Rhona Simpson is a British hockey legend. She played for Scotland from age 14, when she got her first cap for the U16’s in 1986, until she retired from senior level in 2007. She played for GB from 1993 until 2003 and her career as a player includes two Olympic Games (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000), three Commonwealth Games (Kuala Lumpur 1998, Manchester 2002 and Melbourne 2006) and two World Cups (Australia 1998 and Holland 2002), writes Andrew Lovat.
Simpson has also coached Scotland’s U18 and U21 squads, and was part of the coaching team for the Great Britain Youth Olympic squad in 2009, which won gold in Sydney. She is now an athlete representative on the Glasgow 2014 Board and a Sky Sports Living for Sport Ambassador. In her professional life, she is director of sport at a leading independent school in Glasgow and a teacher of physical education.
The 41-year-old took time out from her busy schedule to talk to PUSH about her career and next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
You will obviously be excited about the forthcoming Commonwealth Games – how do you think Glasgow is looking compared to Kuala Lumpur 1998, Manchester 2002 and Melbourne 2006 – the Games you played in?
Glasgow is shaping up really well for the Games and, compared to other Games, the fact that we have all the venues ready, and in use, is a really important aspect. It’s promising to be a great event.
How do you like the Glasgow Green hockey venue? Have you tried it out?
I have played on it, and it’s a great surface and venue. The actual pitch needs to settle a bit, but it should be in top condition in time for the Games.
Tell us more about your athlete representative role on the Glasgow 2014 Board?
I chair the athletes’ advisory committee, which is a sub-committee of the board, and I sit on the board. We are interested in ensuring that everything is ready and put in place for the athletes, so that when they come to Glasgow they can focus on their sport and their performances and not have to worry about all the little details.
Are there specific needs unique to hockey that have to be catered for at a multi-sport event?
It’s obviously a different experience playing in a multi-sport tournament. For hockey, from my perspective in terms of the athletes committee, these are things we look into: what training facilities are available and at what times, and making sure all teams are allocated team briefing rooms, ice baths etc.
All that detail is taken into consideration when it comes to the planning and preparation for the teams. Once everything is in place and up and running, everything should run very much as its own tournament.
What do you think are the challenges and opportunities for hockey in Scotland now and beyond Glasgow 2014?
You’d hope with the excitement of the Games and the opportunity of going to see matches live – which a lot of people probably don’t do normally – that hopefully will enthuse people about the game of hockey.
I think we really have to encourage more youngsters to get involved in the game, because ultimately that is the legacy. And that will require the support of Scottish Hockey, who run our game here in Scotland.
Do you think there has been an impact of players moving south to join the GB central programme? Is it a problem for the overall standard of the league up here in Scotland?
I don’t think it’s a problem, but it does have an impact because, obviously, you’re taking better players out of the system. But ultimately, for me, through all the years I’ve played, it’s about taking responsibility for your own game and making it happen, irrespective of where you play and who you play for.
A player can only be given so much, but at the end of the day that player must really want it. Players moving south takes the talent out of Scottish hockey, but that in turn can provide opportunities for others to come through.
Following on from that, do you think it’s necessary, or indeed essential, that players move south to further their hockey careers to firmly establish themselves in their national squads?
No, I don’t think it is essential for players to move down south. For years we proved that doesn’t need to be the case. The centralised programmes have only happened over the last couple of cycles. I played in two Olympics and we weren’t centralised. We went up and down, but we weren’t based down south and we still played for our own clubs up here in Scotland at the weekends.
As I’ve said, it’s down to the individual: how disciplined you are, how focused you are – doing your own training when you are away from squads, how you lift and set your own standards.
I never needed anyone else to do that for me. I had the passion and drive, which is something we seem to lack in individuals nowadays, as they do get things laid on fairly easy these days. And when these individuals have to go out there and work hard, it’s a case for some players of ‘Oh, do I actually want to do that!’ So, no, I don’t think it’s necessary or essential to go down south.
Are there any Scottish players that you really see as going far in terms of success and achievement?
There were some good players at the recent “Awesome October” league weekend that was streamed live – a lot of talent, comfortable at the level they’re at. But the important question is: can they take that next step? I personally don’t think they recognise what it takes to make GB level and what it takes to actually compete at that level.
How do you think junior development is shaping up in Scotland at the moment?
Obviously I’m involved in coaching schoolgirl hockey – and at the top level it is a very good game. But I don’t think that is always recognised by Scottish Hockey who run our sport.
At the grassroots, we have great facilities, but that needs to be maximised – a joint effort that has to be recognised by Scottish Hockey, and I’m not sure it always is. All the districts across Scotland are asking the same question, ‘Is school hockey valued by Scottish Hockey?’.
They [Scottish Hockey] will obviously say that it is, but there are links that they recommend such as club sessions which I don’t think are always the best environment. We have an already good basis within our education system and really good people within that system that can deliver at the grassroots – it’s about building. That is where it all ultimately starts.
Can you give me one of your favourite moments in your international career?
I’ve had some great moments, picking out one or two is quite difficult. Obviously my first Olympics was a major achievement. To represent my country at an Olympic Games was something I’d dreamt of since I was tiny – so to achieve that was very satisfying.
What was the best or most important goal you ever scored?
