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Black Stick turns to Happy Athlete in tough times

Published by Lockerroom story by Sarah Cowley Ross

Having dealt with anxiety and body blows in her hockey career, Black Stick Rachel McCann has created a podcast that could help those struggling to find positivity in lockdown. 

During these long, monotonous and uncertain days of the Covid-19 lockdown, Black Stick Rachel McCann’s passion project could come into its own.

The 26-year-old striker has left the Black Sticks hub in Auckland and returned home to Christchurch, to join her parents’ bubble. It helps that they have a tennis court and a long driveway so she can keep up her fitness, in her campaign to play at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

But McCann, who has a diploma in positive psychology, will also use the time to build on her podcast, The Happy Athlete.

McCann created the podcast in 2018, so she could share with others what she’s learned during a sporting career peppered with its own challenges.

“The Happy Athlete is based around trying to bring some tools I wish I had when I was way younger, to athletes – and any people – on how to deal with stress, pressure and your emotions,” she says.

“I think during the lockdown The Happy Athlete could be quite entertaining for athletes. People will find some of the journeys it’s highlighted so far quite interesting, and it will provide a connection point.”

“The podcast isn’t just about the great times for athletes; it’s about talking through those times and letting people know that it’s okay to not feel great.”

She’s hoping to interview Kiwi athletes via Zoom to find out how they’re coping and what they’re doing physically and mentally during this down-time.

“I also want to speak to international athletes because it’s great to get their perspective around what they’re doing with their own government’s regulations and restrictions with Covid-19,” she says. “These are really unprecedented times for humans and for world sport.”

McCann has been there.

After making the national hockey squad in 2015, she was on the verge of achieving her Olympic dream at the 2016 Rio Games – until she missed the final cut.

“It’s a tough experience to not be named in the team and then the next day have to front up to training and help the team prepare for the Olympics,” she says.

“I remember driving home from training and having probably what I’d now classify as an anxiety attack, just with the realisation that I wasn’t going to the Games.”

The following year McCann suffered more disappointment when she was axed from the national squad – which meant losing her funding for gym access and medical support.

“It wasn’t the experience that I wanted. But it probably was what I needed in order to do some deep reflection,” she says.

McCann felt she’d lost a lot of enjoyment in the game she fell in love with at 11.

She moved back to her parents in Christchurch and used their artificial court as a turf for training. It caused quite a racket in the neighbourhood – belting hockey balls day after day into a makeshift goal.

Needing a new focus, McCann linked up with German club side Mannheimer in 2018.

“It was a scary decision for me to leave New Zealand, but it was a turning point for me in terms of my love for hockey and my desire to be back in the Black Sticks,” she says.

Playing alongside international players from Argentina, Spain, Ireland and Germany, McCann’s passion for the game was re-ignited and she relished the chance to learn about a more European style of hockey.

McCann admits during these difficult years she anchored herself with the practice of mindfulness – an awareness of being in the present moment.

“I found mindfulness in 2016 when I was dealing with a chronic injury, after my [Black Sticks] teammate Brooke Neal suggested I give it a try,” she says.

“I started reading about a man named George Mudford who taught Kobe Bryant how to meditate. I didn’t realise this was part of sports performance – how you could train your mind.”

At the suggestion of another team-mate and friend, Gemma McCaw, McCann gained a diploma in positive psychology from the Langley Institute in 2017 (McCann also has a Bachelor of Arts degree).

She then created The Happy Athlete podcast, diving into the personal stories of fellow athletes in the hope of resonating with others. So far she’s featured stars like world champion rower Grace Prendergast, Silver Fern Bailey Mes and Black Stick legend Kayla Whitelock.

The podcast is a passion project alongside her hockey commitments, but she’s keen to pursue a career in sports psychology.

“I’m planning on sharing more well-being resources and academic research through the platform for athletes to cope with the lockdown uncertainty,” she says.

“I’ll also be connecting to other experts like sports psychologist John Quinn to be able to access tools for athletes during this time.”

Determined to get back into the New Zealand squad midway through 2019, McCann sent footage of herself playing in the German league to the new Black Sticks coach Graham Shaw.

Impressed with what he saw, Shaw invited McCann to return to training with the Black Sticks. She was named in the squad after last year’s National Hockey League. She broke down in tears.

The squad had been in Auckland training together after the postponement of their FIH Pro League games in the Netherlands and Germany.

It’s a relief, she says, that the July Olympics have been postponed for a year. “I had anxiety about how I was going to be able to train properly while we were in lockdown,” she admits.

Back in Christchurch, she was able to get some weights from High Performance Sport NZ to set up a makeshift gym. “I’m able to train from home, run and do on the odd walk with my mum,” she says.

And she continues to anchor herself with mindfulness, and has been journalling to boost her well-being.

“It’s been so important to get my mind right over the last few years,” she says. “I’m a completely different athlete now than I was in 2016 – physically, but mainly mentally.”

Right now, McCann is doing all she can to control what she can control – training her body and mind to make it to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

* The Happy Athlete podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts.

  • April 1st, 2020 in
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