Stick With It
“When you’re not selected you have to look at yourself and figure out who you are.” GB hockey player Sarah Evans on bouncing back and helping others do the same
By Sophie Penney
Illustration by Esme Harvey-Otway
Fresh off the plane, driving in a coach down the South African motorway with a hockey stick poking out of her bag, 15 year-old Sarah Evans stares out the window. On her right she sees huge mansions. On her left, a large township, a sea of corrugated iron roofs. She came for a hockey tour, starting the road to becoming a European and Commonwealth medallist and captaining her club to seven consecutive league titles, but after that moment she was no longer just ‘Sarah Evans the hockey player.’
“I’d never come across that stark difference in poverty and wealth. It really shaped me.” At Birmingham University, she studied history, doing her dissertation on the role of sport in the abolition of apartheid. But human rights and hockey were separate passions that didn’t mix. Last year that changed.
“When George Floyd was murdered it was a real awakening. This is still happening and we still have so much more that we can do to make hockey and our society more equal. You look at our sporting landscape and it is majority white middle-class. I thought: I need to look within myself and then who can I influence?” Sarah and the GB women’s hockey team set up the ‘Stick It to Racism’ campaign to enact change. “I think players have a lot of power,” she said. “Our voices can be heard. So with ‘Stick It to Racism’ we’ve had really good talks with Nick Pink, our CEO, and we’ve arranged for people to come in to speak to the squad, so we can educate ourselves and then spread that to the wider community.”
It’s not just race, it’s gender too. That’s why this year she’s pleased to be part of the Women’s Sport Trust Unlocked Programme, which aims to raise the profile of women’s sport. “I’m such a big advocate of all women’s sports; giving women the platform they deserve, more media, more sponsorship, and just highlighting the amazing things that so many women are doing. Being a part of the Unlocked programme, if I can use that platform to help diversity issues, I think that would be fantastic.”
Sarah channels that drive for supporting others into the GB set up, where she is one of 30 players who train full-time, currently building up to the Tokyo Olympics. She admitted she’s not sure everyone appreciates the loud singing in the changing room before a game, when her, Lily Owsley, Sarah Robertson and Jo Hunter – “the quartet band” as they call themselves – belt out the Greatest Showman at the top of their voices. But her real role in the team is more than that: “I’ve experienced the majority of things you can experience in the squad: injury, non-selection, selection… So I feel like I’m somebody that people can come to. I get energy out of helping others.”
When Sarah said she’s been through it all, one low really sticks out. Evans wasn’t part of the GB hockey team that won Olympic gold in Rio in 2016. She had to train with the team until the day they flew to Brazil to make sure the squad were ready, but she knew she wasn’t getting on the plane. “It is really tough and there’s no denying that,” she said. “Rio was everyone’s dream. Everybody who missed out was devastated. I think it is important to feel those emotions, but I’m someone who, once I get my head around something, I like to get a plan sorted about how I can move forward in a positive way.”
“When you’re not selected you have to look at yourself and figure out who you are, what means the most to you, and how you want to conduct yourself in those moments. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot more from the non-selections than from the selections.” When it all gets too much, Sarah walks two minutes down the road and she is in her safe haven: Surbiton hockey club. The place where she followed her older brother Mark to her first ever training session at 10; where she played for the senior first team in the county leagues aged 12; where she was handed the first team captain’s armband fresh out of university; and where she has now captained the team to seven successive league titles. “I wouldn’t be sitting here today in the GB squad if it hadn’t been for Surbiton. There’s been times when I’ve gone back there and built my confidence back up. I’ve started to enjoy playing hockey again. You remember why you play, why you’re in the team and you start to focus on your strengths, not obsessing about your weaknesses.”
Sarah says one of the highlights of her career has been captaining the club that means so much to her. In the team, internationals play alongside people with full-time jobs for whom hockey is just a hobby, and Sarah said her strength as a captain is understanding that perfect balance of having fun and being serious. As an international, her schedule means she misses a lot of club hockey, which she finds challenging, but living two minutes from the club, she tries to pop down when she can to make sure she is present as a captain.
Surbiton is Sarah’s family, and her family is also Surbiton. Her dad and brother, both goalkeepers, claim to have played for every Surbiton men’s side between them, and her husband also plays there. But when it comes to football, the rivalry is real. She has pictures of herself in Liverpool kit aged two – a lifelong fan. But her husband is a huge Manchester United supporter. In a household where sport dominates, at least they can agree on the dog, Winnie, a two year-old black Labrador. Sarah spends any time at home taking Winnie for walks, or sitting with her whilst reading or watching “a lot of rubbish TV,” she admitted.
Every Wednesday the GB squad gets a rest day to pursue something outside of hockey and, although Sarah jokes that she could probably watch Grey’s Anatomy all day, instead she has done several courses. This includes a coaching and mentoring qualification about helping people navigate life inside and outside of hockey, and a course called ‘Next Step Ready’ about preparing athletes for after their career. “It’s about shifting the perception that if you’re not focused on your sport all the time you don’t care enough, to knowing that having balance in your life is so important for your mental health and helping you play better,” she explained. “I see so many sports that don’t have that and athletes really struggle with their transition afterwards because your whole identity is wrapped up in being an athlete, so when you’re no longer that athlete, what happens?”
Sarah admits that the next step after hockey might not be so far away for her now. After the Tokyo Olympics she may retire. “I think the time is coming near the end. I’m learning from the people at Unlocked about what careers I could do to push for change. I definitely want to do something to give back to the sport, because it’s given me so much.”