Hannah Macleod won hockey gold at Rio 2016 while also excelling in another career.
“They’re heavier this time, I think,” says Hannah Macleod, holding the gold medal she won playing hockey for Great Britain at the Rio Olympics. The 32-year-old has a bronze from the London 2012 Games, with which she can make the weight comparison, and she also holds a PhD in exercise physiology and jointly runs a business that offers nutrition information and consultancy.
In 2009, the week after she finished her doctorate, she was offered one of the first places on a centralised hockey programme designed to deliver a medal-winning team (it worked, twice over). Instead of leaving the science aside for hockey, or, like many of the top players of the time, turning down a place in favour of a better paid full-time job, she was one of two or three of the 31 players to commit to two careers, on and off the field.
“It was a big risk,” remembers Macleod, “because I’d been offered a lecturing job at Nottingham Trent University at the time I got the call about the hockey contract. I’d never thought of playing hockey for a living – never even dreamed of it because it just didn’t exist. In 2009, hockey was only a three-day-a-week programme: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. People were encouraged to have a job Thursday and Friday or study. I worked for Lucozade, at GlaxoSmithKline, creating internal education and working on new product development.
I’ve worked very hard with my education and career, and I want to come across as a credible scientist, not Hannah Macleod the Olympic gold medallist
“That continued for about 18 months, until we found it was too heavy loading all the work into the first three days of the week, so the programme moved to Monday, Tuesday, Thursday – and of course that meant it eventually crept up to Monday-Friday. My boss left Lucozade and asked me to start a business and I said ‘Yes.’”
The business, A Word On Nutrition, has gone from strength to strength, and now one of its co-founders is an Olympic champion, that has to be good for business. A tasteful GIF of a spinning medal on the firm’s homepage, surely…
“Well, no,” says Macleod. “I like to keep the two things very separate. I’ve worked very hard with my education and career, and I want to come across as a credible scientist, not Hannah Macleod the Olympic gold medallist. My business partner might think differently, of course! It’s hard to keep them separate, but my gut feeling is that I should do.”
But does playing team sport at the highest level inform development in the business world? “I would say so, yes. How people work together has always interested me. Team dynamics especially. Understanding the importance of team culture and being able to pull that apart. It’s all very well being able to dribble a ball around a cone, but the whole thing falls apart if you don’t have a level of respect and trust for the other people in your team. Now I’m a coach [at St Albans hockey club] we spend a lot of time working on those elements, and I find it fascinating.”
There were times, though, when Macleod’s two-career choice led to some difficulty.
“Since 2012,” she says, “I’ve had to fight to continue working. It was very much frowned upon by some of my teammates. We were battling to come across as full-time athletes and that we were serious about our sport. There were a couple of us, maybe three, with two careers. Four years ago, funding [as a GB hockey player] was about £15,000 a year. The funding is now £16,000 a year. It’s not like we’re rolling in money. So it might have been seen as, ‘Oh, Hannah is trying to earn extra cash’ whereas trying to explain how it wasn’t that at all was hard.
“As much as I love team sport, I am an introvert and a little bit antisocial at times. The chance to escape – read, learn, write – I found so beneficial, to switch off from thinking about hockey, so that when I came back to it, I was fresher. I was having time-outs, really. Trying to get other people to understand that was difficult because it wasn’t normal for most of the others.”
Yet there was never a moment when Macleod felt choosing the science over the sport. “Oh God no. No chance! As much as there are times when you can hate playing and feel absolutely miserable… Sport is not the best day job in terms of how amazing you feel everyday, but the end result is incredible. Sport at that level means so much. It sends everyone crazy at some point, but you don’t walk away from what is an incredible challenge. No matter how hard it is.
“I know I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t have set days I need to work, I don’t need to be in meetings and I’m not client-facing, so I can write and read and contribute from wherever I am in the world.”
As for future challenges, Macleod is clear: to continue her high level of achievement for as long as possible on two fronts. Elite GB hockey players are assessed every four months, and a failure in that assessment results in being put in an ‘amber’ position where failure at the next assessment results in removal from the programme. Effectively, very player – gold medallist or first-time rookie – is on a rolling four-month contract.
“It’s quite simple: you decide if you’ve got the energy for four years and hope that the coach agrees with you if you do. That’s why everyone is encouraged to have something else. Grants are available, to continue education or to cover work experience. We had players who worked at Goldman Sachs for two weeks in 2012, now they work there properly. Everyone should have a path to follow.” Or they could do worse than follow the example of Hannah Macleod.