Olympics

Baby Giraffe who grew into Black Sticks star

Walking off the international field for the final time, Black Sticks defensive rock Brooke Neal is pouring her energy into helping young female athletes develop the mental skills she wishes she'd had as a teen.

At high school, Brooke Neal was called ‘Baby Giraffe’.

It wasn’t a nickname she liked. At 15, she was already 1.8m tall and conscious of it. And on the hockey field, she was unusually uncoordinated.

“I was also a dancer where I was coordinated, but I couldn’t put that into my hockey,” the 176-test Black Stick admits.

“But I decided to embrace ‘Baby Giraffe’, because I knew I was tall and lanky, and uncoordinated on the field.”

While she loved high school at Whangarei Girls’, she also struggled internally.

“I was very much an overwhelmed, highly-strung. over-achieving perfectionist, who also pretended that everything was good,” she says.

“I had none of the tools that I’ve learned in my last 10 years of elite sport. I’ve done a lot of research on mental well-being and put it into practice.

“Then I thought, ‘What if I could help girls to learn those skills when they’re 14, so they don’t have to go through some of the stuff that I did?’”

That’s become the premise for Neal’s professional venture off the hockey field, now she’s retired from international hockey after eight years at the top.

Like many athletes, Neal spent lockdown contemplating her future.

She was struggling with a back injury – an on-going problem since hurting herself in London last year, sweeping the ball on the artificial pitch laid over the Twickenham rugby turf. 

Her plans to spend the rest of the year in Europe were suddenly shelved. She was ready to play out the Pro League season with the Black Sticks, while her fiancé, Cam Hayde, was going to play hockey in Switzerland. Before coronavirus arrived, they'd moved out of their house, he'd left his job, and they were ready to travel.

Then when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were put on hold for 12 months, the 27-year-old defender decided it was time to call it quits. It wasn’t a simple decision for a player still at the top of her game - her Black Ferns team-mates hailing her as a world-class defender and an unsung hero. But Neal says it's one of her proudest decisions: "Because I made it for me."

“One of the biggest things I considered was the team, knowing I could have an impact in my position," she says. "That was the thing I kept coming back to. When my team-mates reached out afterwards, all of them told me they were proud I’d made the decision for me.”

Neal wants to still "be there for them with advice", because her own Black Sticks journey wasn't a painless one.

Brooke Neal high-fives Black Sticks goalie, Grace O'Hanlon, after saving a goal. Photo: WorldSportsPics/FIH

“Over the last couple of years, I've transitioned from being a battler - starting on the bench, making lots of mistakes, always battling injury and trying to get fitter, finding my voice and my place in the team - to get to a stage where I could perform at the Olympics,” she says.

She got there in 2016, playing at the Rio Olympic Games - where New Zealand made the semifinals - while her elder brother, Shay, turned out for the men’s Black Sticks.

But winning Commonwealth Games gold two years later became the highlight of her eight-year international career. (She laughs recalling how she came off the field after that gold medal match and gave Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a sweaty hug).

“During that time in the Black Sticks, my focus changed from me trying to be the best athlete I could be, to trying to help the younger girls in the team. Building up the confidence of those girls has been the biggest thing for me in the last two years," she says. 

“It's meant always checking up on them, making sure they have a voice. If they want to raise something, I’ll be a platform for them. It can be hard in a group environment to speak out, but I’ve got a big mouth and I don’t mind talking up." 

Which has all segued nicely into her job off the field. For the last three years, Neal has been developing her business, All About Balance. Its maxim is: ‘Empowering young female athletes to find balance in their mental, social and physical well-being’.

“It’s about trying to empower them, and get them to learn earlier than I did, so they can get to that stage quicker,” she says.

Neal remembers all too well being the youngster in a hockey team. In her first year at Whangarei Girls’, she was chosen in the 1st XI. 

“My first high school coach was Angeline Waetford - who coached my Northland NHL team last year too," Neal says. "There were a few complaints, that she’d picked me as a Year 9 because I definitely wasn’t a standout.

“I wasn’t fit and I was very uncoordinated. But somehow, I managed to make these really unorthodox tackles because of my arm length. Even now people think they have got past me, and then I yank the ball away.”

She had to bide her time on the bench, watching and learning, as her team won the national secondary schools Federation Cup that year. But even as she improved, and made New Zealand age-group teams, Neal wasn’t convinced hockey would be her future.

“I was very much a go-getter and I wanted to do a lot of different things. I almost decided to pursue a career in dance when I was in Year 13,” she says.

Her mum, Leone, a teacher at Whangarei Girls', remembers a "driven, determined, over-motivated girl" who wanted to win in sport, and excel in dance and in the classroom. "It was like we couldn't stop you," she told her daughter in a video blog, "and that determination and motivation and stubbornness and pigheadedness has got you a long way in sport".

The moment that swerved Neal towards hockey was when her brother first made the Black Sticks in 2009.

“Shay was always the one I was trying to beat,” she admits. “Even though he beat me at everything - although I am taller than him. Just seeing him doing what I wanted to, made me decide to follow in his footsteps and see how far I could go.”

Brooke Neal talks to young athletes at Kensington Park in Whangarei, where her hockey career began. Photo: supplied

Following up her academic dreams, Neal went to the University of Waikato and got a degree in communications. For the past few years, she’s been working in high schools, helping young female athletes develop their mental skills.

“You can’t force anyone to do anything. But the biggest thing is to put it all out there. I’m not trained in psychology, but here’s my experience and if you can learn from that, great,” Neal says.

It’s not only aspiring hockey players she works with. After we sit down to chat, she’s off to Kristin College to help a group of 25 netballers.

Envisaging she would be going to Tokyo this year, Neal created a four-week course that girls could do online. It turned out to be perfect timing for athletes in lockdown.

“The first part is discovering more of what makes you tick," Neal explains. "Then mastering the negative self-talk. The third part is how to deal with pressure in competition, how to perform consistently. And the last is rebounding from injuries, where I bring yoga in.”  Neal trained as a yoga teacher last year.

Negative self-talk is a “massive” part of her teaching. “If only I’d had that at high school,” she says.

“When you first address it, it can be quite confronting for the girls, because it’s the first time they’re aware there’s an inner critic. We have 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day - how many of those are negative?

“You can help that with something as simple as getting them to sit in silence, listen to the voice, then keep focusing back on the breath. It’s about giving them really practical tools to make that voice quieter.”

Neal says her work has evolved as she evolved as a player. She's also had to figure out what today’s girls need to survive in a sometimes harsh sporting environment, with the modern-day menace of social media. She got help from parents – including her own.

“Parents are so worried about their daughters’ mental well-being. Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s who says it. So being a little big younger, and having been to the Olympics, I understand how to get to where these girls maybe want to go,” she says.

“I have lots of parents reaching out saying ‘I’ve been trying to get my daughter to listen to me for years, thank you so much.’ My mum actually got other people to give me advice when I was at high school. So now I’m that person.

“I’m really excited I can put all my energy into it now, and to see where it will lead.”

Neal will also keep busy on the board of the New Zealand Hockey Players Association and as an Olympic Ambassador.  She has her wedding to organise too. 

But most of her enterprise will go into building strong girls. “My biggest message is that not everyone has perfectly Instagram-able lives; everyone is struggling in some way," she says. "And it’s okay to struggle and to share and express that.”

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