Olympic gold medallist (and PhD) Hannah MacLeod warns Hong Kong kids not to focus solely on academics

Olympic gold medallist inspires underprivileged kids in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 March, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 8:19pm

It’s hard to imagine anywhere further removed from the tourist hot-spots of Hong Kong than a charity-aided school in Tuen Mun, but that’s where Dr Hannah MacLeod has decided to spend a few hours of her holiday on this humid afternoon.

The 32-year-old is in town visiting her parents – her ex-Royal Air Force father now trains pilots for Cathay Pacific – but she’s also spending her spare time to introduce some of Hong Kong’s poorest kids to hockey.

MacLeod is an Olympic gold-medal winning athlete, one of the stars of the Great Britain team that beat defending champions the Netherlands in Rio last summer.

While that feat was huge news in the UK, it’s unclear how familiar with it the 30 or so girls from Chung Sing Benevolent Society Mrs Aw Boon Haw School are. Nary a hand goes up when MacLeod asks how many of them have seen a hockey stick before.

But soon the girls – many of whose families are recent immigrants from the mainland and south Asia, some of whom live in ‘cage homes’ – are laughing and enjoying themselves, as MacLeod leads them in games designed to familiarise them with the sport’s techniques.

Most of them might never pick up a hockey stick again, let alone reach an Olympics, but they’ve been given a taste of the joys of sport, and for MacLeod that’s what it’s all about.

“The plan really is to introduce them to hockey, to team sport, and hopefully as a GB hockey player and Olympian provide some sort of role model for them, to see the benefits sport can bring,” says MacLeod. “It has the potential to break down barriers, provide confidence and self-esteem, and is just a great opportunity for them to experience something different.”

MacLeod’s visit came through a three-way link-up between the hockey section at Hong Kong Football Club and two charities helping disadvantaged youth, Operation Breakthrough and Chicken Soup Foundation.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of sport and exercise, MacLeod says “it’s quite scary to think what might have been” had a PE teacher not pushed her to pursue hockey when sport “was not the done thing” for girls at her school.

And in a city where many children are worn down on a grindstone of exams and relentless academic pressure, MacLeod says combining study with sport and other activities is vital. She should know, having completed a PhD in Exercise Physiology while training full-time for the Olympics.

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“You’re not only getting the physical well-being elements of being active which we can never lose sight of, but you’re also getting the social aspects as well that I think are hugely valuable,” she says.

“Sport gave me the confidence to progress in my academic studies. I was very, very shy as a child and it was team sports that brought it out of me. I was just terrified of individual sports, I could not compete on my own.

“For me it was being around other people that accepted me simply for the work I put in and the contribution I made to that group of players and that was how you were judged – not on what you look like, what clothes you wore, whether or not you fit into the ideal that is presented.”

And on the flip side, MacLeod points out that all of Team GB’s full-time athletes are required to pursue something else alongside sport – volunteering, further education, work – to make them more fully rounded.

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“They’ve realised the value of having something else in your life because we play sport every day – but if it’s the other way round and you’re just focused solely on academic progress, then we know from a health and well-being perspective there has to be something else.”

MacLeod is also a successful entrepreneur with her own nutrition business, and has an immediate answer when asked if she took any lessons from sport for that side of her life: “Failing,” she replies.

“What is so scary now is that particularly for girls they are so scared to fail. They are reluctant to put their hand up … they apologise for giving an answer because they think they might have it wrong. I’m like, ‘Be bold, get it out there.’

“Some schools are setting up specific exams where there are questions that are impossible to answer to set the children up to learn to fail because they are such high achievers, so set on always being right, and life is just not like that.

“That is where sport is amazing because you’re not going to get it right every time – you create an amazing learning environment … we are able to understand how to lose, how to fail, but how do we then learn to move forward, to reflect on what we need to do better.”

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MacLeod turned down a university lectureship after a last-minute offer to become a full-time athlete with UK Sport, despite the paltry stipend of around £15,000 a year (HK$150,000). “I was the last person to get an invite and even my coach said it would be short-lived,” she recalls, after proving everyone wrong with Olympic bronze in London then gold last year.

Now she’s ready to move into coaching full-time, and judging by the smiles on the faces of the girls in Tuen Mun, will be a successful teacher.

“What I learned from the sport, I’m not the best hockey player in the country, I’m not the best in my team, but there’s so much more to that,” she adds.

“Going out into a lot of schools and different communities, I think they get the impression that I’m there to try to inspire them to be an international hockey player and that’s absolutely not the case.

“If there’s one person that wants to be, great, but the vast majority is actually just to help them have a positive experience so that they build a connection with sport that I truly believe can shape all aspects of their lives – and to me that’s far more important.”