It is something every athlete must face. The moment the sporting career is over and the world of work beckons. Even as she prepares for the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup, London 2018, England midfielder Susannah Townsend is all too aware of the ticking clock.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a professional sportswoman and never doubted that I would be. Even before I could walk, I would spend hours rolling a ball along the kitchen floor to my long-suffering twin brother to push back to me. I tried many sports as a youngster, including short tennis, football, cricket and even judo (which I still believe taught me how to fall safely). It wasn’t until I started secondary school that I was introduced to hockey and realised that the challenge of chasing after a ball with a stick was for me.
We are lucky that at England Hockey we are encouraged to continue studying or working while training full-time and I have been able to complete a degree in Sports Science and Management at the University of Kent as well as being part of the centralised programme. Combine that with an Olympic gold medal and the chance of World Cup glory on home turf this summer and it really hasn’t been a bad few years.
My priority at the moment is of course the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup and, as we count down to 21 July, that is where all my energy and focus lies. But, even as we thrash out one more sprint or lift one more, vein-popping weight, I can’t escape that fact that one day I won’t have all of this. I can’t pretend that I’m not a little apprehensive about what I am going to do after I hang up my stick for the final time.
The most frequent question I get asked at the moment is “what will you do when you finish hockey?”. It’s a daunting thought but I am slowly discovering the answers. At the individual development meetings that we get quarterly at England Hockey, I noticed that my life after hockey was a major talking point. At first that made me worried as I wondered why the focus wasn’t just on my hockey. Then I realised England Hockey are just looking out for me. They have a duty of care to make sure that when we retire we have an action plan for the rest of our lives.
When you look around, there is a growing number of women out there making a name for themselves in our sport after their playing careers have ended. Among them are two World Cup and Olympic champions, Netherlands Head Coach Alyson Annan and the USA Head Coach Janneke Schopman. In our England camp we had the services of Olympian Karen Brown for many years as Assistant Coach and now my fellow Rio gold medallist Hannah Macleod is working with the national development team.
I am very comfortable in the ‘hockey world’. It is not only my place of work but is also the basis of my friendship group as I am surrounded by people I have known my whole adult life. But I am not sure a life in coaching beckons for me. While having to step out of that life and start somewhere at the bottom doesn’t sit too comfortably with me, I am starting to realise that it’s ok to be a little scared and to start stretching myself professionally.
I have recently started working part-time for Wheyhey, a growing company that only started in 2013, who produce genuinely healthy treats. They specialise in brownies and ice cream, which are high in protein and contain no sugar. They are perfect for an athlete in training, who has the world’s sweetest tooth when it comes to treats. Anyway, it was a good fit. I’m probably their best customer so it was a natural move to become their Brand Ambassador working with the sales team. I am still finding my feet in the ‘real world’, but the team at Wheyhey are helping me every step of the way. I have been a part of successful teams in sport but this is my first experience team work in the outside world.
Every athlete has to go through this transition stage and, at the age of 28, it is becoming a lot more real. If I learn nothing else from working a couple of days a week, it’s that I need to find something that will replace the excitement of international hockey.
But with the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup now just a few weeks away, right now I can’t imagine anything that creates a bigger buzz, a bigger surge of adrenaline or a more dry-mouthed sense of anticipation, fear and excitement than stepping out onto the pitch at the Olympic Park and hearing the roar of a passionate home crowd. The career plan will need to go on hold for a little while yet.