Sally Walton: Olympic hockey player and coach inspiring self-confidence in others
An inclusive culture has brought GB women's hockey great success. In Lesbian Visibility Week, London 2012 star Sally Walton says the youngsters she now coaches appreciate what authenticity means
Last Updated: 25/04/20 9:45am
"People look up to me as a role model in hockey and somebody who's very comfortable with who they are - but I'm just doing what I love doing."
Sally Walton is still smitten with her sport. After an international career that brought her over 160 caps and a clutch of medals - including Olympic bronze for Great Britain at London 2012 - her devotion to hockey has continued in both outdoor and indoor formats of the game with club sides Olton & West Warwicks and Bowdon Hightown.
With the latter, the former England defender has been a revelation in attack in recent seasons, frequently finishing as top scorer in the Jaffa Super Sixes Trophy, the UK's premier indoor tournament. Now 38, Walton's talents as a coach have also made her one to watch; since 2016, she has been working at the prestigious Royal Grammar School Worcester and has risen to become their head of hockey coaching.
Authenticity and how that quality positively influences young people is something Walton is well placed to talk about. The inclusive culture which characterises women's hockey in Britain is often referenced as a key factor on the road towards Rio 2016, the pinnacle of success. Walton was a part of that journey. "I've always been an advocate for embracing individual differences," she says. "If you've got 31 girls in a squad, you've got 31 very different ways of driving a gold medal standard."
She mentions her former team-mates Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, the captain and creative force respectively in that victorious Olympic side. "They both talk so well about that gold mentality. What filters through for me is respect. The beauty of team sport is you have to find a blend of people that will live together off the pitch but also bond on it - the right positions and the right personalities."
Like the Richardson-Walshs, Walton has been commended for helping to break down stigma in sport around sexuality. Within women's hockey itself, that has not been an issue but there has been much to learn for other sports and just by being herself as a coach, Walton is able to set a good example for the next generation too.
"The way I see it, as somebody who is out and is comfortable with that, I might be able to help someone who is really struggling. Maybe they are playing 3rd XI hockey, they are in their teens, and they do not quite know where they fit into society. Perhaps they are questioning things about their sexuality. That's the kind of person that I want to be able to go 'yeah actually, that's inspiring me to be a little bit more comfortable about who I am.'"
My sexuality doesn't determine how well I play my sport but the fact that I feel comfortable about it does.
Pride is a positive outcome from Lesbian Visibility Week, feels Walton. In this instance, it's not about "waving a flag" but a simpler recognition of diversity. "There are girls out there who just want more of a quiet reassurance. There needs to be something for everybody," she explains. At RGS Worcester, she has found an environment that enriches its students with that approach. "We are broad and diverse here, and the kids are so accepting and open about all the information they take on board, whether that's to do with LGBT+, religion, or something else on inclusion.
"The school is really hot on supporting Rainbow Laces and all different kinds of things. I've been to a couple of schools coaching and I've been really impressed with how they handle it here."
She is looking forward to a time when attitudes of acceptance are universal; she does not feel that has been attained yet in the UK, and certainly not in many other countries. "At the moment, I understand it needs people like myself to say 'this is who I am', and for any role model to use their platform to show it's alright.
"Ultimately, a good athlete is a happy athlete. If you are in a healthy relationship and your family and friends support you, that tends to have a good impact on performance. My sexuality does not determine how well I play my sport but the fact that I feel comfortable about it does."
Regrets and reassurances
She has been made to feel insecure about her sexuality, in the past. Walton says her own coming out story "wasn't a particularly happy one". Born in Formby and raised in Solihull, she returned to Merseyside to study sports science at Liverpool John Moores University. "I had a boyfriend back home when I went off to uni, but that relationship soon fizzled out. I felt this was my time to experiment and learn more about myself."
Lesbian Visibility Week
Learn more about the awareness week celebrating women in the LGBT+ community, which runs until April 26
She came out within her group of friends but could not find an ideal way to tell her parents, even though they would regularly travel north to watch her play hockey. "I wanted to come out to them but never knew the right time. Then unexpectedly, someone else outed me to my parents and told them I had a girlfriend.
"They were taken aback and disappointed because they felt I was living a lie. It was tough. I got an absolute torrent of emotion.
"They then took the decision to tell everyone in my family - they wanted to tell them before they found out from someone else, like they had done. But actually, the wider family was very accepting."
The initial shock faded away and conversations became easier. "Over time, I sat down and talked about it with my parents. At first, they were like 'well, just don't do it!' - but when I explained it wasn't a choice, they began to realise that and have been nothing but supportive since.
"When we look back, we all wish we'd handled it better. Any parent is going to have concerns for their child and worry that the path isn't going to be smooth. But it's one of my biggest regrets that I didn't tell them myself. That's what made it so bad. There's no way they would have reacted like that if I'd got to mention it first."
Walton is so relieved for young people today who are LGBT+ that those conversations with parents are, in the most part, easier to have. "What's also nice is that one of my cousins came out about eight years ago and said to me that I'd helped pave the way for him a little - soften the blow, you might say. We were joking around but he said he felt much more comfortable knowing his mum had been supportive of me when I came out."
'Emotion affects performance'
She welcomes the storytelling of Lesbian Visibility Week and the effect it might have. "It used to always be the kids who were LGBT+ having to broach the topic. But through awareness weeks like this, parents are a lot more educated and confident about it now, and can step up and say 'is this the case? Am I reading it wrong?' It just takes that little bit of pressure off."
Do coaches feel empowered to have that dialogue as well? "I think it's always important for coaches to understand their players. You're trying to teach them about the sport - the tactical and technical stuff - but also the wider qualities you need as a sportsperson. Teamwork, communication, problem-solving - you're making them into more of a rounded individual through sports.
"Every coach has a responsibility to understand their athletes and the way they deal with pressure, and how emotion affects performance. There's a safeguarding aspect too, in terms of picking up on cues. Is this how they normally behave? Are they being affected by something at home? Having that duty of care to challenge where they feel they need to.
"If somebody comes to you wanting to talk about an issue they're struggling with, it's important that you've created an environment where they feel comfortable to share that."
Walton says she was always "the joker" around the camp in her international days and that was how she developed her own self-confidence. "You could ask me a question and get a very honest answer. I was very open because it was so accepting. That meant you could have that little bit of banter, but it was respectful."
Laughing off stereotypes about lesbians comes naturally. The rise of women's sport and social media means there is more opportunity for athletes to be known beyond the pitch. "I think the media has done a fantastic job. The tone has changed. They're more conscious and it has helped to open people's minds."
She returns to the idea of what it means to be a role model. "They're all around us now, which is the most important thing. The people you've really got to take your hat off to are those from the last 20 or 30 years. What they achieved has meant today can be like this."
Lesbian Visibility Week continues until Sunday.