‘I struggled mentally with trying to be a superhero’: Five years on from winning gold at Rio 2016, Olympic hockey star Maddie Hinch opens up on her battle with depression
- Maddie Hinch was one of Great Britain’s heroes from the Rio 2016 Olympics
- The hockey goalkeeper, 32, saved four penalties to win gold for Team GB
- Hinch says she struggled to live with expectations as ‘some sort of superhero’
- The 5ft 6in keeper sought therapy last year and was diagnosed with depression
- After a three-month sabbatical, Hinch is ready to help a young squad in Tokyo
She wouldn’t change it. Maddie Hinch is clear on that. If taking the good meant enduring the bad, then she’d sign for it. But the bad was awfully rough, and certainly harder than folk may realise.
She has gone into it before, about her sabbatical from hockey in 2018, when she was done in by the hard business of meeting her own expectations. But there was more to it than that.
There were days even after she got back when she would snap at team-mates. Days when she wanted to hide from them. Days when she wanted to quit, to give up on chasing the myths in her head. There were plenty of those days, and that’s how she came to be diagnosed with depression early in 2020, which she hasn’t discussed so much publicly outside of her team and orbit.
Team GB star Maddie Hinch has opened up on her depression battle after winning gold in Rio
‘I was diagnosed a year ago,’ she tells Sportsmail. ‘It has been tough but I’m glad I have a diagnosis where I know what is going on inside my head. There were honestly times when I dreaded putting on my pads. If you hurt your knee you get help and it should be the same for your head. I wish I had done it years ago.’
Hinch has the kind of story that makes you think harder about what happens to our sporting achievers on their way back down the mountain. Indeed, not many have climbed higher or faster than she did on that golden night in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, when the BBC delayed their 10 O’Clock News to show her saving four Dutch penalties in a remarkable shootout. She became the face of the most spellbinding British moment of those Olympics, the 5ft 6in goalkeeper who just wouldn’t be beaten.
She tells amusing tales about what happened in the week after the team returned from Brazil, and it’s probably best to start at that point, because those fun early days of celebration are what snowballed into something else.
‘It’s interesting when you think back to the Olympic final,’ she says, perched on a bench at the GB base at Bisham Abbey. ‘The drama of that game, it just built something back at home.
‘We were all a bit oblivious to it during the competition, but we obviously had a bit of an idea from speaking to family and because the media wanted to speak to us. But we didn’t really know anything until we touched down and then, just, wow.
Hinch, 32, was one of the stars of Rio 2016, saving four penalties to win Gold for Team GB
‘I remember going into London a couple of days after getting back and the guy next to me on the Tube was reading an article about me. OK, that’s not happened before. He then does this double-take and next thing the whole carriage is talking to me.
‘I was at a sponsor lunch that week and a tweet appears on my phone saying, “I’m watching Maddie Hinch eat fish and chips”. OK. There was also this other one. I went to a bathroom and “Maddie Hinch is a hero” was on a cubicle door.
‘We play hockey, we don’t get this attention. Then imagine that. It came from this amazing Olympic gold, but it was very new.’
Hinch, 32, can smile about all this because she is in a good place, and hopefully ready for the glare that awaits in Tokyo two months from now. But to fully appreciate the strain of this past Olympic cycle, and how Hinch’s depression developed ahead of her return to that stage, it is necessary to understand how her self-perception changed in the light of so much attention.
‘What I struggled with most was living up to an expectation to be some kind of superhero,’ she says. ‘That is what I was reading and seeing and after a while it became a pressure. By 2018 it had become an obsession. In my head I had to stop everything, I had to put in that perfect performance every time I played.
Hinch says the team were not prepared for what awaited them when they arrived home
The 32-year-old recalls being recognised and treated like ‘a hero’ after returning to London
‘In 2018 we had a Commonwealth Games and a home World Cup coming up which had extra attention. I was a perfectionist anyway but it went too far. I became scared of mistakes, of not living up to what people said about me. It was a hard year.’
It was made even harder by the transition undertaken by the England and Great Britain teams. Only seven of the GB squad that won in Rio remain and the coach has changed.
With the upheaval, results through this cycle have dropped.
Against those disappointments, and amid her internal difficulties, Hinch had been named the world’s best goalkeeper for a third year in a row, but decided to take a three-month sabbatical in 2018. Everyone except Hinch thought she would be back.
‘When I left, I was burnt out,’ she says. ‘I might have said it was a break but I was done. I just wanted to go diving in Australia and escape.
In 2020, Hinch was diagnosed with depression and underwent therapy to help her mentally
However, the adulation resulted in an increased pressure to perform at her very best
‘After a while I missed it, which I thought was good. I wanted to play, to re-engage, and I needed that, to have that feeling.
‘I felt better when I was back but during the break I never got a hold of what the problem was deep down. I was changing things in my life to try to find solutions, and it worked for a while, but there were still these extreme lows.’
The issues became pronounced around the Pro League fixtures for Britain in Australia and New Zealand last February.
‘It was hard,’ she says. ‘Not wanting to be around the group was a big sign. You find yourself wanting to isolate, not wanting to be around anyone, which is far against my personality.
‘I became unapproachable, not pleasant to be around because I’d find myself being snappy. A loss in training and I’d be down, or a mistake would get me fiery. I would miss a save and think I was a terrible goalkeeper.’
Hinch describes herself as ‘a perfectionist’ and says she ‘became scared of making mistakes’
Now, Hinch is focused on helping her young team-mates replicate the 2016 triumph in Tokyo
It was just over a year ago that Hinch took a step that has had a transformative effect. ‘I started doing some therapy and I was diagnosed with depression,’ she says. ‘All I would change in my career is speaking to people earlier. I spent two years saying I was fine and it made it worse.
‘It is a harsh reality of elite sport that a lot of us go through this. Now I am trying to re-adjust what is important. I still want to be the best, stop every shot, but I want to give more to the group. I was a selfish athlete but now I enjoy having the younger guys ask me advice. That is all helping.’
The benefit for Hinch is obvious. The benefit for Britain is that the world’s best goalkeeper remains in the game. Time will tell how they get on in Japan, where the Netherlands will be huge favourites. ‘They were last time as well,’ says Hinch, but the unknown is whether a newer, younger British team can spoil the party in quite the same way.
‘The extra year from the postponement will help,’ adds Hinch. It’s a comment that seems to apply to both the collective and the world-beater in their goal.
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