It is just over two months since that golden night in Rio when Great Britain’s women’s hockey team brought home their first ever Olympic Gold medal. Over an amazing 14 day period, the team won all seven of its games, and achieved something that no-one thought was possible – knocking the world number one side and reigning Olympic and World Cup champions, the Netherlands, off their pedestal.
The story of Great Britain’s success is emerging piece by piece. We have learnt how the team chose to bring themselves off social media for the duration of the tournament, thereby limiting outside distractions. The story is emerging that the penalty shuttle hero Hollie Webb, who scored the winning goal, had refused to practice the day before because the Dutch were on the adjoining pitch and she “didn’t want to give her tactics away.” And of course, it is now part of the narrative surrounding the team that Maddie Hinch has a goalkeeping ‘black book’ that has notes on every potential penalty shuttle taker so she can second guess what they will do under pressure.
As the players have faced a crushing schedule of media activity, the public is getting some insight into what it takes to be a gold-medal winning team. Coach Danny Kerry has spoken about the players taking responsibility for their actions; the players have spoken wincingly about ‘thinking Thursday’, where they were put under enormous physical and emotional pressure so that in the pressured cauldron of Olympic hockey they would make good decisions. We know from talking to the coaching staff that the resources available to the squad have been second to none since the squad became centralised and funded. And we know that Maddie Hinch’s incredible performances between the posts are as much due to the hours she spends watching video playbacks of her opponents as they are down to physical practice time.
This was Nicola’s second Olympics – she was one of the younger members of the squad who won bronze at London 2012 – and it is fair to say that she played a crucial role in the gold-medal performance, scoring the goal that brought the game to 3-3 and forced a penalty shoot-out.
“There were plenty of good memories during Rio,” says the 28 year-old midfield/striker. “It started with the stunning scenery from views
at the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. It was like nothing I’ve seen before and I could have stayed up there all day. Exploring the village was good fun in the first few days, getting pictures with the Olympic rings and generally seeing what was on offer for all the athletes. The best memory was the final game and how much of a rollercoaster of emotions it was. I felt sick with the unknown during the shuffles competition but deep down I knew we could do it! The moment that last shuffle went in was a hair raiser! I was so overwhelmed and in disbelief that the one goal that has driven me since a young girl had actually just happened. We had won Olympic gold!”
At the time of the interview Nicola hadn’t had a chance to watch the action back, except for the final moments of the shoot-out and the celebrations. Those moments were impossible to avoid, she laughs, adding“they were always popping up on social media.”
Looking back on the tournament, Nicola says three main factors in the buildup to Rio led to success:
The training programme which saw 31 athletes create an incredible standard of internal competition;
A collective belief in the good of the team;
The tactical awareness and scenario training done in the months before the Olympics.
Much of the tactical work now heavily involves video analysis and Nicola is a huge fan, “Video analysis is a great tool for looking at the game objectively and taking the emotion out of it, it is something that is often done days later. It is a core part of our tactical learning and it can immediately impact performance for the better, so we use it as much as we can. Individually, we can access any game at any time in our video analysis room and from that you can set yourself targets, discuss points with coaches, look at your psychology in certain moments, it really does cross over with every service as the data is there in black and white and we use it in the best way possible.”
Now Nicola has returned to club hockey, she will be taking a leading role in Holcombe’s push for top honours this year. As a full-time professional hockey player there are standards that she adheres to, but within the Holcombe squad there is a mix of internationals and club players, which pushes the elite members of the team to be extra accountable for results and performances.
“The attitude and behaviours around club hockey are to enjoy, express and challenge yourself but these club players are very committed to their team and really do create a sense of togetherness and drive to perform. There is undoubtedly a cross over, but as internationals we are at the top end of performance and so every detail matters. This includes sitting down post-match and analysing what happened and using that information to improve for next time. This is something that the whole squad is buying into.
“As a professional player, there is more of a responsibility around adherence to specific goals set, accountability of your role on the pitch and your professionalism away from hockey with the lifestyle you lead. We have spent the past few weeks getting out there and inspiring people to play the sport – we want to show people how fun, fast and fierce hockey is.”
Nicola plays for Investec Women’s Hockey League Premier Division team Holcombe Hockey Club. The full fixture list for Holcombe HC can be found here.