Alex Danson MBE is an Olympic Gold Medallist and Captain of England & Great Britain Hockey.
She is also one of Investec Click & Invest‘s sports ambassadors.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I was born in Southampton and raised in Odiham which has a real community feel. We didn’t do too much sport at my primary school but I was very active outside school trying to keep up with my older brother, and got into all kinds of sports from netball and athletics to tennis and hockey. I was about 15-years-old when I committed to hockey and made my international debut not long after in 2001, aged 16-years-old.
It’s incredible to think that was almost 17 years ago with all the highs and lows in between. I still feel as privileged now as I did then to play hockey for England and Great Britain, and last year I was appointed captain after a vote by my teammates. The transition from player to captain does come with an increased level of responsibility but the culture in the squad that was left by Kate Richardson-Walsh after the Rio Olympics in 2016 was deep-rooted and made the job a lot easier. We have leaders right the way through the central programme and are encouraged to take individual responsibility whenever possible.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
No, it was a constant evolution. When I first started playing there was no such thing as a hockey career. The centralised programme which we all benefit from now thanks to the national lottery and our team sponsor Investec didn’t exist so I didn’t have an overall target of being a fulltime hockey player. I simply thought that if I built small targets, committed to what I was doing, and worked hard on and off the pitch that things would work out.
Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
People often think the early part of my career was probably the toughest as we were ranked outside the top ten and hadn’t made the transition to being a winning side. It was a different kind of challenge though as we were striving to move up and with that comes opportunity to improve and progress. Actually, I think the toughest period was around the 2014 World Cup. We arrived at the tournament as a high ranked team where we expected to compete for the podium but performed poorly and finished 11th out of 12 teams. It was a bit of a shock to us all given the expectation but we returned from the tournament and collectively reset our goals and examined in detail how we were going to achieve them. It took an enormous amount of resolve and belief amongst the group to put the disappointment behind us and to go again but perhaps without that setback we would never have won Olympic Gold in 2016.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
I would ensure that there is equality above everything else. People deserve to work in a meritocratic environment with a fair chance for all.
It is regularly talked about that women are put off by sports and exercise, how can we change this?
I think visibility is the most important issue when it comes to normalising and promoting women’s sport. I believe a lot of women are put off by sport because we don’t see enough of it. The more women’s sport is televised and written about, the more we’ll encourage women to participate.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I find mentor a bit of a funny word. I have people I work closely with who I trust, and admire, and who help me to try and achieve my goals but who do not hold an official title. Baroness Sue Campbell, who stepped down as chair of the Youth Sport Trust at the end of last year and is the FA’s Head of Women’s Football, has always been somebody who I’ve gone to for advice on hockey and work decisions. Simon Scott is another who’s really supported me over the years. At whatever career stage you’re at, and perhaps even more so if you’re in a leadership role, it’s important to have sounding boards. Without people like Simon and Baroness Sue Campbell I wouldn’t have the tools and confidence to go out and achieve what I have done.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
There are two things that really stand out for me. Winning Olympic Gold was something I’d dreamt of my whole life. It was just pure elation and to achieve it without any real superstars in our team but an incredible squad of 31 women along with all the backroom staff who gave everything made it all the more special.
The second is the Alex Danson Hockey Academy which aims to give 10,000 primary school kids the opportunity to pick up a stick and give hockey a go by 2020. The benefits that sport brings to children should never be underestimated. Working in a team, resilience, and communication are just a few of the life skills that kids can develop on the field to give them the confidence to progress in other aspects of their lives. It’s been a huge honour enabling these children to give hockey a go.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I don’t think so much about personal ambition but what hockey can achieve in the future. Our next challenge is a home World Cup in London starting on 21 July. Can we as a group take advantage of this amazing honour and further inspire others into our wonderful sport. That’s what drives me.
Do you think about when you finish playing?
Even as a teenager I was aware that this humbling opportunity to play elite level sport could end at any moment so I’ve always had one eye on what happens when it finishes. I actually don’t think about it now any more than I did then. In an ideal world I’d like to stay in sport. Whilst playing hockey I’ve also worked for the Youth Sport Trust and Coaching Impact and really enjoyed it so hopefully I can remain active and keep encouraging others about the benefits of sport.