Published: 10 October 2016
Q&A with hockey star Alex Danson
We caught up with Olympic Gold medal winner and Shakespeare Martineau ambassador, Alex Danson, to discuss motivation and challenges and why she sacrificed pizza to succeed.
What first drove you to excel at sport?
When I was young, I was very active. My mum would take me to wide array of sports clubs so I spent a lot of my childhood enjoying sports and playing in the back garden. Although I did a lot of gymnastics, I didn’t join a hockey club until I was 12-years-old. I instantly loved it, with its mixture of running about, its competitiveness and scoring goals. However, what had me hooked from the off was the camaraderie and team spirit that comes with it.
Was there a motivational figure that drove you to succeed?
My PE teacher was a huge motivating factor when growing up. She once said to me “if you work hard, you could play for the south of England” this hugely motivated me and I remember secretly dreaming if I worked hard perhaps I could play for england. Her approach towards my training was spot on – she knew what made me tick as well as my motivating factors and that combined with my love of the sport helped me to aim high. She taught me the essence of working hard and enjoying being a part of a team - there should always be an element of fun and enjoyment too.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I dislocated both my shoulders when I was younger. The second time I was told that I may always have a weak shoulder and would have to ensure I always worked on my strength in this area. Moments like that were hard – being in rehab for seven months for injuries is a long time and can be a lonely place.
Another challenge has come in the latter part of my career. I’ve been playing for 16 years and have always dreamed of standing on the top podium, so when you haven’t, you start to think ‘is this ever going to happen’. Luckily, i am a part of an amazing team of players and staff who keep me focused and determined.
Support from them and for each other is invaluable, the knowing looks during hard training sessions, or the encouragement in the gym to listening and challenging ourselves in meetings. But it is times of challenge that make the winning that much sweeter and when we won the Euros last year it was a huge moment for us all. I’m so thankful we created a common goal and always stuck together.
Have you had to make any sacrifices?
I started my educational path off at Portsmouth University pursuing a career as a PE teacher. Unfortunately, it just didn’t coincide with my true passion of playing hockey and instead I opted for an Open University degree to do alongside my training. It did take me ten years to complete, but it was a great way to combine my studies and my hockey. When I graduated two years ago, it was one of the best feelings in my life.
Other sacrifices I have made for my hockey involve daily decisions such as holidays, diet and going out that make you that little more anti-social. However, I don’t really see them as sacrifices but instead choices and I’m really happy that I made those choices. I did have to look at things differently, like being careful about what I eat and how much sleep I get – it's nice now to have a few months where I can enjoy indulging in a few nice deserts and chocolate!
What motivates you?
Definitely my teammates. The best thing about being part of a team is that you have to create something that is shared, which sometimes isn’t easy. People have different thoughts, different aspirations and different reservations but when you find that common goal, it’s amazing.
Being in a team is obviously important to you but what makes a strong team?
For me, it’s completely and utterly embracing individuality. In regards to our team, we talk about ourselves as a bit of a misfit family. We’re all incredibly different which is the magical part of a team, it’s all about accepting those differences and allowing people to be exactly how they want to be whilst still chasing the common goal. We encourage people to have a voice and ensure that everyone is heard. We have a players meeting every week and it’s very important that everyone feels a part of it. We’re very embracive of each other.
How do you ensure that more introverted team members get a voice?
We have this mantra in our team - ‘listen to me, hear me, you can be quiet, you can speak’. We have lots of avenues for different personalities to give feedback to the rest of the team, such as face-to-face feedback, email feedback, phone feedback and even group feedback. We understand that different personalities require different ways to get their message across. We share leadership positions when doing group work, to encourage development and everyone to speak in front of and to the whole group. Equally, it’s also important to remember that listening is just as important as talking.
It goes back to the approach that my PE teacher took with me – finding a technique that appeals to each individual to ensure you get the most out of them – no matter whether that is performance, development or communication.
What qualities should leaders have?
The ability to listen and lead by example. I have always had wonderful people leading me and it’s infectious. If you strive to be the best version of yourself, those following will do the same.
What can a business learn from doing sport?
I’m obviously hugely biased because I love sport but I’ve honestly learned more in a sporting context than I have anywhere else. Sport helps to build up a natural level of resilience – sometimes it’s hard and you think you can’t do it – but it’s a great way to let off steam and get out of the workplace. Playing sports with work is also a great way to interact with different people. You’ll suddenly be on a level playing field with people of different levels, ages and departments and you’ll have to give instruction to new people, listen to new people and be respectful. However, the most important thing is just getting out there and having fun. If you can create moments in the workplace that are different and give different opportunities, it’s amazing what kind of skills you can pick up.