14 Apr 2019
Overcoming adversity: how setbacks can propel you forward
GB midfielder Susannah Townsend discusses how her ability to mentally bounce back from adversity has helped her overcome major career setbacks, including missing out on London 2012 and suffering injuries in her prime.
It's easy to have a positive mindset when you're winning. What separates the best from the rest of the competition is possessing the mental strength and intelligence to learn from setbacks, not just successes.
Most professionals face adversity in their careers, from missing out on a promotion to returning to work after a long break.
For athletes, who put their body on the line every time they step onto the pitch, the stakes are physical as well as professional. However, much like in business, having the psychological edge necessary to overcome these challenges and return stronger than ever is what helps world-class players become champions.
Missing out on London 2012
Susannah Townsend, an attacking midfielder for the GB hockey team, knows better than most how it feels to suffer crushing career setbacks. She may have won Olympic gold at Rio in 2016, but that was only after failing to be selected for the London 2012 squad.
"Missing out on the home Olympics was the biggest disappointment in my career. I was devastated. I was thinking – ‘I've missed out on something so massive’," she explains.
"At the same time, it made me reflect on how I was as a person, how I was as a player, and I knew that I probably wasn't good enough in my all-round game to actually go."
‘Missing out on the home Olympics was the biggest disappointment in my career. I was devastated.’
Watching GB win bronze in the capital was a bittersweet experience for Susannah. While she was delighted to see her teammates stand on the podium, not being a part of such an incredible moment hurt far more than she expected.
Rather than dwell on the negatives, the Blackheath-born player decided to focus on her defensive abilities and other weaknesses to become a more well-rounded athlete.
"From that moment until Rio, I didn't miss a game, I didn't miss a tournament. I knew everything was in my control. I got fitter than I'd ever been, I got faster than I'd ever been, and I listened to my coaches more. I thought – ‘Everything is in my hands’," she says.
Bouncing back and winning gold
The 29-year-old credits her positive attitude and ability to bounce back from adversity as being key to helping her stand out from other players; players she reckons were probably more talented and physically gifted than her.
Physical fitness is essential, but only those who also have the right character and strength of mind can handle the intensity of GB's training camp and a four-year Olympic cycle. Susannah was keen to prove herself and didn't rest on her laurels, even after she was called up for Rio 2016.
"Our team was doing very well at that point. It was almost that feeling of – ‘I've been selected, but the job's not done’. That mental approach is probably what helped us go on and win the gold medal," she says.
"We weren't just happy to be going to an Olympics. Yes, we wanted to go to the Olympics, but we also wanted to win the Olympics."
Despite clinching a gold medal, Susannah was about to face an entirely new kind of career setback. During Rio 2016, she nursed a knee injury that GB medical staff were able to manage throughout the tournament.
Surgery was unavoidable, however, and Susannah underwent an operation to repair her knee cartilage when she arrived back in the UK, resulting in nine months away from the game.
Being fit and playing hockey is the easiest thing in the world. Being injured is the most difficult, because you're by yourself a lot. You have to find motivation within yourself to push ahead.
Turning rehab into a positive
Susannah is a resilient midfielder who had never been injured before, so how would she cope with her first gruelling rehabilitation journey? Remarkably well, in fact.
"I really valued that rehab because your whole life changes after you get back from an Olympic Games. I needed something to focus on and rehabbing my knee really gave me that. It came at the perfect time," she says.
Most athletes would argue there is no ideal moment to suffer a serious injury, and Susannah admits her perspective is somewhat unique. Nevertheless, her rehabilitation kept her mind off gold medal-winning glory, forcing her to concentrate on walking again and getting back on the pitch.
Sadly, just two months after returning from the knee injury, she ruptured two ligaments in her ankle on the other leg. The first injury may have come at an opportune time, but it has taken all of Susannah's inner resolve to face another round of rehab so soon.
"This was the toughest point in my career. Being fit and playing hockey is the easiest thing in the world but being injured is the most difficult because you're by yourself a lot. You have to find motivation within yourself to push ahead instead of having the coach yelling at you from the sidelines to run faster," she explains.
Susannah (R) is thankful to her strong support network, including her girlfriend, England rugby player Fiona Pocock (L). Image source: Susannah's personal archive
The road to recovery
According to Susannah, rehabilitation is a lonely place mentally, and athletes learn a phenomenal amount about themselves when they are isolated from other squad members. She believes teams should work hard to include recovering players to ensure they still feel a part of the group.
Susannah is also thankful she has a strong support network of understanding friends and family. Her partner, Fiona Pocock, also knows the trials and tribulations of being an international athlete, as she represents England in women's rugby.
"You have different support networks inside your work, inside your sport, and you have those outside of it. The mental break of driving out the gate and having friends away from hockey is important for me to give my all here. You can't put all your eggs in one basket in terms of friendships and support," she says.
Susannah is still recovering from her ankle injury, but she remains confident in her ability to bounce back. The key to that is remaining injury-free, giving her all for the team and - most importantly - retaining the mental strength to rediscover her pre-Rio form.
"I set out to do this because I want to be one of the best players in the world. Do I want to win every medal there is? Definitely. You do it because you love it, but you do it because in those moments where you're successful, nothing else matters in the whole world."