Having struggled with Olympic defeat, former Black Sticks captain Chris Arthur is now helping the current crop of Olympians deal with disappointment, while she still plays hockey and coaches in the new national Premier Hockey League.
Chris Arthur knows only too well the phenomenon of post-Olympic blues. She lived with it for four years.
A former Black Sticks captain, Arthur came home from her second Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 – where New Zealand finished eighth of eight teams – and struggled.
“We didn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve. I was so upset… It took me four years before I could even talk about it,” she says.
“I had this huge sense of failure, and the media were quite brutal with us and it felt like I’d let down the whole of New Zealand.”
Arthur loved her first Games – in Los Angeles in 1984 – when women played hockey at the Olympics for the first time.
“I was a young kid and so I just loved the whole experience, I didn’t have any expectations,” she says. New Zealand finished sixth (of six).
“It was only a couple of years ago, when we had a reunion for the 1992 team, that I realised there were a whole lot of other players in that team who also had a terrible experience. Because you have this huge expectation and if it’s not met, you’re not given the opportunity to really grieve publicly. And people just don’t get it unless they’ve lived it.”
Nowadays, Arthur is in a position to do something about it. She has the chance to help other Kiwi Olympians cope with that disappointment or prepare for emotional drop from celebrated hero back down into training’s daily grind, in her job as head of Athlete Life at High Performance Sport NZ.
“Hopefully, by the work we do with athletes now – helping them with their identity and their purpose and knowing that they are more than just their results – that we’re going some way to making sure that if they do have those post-pinnacle event blues, they won’t stay in them for long,” she says.
Arthur was a teacher and then deputy principal of Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls before taking on this role, heading a holistic programme helping high perfomance athletes deal with professionalism, care for their wellbeing, and plan for life after their sporting careers.
And the job has taken on even more importance during the pandemic lockdowns and the year-long postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“It’s an amazing privilege really, to be able to work with athletes and support them to basically grow their dream, whatever that dream may be,” she says.
“They bring their agenda and me and my team help them to plan and decide what’s important, challenge them and support them to grow to be better people and better athletes.”
At 57, Arthur is still learning, as she continues to play and coach hockey. She’s player-coach of the New Zealand Masters W55 team, the trans-Tasman champions who were to have played at this year’s World Cup in South Africa (canned by Covid). She’ll keep playing, she says, until her knees give out.
Arthur loves coaching, and although she has no aspirations to guide the Black Sticks, she will be part of the national coaching cluster in the new Premier Hockey League, which finally gets underway in Hamilton next week.
While all four of the women’s teams in the league are coached by men, they will each have a female assistant coach or two during the competition. It’s part of a new women’s coaching initiative as Hockey New Zealand acknowledges they need to develop more female coaches.
Arthur and former Black Sticks defender Danielle Cranston (nee Jones) will be the assistant coaches of the Hauraki Mavericks. The side is coached by Dutchman Mark Borges, a high performance coach at Hockey NZ.
When the call went out for women to join the programme – either as coaches or observers throughout the league – there was no shortage of candidates. “I believe they were inundated with women putting their hand up,” Arthur says.
“That’s one of the great things about the hockey network. There were a lot of women on the phone to each other saying, ‘Hey, we need to put our names forward. We need to be involved in this. We’ve got things that we want to give back to New Zealand hockey’.
“It’s often said there haven’t been women ready and willing to coach. But there are actually lots of great coaches out there who want to be involved.”
Arthur is passionate about encouraging women to have more influence on the game.
“I think the female coaching perspective is different. We really emphasise – I don’t like calling them the softer skills – but bringing together the teamwork, and challenging individuals to be the best for the team,” she says.
“Guys emphasise the technical and tactical side of the game a little bit more. And I believe females are a little more intuitive around having empathy with the players and connecting the players together. And we’re finding that in all sorts of sports now.”
Arthur, who grew up in the Taranaki town of Stratford, played for the Black Sticks for 11 years after her debut in 1983, notching up 86 test caps.
Her highlights on the field were winning the Olympic qualifying tournament in Auckland in 1991, boosted by the home crowd, and playing in the 1986 World Cup play-off for third in Amsterdam, and losing to Canada in extra time. “Playing in front of the orange army with the ‘oom-pah-pah’ band is unforgettable,” she says.
Her vast contribution to hockey was recognised by naming the national schoolgirls 2nd XI tournament the Chris Arthur Cup.
After getting her degree in physical education at the University of Otago, she trained as a teacher in Christchurch. She stayed in the city and taught first at Linwood College then St Margaret’s College – and naturally coached the school hockey teams. “I’ve been coaching almost as long as I’ve been playing,” says Arthur.
She received a Prime Minister’s Scholarship in 2005 to attend an FIH coaching course in India.
“It was fascinating. I was the only female on the course and most of the participants were Indian or Pakistani men,” she says. “We were coaching Indian boys and under 21s, but no one had organised a translator for me. It was challenging.
“But it gave me a huge amount of confidence that hockey is not that complex. It’s about possession, and numerical advantage and then bringing the players together so they understand and can play as one.
“It’s like any leadership role, bringing the best out of everyone. Often we’re put off because there’s some new fancy trick or skill and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t coach’, but with those sorts of things you can get experts in to teach that technical stuff.
“That’s a big lesson all female coaches have to take on board. You don’t have to know everything. Because often we look at what we don’t know as opposed to what we do know.”
Along with coaching the New Zealand U15 girls and being an assistant coach to the Junior Black Sticks, Arthur has also been involved in the Olympic movement.
She was chef de mission for New Zealand at three Games – the 2013 Australian Olympic Youth Festival, the 2014 Youth Olympics in China, and the 2015 World University Games in Korea. It helped her to better understand team culture.
“I always thought I wanted to coach with the Black Sticks, but I now think I’m quite happy where I am. My interest now is all around team culture, relationships and bringing the best out of people,” she says. “Where I can have an influence and support young people, that’s where I’m happy to be involved.”
The chef de mission roles also brought her back into the world of high performance sport, and piqued her interest in the Athlete Life position.
Lately, the role has involved helping Olympic and Paralympic athletes through the shock of postponing the event they’ve worked four years for, and helping them to change their plans for another 12 months.
“Initially there was that huge devastation, like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’ And then there was a realisation for athletes that this was actually bigger than them and bigger than the Olympics,” she says.
“The first thing was helping athletes understand what you can control, and then we had to reduce their goal-setting to short-term. ‘What do we need to learn? What do we need to do? How do we grow?’ And the athletes have been really good. Athletes are actually really resilient.
“That’s the privilege of my position – you see these athletes, you hear their vulnerabilities, what else is going on in their lives. And, you know, they’re just real people who are working jolly hard to be good at what they do.”