age.
Fast-forward 15 years and you beat Holland to win an Olympic gold medal! What were you thinking as you stepped onto the AstroTurf for that match?
It still feels completely surreal. It’s something I have always dreamt of. Along with an amazing team and group of staff, we were methodical and hard working in our preparations. I remember clearly walking out on to the field feeling incredibly proud knowing that the most important thing was to do my job for the good of the team, that’s what we’d worked so hard on. Everyone individually knew what they had to do to make the team play well and our understanding, work ethic and belief was the highest I’ve ever experienced.
The whole England squad made a collective decision to come off social media during the Olympics – did this help your performance?
Without question this was a great decision. It meant, first off, we were more sociable and not connected to our phones all the times. It also eliminated any possibility of us being affected by anything we read externally. We wanted to create the feeling of being in a bubble where we would be able to live in our own world and control how we behaved and felt inside it. We wanted to draw on one another and ourselves and not be distracted by anything outside.
It’s been nine months since Rio, what have you been up to?
After Rio I had six months away from the game. I decided I would do this prior to Rio as I’ve played hockey since I was 16 with no time away. Initially it felt strange – I love the routine, being around a team and having something to strive for every day. So I quickly had to re-focus; I spent a lot of time with family, especially my beautiful nephews, and have done a lot of work and taken the odd holiday. It’s been a great few months but I’m delighted to have now rejoined the team.
Prior to the Olympics, your coach brought in ‘Thinking Thursday’ – can you explain what this was?
Thinking Thursday was a session our coaching staff devised to try and bring one of our values to life – ‘We are winners’. We wanted to find a way to bring this into our training environment. On a Thursday, our coaching staff would devise a game where we separated into three teams and would have to read, understand and apply a set of rules to the matches with a sole purpose of trying to win. We realised that winning is a learned behaviour, and when tactics change and teams are forever changing what they do, we could identify this and work out what we need to implement in the moment to try and win. It was a fast-paced, competitive and high-thinking session.
How do you focus in the run-up to a match – do you have any mental strategies or rituals?
I think nerves are inevitable, but what I have learnt to do over my career is accept them – acknowledge they are there and then focus on what I can do in the moment. I have some pre-performance routines such as always laying out my kit the night before a game, listening to some music on the way to the bus and running through the game tactics in the changing room. I believe that when I feel nervous it’s a good reminder about just how much I love the game and want to play.
How do you deal with disappointment and setbacks?
I think I’ve gotten much better at this as I have progressed through my career. My major setbacks have often been around injury and when I was younger I used to focus very much on what I couldn’t do and what I would I miss. Before the Rio Olympics I ruptured my UCL in my thumb which required surgery and about three months off after the game. It could have spelt disaster but I remember very clearly thinking, ‘Ok this has happened, what can I do?’ This mindset meant I was able to focus on other areas of training, and actually I believe I arrived in Rio in the best physical shape of my career.
Do you set goals and have you any goals for 2017?
After the Rio Olympics, I had 6 months away from the program and rejoined the team last week. It’s been fantastic to be back with the players and we’re currently building towards World League 3 and the European Championship.
How much time do you spend on the hockey pitch in training?
We do five, two-hour team training sessions on the field each week as a team, then we often add individual sessions to top this up. All with a team understanding and skill-based focus. We also do three gym sessions and running sessions to make sure we’re in the best physical shape we can be to compete.
As a forward, do you do lots of sprint work and running?
Yes, we do lots of plyometric and sprint training as the position requires lots of running, turning, accelerating and decelerating. It’s important that we can physically keep up with the demands of a hockey game on a repetitive basis, as in a tournament we can play up to eight games in 13 days.
Does strength training feature in your training?
We spend about 60-90 minutes in the gym and have a couple of key lifts, and then in the run up to Rio we followed a supporting program to ensure we were physically able to cope with the demands of eight games in 13 days during tournament hockey. Power cleans and squats were a strong focus as this would improve our power and strength, increasing our ability to accelerate and decelerate with more speed and efficiency. We would often have hamstring circuits and do a lot of upper body and core to ensure we have enough strength to ride tackles and out-muscle our opponents.
A typical week of training looks like this:
Monday – Gym and pitch
Tuesday – Pitch and pitch (double session)
Wednesday – Active recovery
Thursday – Gym and pitch
Friday – Pitch and gym
Saturday – Club match or running
Sunday – Rest
How do you fuel your sessions – what kind of things do you eat?
High carbs and protein, where possible, a few hours before – things like quinoa and mixed veg with either a jacket potato or in a wrap. I love filled pasta and will never turn down some easy scrambled eggs and avocado on toast! I’ll then snack on a bar or oat cakes about 30 minutes before the session to top up.
I also love a snack! I’m a huge fan of the new Meridian bars, especially the peanut and cocoa ones, as these are super-easy to take on the run and provide enough energy mid-afternoon to see me through. I’m also a serial oat cake eater and will add anything on top; a nut butter spread, jam, bananas or sometimes even just plain.
Post-exercise, I will always eat within about twenty minutes of training, usually having a milk-based protein shake and a couple of pieces of fruit.
What about breakfast – what do you eat to set you up for the day?
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day! If it’s a Sunday, or a later training start, I’ll often have scrambled eggs, avocado and chilli on two slices of brown toast. I love this combination as it’s high in protein and tastes great, and the added chilli gives it a great kick.
Before training, my standard breakfast consists of one large coffee, 100g of porridge with semi-skimmed milk, a spoonful of Meridian smooth peanut butter, half a banana, linseed and some agave nectar (an organic natural sweetener and alternative to honey). This is a great breakfast to get in a good loading of carbohydrates, and I add in a spoon of protein powder when I want to increase this intake.
Do you enjoy any other sports?
Yes, I love to cycle and walk. I have a road bike and will often be seen out on it at weekends. I love exploring the UK so will often head away for a couple of days walking with friends.
The Hockey World Cup is coming to London next year. Is playing on home turf a source of motivation or does it create added pressure?
I think it generates a huge amount of excitement and motivation. What an incredible opportunity as hockey players to showcase our sport on home soil. Amazingly a priority window opened for our clubs to purchase tickets just recently and they sold 10,000 tickets in the first hour!
What are your essential pieces of kit for training and playing?
Stick, shin pads and gum shield!
Who sponsors you right now?
I’m a sporting ambassador for Meridian Foods (the UK’s leading producer of palm oil-free nut butter). Great for me as a serial oatcake eater!
I’m also sponsored by Investec, Shakespeare Martineau and Hendy Ford.