Four months away from her Olympic dream, Esme Burge, 20, describes the moment her world was turned upside down

Esme Burge is one of the youngest players in the centralised GB programme at 20 years-old (Lawrence Kirsty)
Esme Burge is one of the youngest players in the centralised GB programme at 20 years-old (Lawrence Kirsty)
22:27pm, Thu 02 Apr 2020
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After making my GB debut in the Pro League in June 2019 my dream of being a full-time hockey player came true when I was added to the GB squad on a full-time basis in July 2019. 

My life changed from being a full time student at The University Of Nottingham, living with my uni friends, juggling academics and training and travelling up and down the motorway regularly for GB elite development programme training, to relocating to live near Bisham Abbey and train day to day with players whom I had grown up being in awe of. 

It was quite a whirlwind and I was on top of a wave that I didn’t want to stop riding. Having been added to the squad with just 12 months until the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games were due to start, I fell straight into 'the business end' of the four-year cycle and had a lot of learning and adjusting to do.

Now, just four months out from the proposed start date, the coronavirus has turned my world upside down - and that of 11,000 other Olympic athletes across the globe.

It felt a bit like a pack of cards collapsing. Firstly, GB hockey made the decision to stop centralised training at our training base (Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre) meaning I would not be seeing my team-mates/coaches/support staff on a day to day basis and we were all required to complete our training in isolation. 

I made the decision to travel back to my home near Loughborough in order to spend some time with my family and complete my training there. Little did I know that I would be leaving Bisham and my house in Cookham for the foreseeable future without knowing when I would come back.

The week that followed was a strange one with a lot of uncertainty and questions flying around  my head, but I tried to stay focused on my training schedule as we all still couldn’t contemplate that the Olympics would be cancelled. 

To start with I wanted to stay positive and believe everything would get resolved quickly. I took action by converting our home garage into a gym/hockey pitch. It’s amazing how much kit we had dotted around the house that I could utilise and thankfully the weather isn’t so bad now and my dad isn't too annoyed that his car has been chucked onto the road outside!

Training at full intensity, which was the cycle we were in, was hard on my own as hard grind is tough alone but my family were really understanding, wiped a few tears and helped me along my way. 

Isolated training has really made me value having team-mates to run and train with! Unfortunately for my dad, I have had to recruit him as my training buddy. He has had to come to terms with the fact that he can no longer keep up with his 20-year-old daughter like he used to!

Being a full-time athlete, our lives and schedules are planned to the minute and we are so used to having a plan to execute with an ultimate end goal in sight. The uncertainty of not knowing during this period was disconcerting and uncomfortable.

Esme Burge has earned eight caps for GB (Instagram: Esme Burge)

The support form GB hockey was brilliant. They gave us enough space to try and process what was going on but also recognised that we needed support and that staying connected was vital through the uncertainty. 

We had numerous online calls, including 1-1 work with the psychologist, small group video call check-ins and full squad meetings. It was so important to recognise that we weren't alone and all the emotions we were feeling were totally normal. 

GB hockey plan for many different scenarios that we may face, however, a worldwide health crisis was not on the list! There were no protocols and staff and players alike were trying to figure out the best way forward.

Unfortunately, the UK then went into lockdown and it was becoming more and more unlikely that the Olympics would go ahead on schedule. 

This was really scary and if I thought too much about the bigger implications it was overwhelming so I had to shut them in a box for the time being. Every day I watched as other major sports cancelled fixtures and tournaments and then the inevitable happened.

On the 23rd March the IOC announced postponement of the Games. It was a surreal moment for me. Firstly, I couldn’t quite believe that such a huge global event that was all over the news was impacting my life so directly. It really brought home how truly world encompassing the Olympic games is. 

It was a weird kind of relief to know that a decision had been made, and seeing many incredible athletes comment across TV, social media and the press with consistent messages of support for the decision was reassuring. 

However devastating the postponement was for me personally it was clear there were bigger issues at stake and actually it made me realise that at the end of the day without health as a nation we have nothing.

The Tokyo 2020 Games has now been postponed until 2021 and will begin on July 23

Once the news began to sink in I started the process of resetting and making a new plan. Every area of my life was affected so there was a lot to think about.

We are now in the early stages of an adjustment period where all members of the squad and support staff are dotted around the country. 

We are trying to figure out how often and in what way we keep connected. We are so used to being in each other’s pockets everyday it would be very easy for us to go into our shells, lose contact and isolate ourselves even more. It is important for us to understand that people within the squad may be feeling very different due to their alternative circumstances and everyone has varying challenges to face. 

We will find a new way of communicating that works for us and I know that we will stay ‘as one’, albeit in a slightly different way for the time being. Thank goodness for the wonders of technology!

Having just come out of a highly physical block of training and feeling in the best shape of my life it’s been a real adjustment to now focus on looking after myself mentally and just maintaining physical form. 

Over the past week or so I have been trying to put my mental health first, keep well nourished and allow the emotions of such big news to come out. I have made a new plan, picked up my studies again and have been trying to keep a structure to my day by planning in time for exercise that I enjoy, whilst not stressing out if my day doesn’t quite go to plan! 

I’ve been spending time doing yoga with my mum, trying out new methods of training such as suspension training, trying some new activities such as digging our first family vegetable patch in the garden and have even started reading a book simply for pleasure (something that I haven't had the luxury to do for a long time). 

I’ve also been enjoying and appreciating the countryside around me and cherishing the sunny days which has helped me to keep perspective and see the bigger picture.

I now feel like I am in the place to start to  build a positive mindset by using my time productively to complete some more of my degree (I am currently in my 3rd year studying psychology at the University of Nottingham) and think about a longer-term future outside of sport.

Elite sport is a hugely selfish existence and I now also have the benefit of time to reconnect with other aspects of my life.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Our squad was just finding its groove and we had a real sense that the team culture and our performances were on an upward trajectory; our head coach, Mark Hager, has only been with us for a year so this gives us more opportunity to work under him and his philosophy; for me personally and other players like me at the beginning of their GB journey, next year gives me an opportunity to gain more experience and make more physical, mental and tactical gains in order to fight for a place on the plane in 2021! 

I know I have much to learn but I am confident I can improve a lot with the gift of additional time.

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