Well, I love scoring goals, and probably my most important goal was for Scotland against India in a World Cup qualifier in France in 2005 after the game went to Golden Goal.
What was/is your favourite place to play hockey?
Atlanta 1996 was really exciting – the first Olympic experience, that first big step to your first multi-sport games! I’ve played in so many great places. Sydney was fantastic – the atmosphere was brilliant as the Aussies are so behind their sport.
Have you ever had a favourite player, one that you have admired, looked up to or taken inspiration from?
I looked up to Sean Kerly. I remember him from when I was really young.
I hadn’t even started playing the game, but I just thought, ‘He’s exciting, I want to score goals like him!’ He really inspired me.
You have had a serious knee injury. When you wake up and you are sore, do you ever regret the impact hockey has had on your body? And do you have any advice to young players, in particular, recovering from a serious injury?
No, I don’t have any regrets – injuries are part and parcel of the sport. I do, however, think injury management is really important.
I was very focused and determined about getting back to fitness as quickly as possible after I injured my knee. And I worked really hard at my rehab and took all the advice of the physiotherapists.
It’s tough, really tough at times, and it’s mentally tough at times too – because even in a team sport you can feel isolated because you can’t do the same as others when you’re sidelined, particularly by a serious injury.
I kept myself involved by doing stuff like collecting all the balls at training and filling up the juice bottles.
A lot of people see an injury as an excuse where they can have a bit of a rest. When I broke my arm – my other serious injury – it was in pins and plates but I actually ended up the fittest player in the squad because I could still run, as there was nothing wrong with my legs. There’s no excuse. A lot of players, when injured, think, ‘Well I’m injured, so I can’t do this and I can’t do that.’ It should be a mindset of, ‘Well I may be injured, but what else can I do?’
Why did you choose hockey over show jumping [Simpson won the British newcomers’ final in the 1992 Horse of the Year show]?
I don’t ride anymore as I don’t have the time – it’s a big commitment. But, it’s like riding a bike, you never forget, and some day I might go back.
The reason I chose hockey over show jumping was because one of my top horses unfortunately died suddenly. Show jumping horses are just like athletes – it takes years to get to that top level. We didn’t have the money to go out and buy top horses. We brought the horses up from youngsters. So ultimately that made my decision and, I also wanted to go and study PE. Doing that linked my hockey with my PE study.
You have played through a number of big rule changes. What do you think of those changes and the differences they’ve made to the game?
Some of them have made the game faster and more exciting, and some have made the game slower.
I don’t think the ball having to be five yards from the circle and [that it]can’t go directly in, was a good rule change. There’s a skill in being able to trap these balls. I can understand the danger element, but we played for years without that [rule] and I can’t recall many players being injured before they introduced it.
Rolling subs have made the game quicker, and of course the self-pass. So yes, the majority of rule changes have enhanced the game.
What was the biggest change in the game when you were playing at the height of your career?
The biggest change for me was the offside rule. We were playing both – for Scotland we weren’t playing offside, while for Great Britain we were. That has been the biggest change, because tactically it made a massive difference how we play the game. It was a good change, and that was the biggest in my career.
It’s rare for even really good young players these days to be able to push-pass well, and sometimes even upright hit. Are there any skills which you think have declined in recent years?
I nag about it all the time when I’m coaching – the basics are so important! The game is not difficult, but we’ve introduced a lot of fancy skills; but for me it’s understanding how to do these fancy skills and when to use them.
We overcomplicate the game at times, when, if we just did the basics well, the game would be a lot better and a lot simpler. And for kids, stopping the ball, trapping the ball and being able to run with the ball in a comfortable position so that they’re able to pass off either foot, is so important.
The slap has made kids lazy because they’ve grown up on Astroturf. I grew up at school playing hockey on grass – that’s why I can hit the ball. A lot of players at senior level can’t hit the ball properly, and I definitely think that has an impact. And on Astroturf they get lazy because don’t move their feet.
I am always nagging about their basic skills – hands apart on the stick, feet busy, push passing on the run.
Are you still playing? Or is all your time taken up with coaching now?
I am still playing and just moved to my local club Glasgow Accies where I keep my hand in. At the end of the day I still love the game. I like playing with the youngsters at my club, and, hopefully, I can transfer my knowledge and skills to them.
What do you do in your capacity as a Sky Sports Living for Sport Ambassador?
In that role I’m an athlete mentor. It’s a free, UK-initiative that schools sign-up to. Basically we go to schools and they can use us for anything. Mostly, for me, it’s just to chat and try and inspire kids through my own story and what I’ve achieved.
I like to give them the right message – and my message, my story, is all about having the right attitude, irrespective of how skilful you are. If you have the right attitude it’s amazing what you can achieve – it’s the biggest single factor. But, you have to want to do it and you have to understand how to do it – and you have to be prepared to make certain sacrifices.
That positive mental attitude is, for me, the single biggest factor in terms of actually achieving the best that you can possibly achieve.
It’s been fascinating talking to you about our great sport. Anything else you’d like to mention?
I have had huge amount out of my sport, but I’ve put a lot into it. I’ve been fortunate – I’ve had two Olympics, three Commonwealth games and two World Cups, and various other tournaments. I would never change anything – I’ve loved all of it.