‘Part of me died’: Hockeyroo reveals brutal treatment
Lily Brazel dedicated 18 years of her life to playing Hockey with the ultimate dream of representing Australia at the Olympic Games.
Until recently, she was on track.
She is now taking legal action against the national federation, claiming she was kicked off the high-performance program because she asked for time off to deal with her mental health concerns and senior staff didn't believe her cry for help was real.
Brazel claims she was told by Hockey Australia staff that her request was rejected because she was mistaking legitimate mental health issues with unhappiness - even though she was never examined by a team psychologist while a national coach, who was granted leave on mental health grounds, allegedly told her the difference between their cases was: "I actually have a problem."
Brazel said she received a letter from Hockey Australia three days later, saying: "Thank you for outlining your intention to leave the program".
Since going public with what happened, Brazil has written the below column, detailing the cruel treatment she endured and heartbreak in realising her childhood dream was over.
She has given us permission to run her column in full.
"There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in." - Desmond Tutu
This story is my swim upstream to find out why I fell in the river & why so many female hockey players before me have too.
LILY BRAZEL - IN HER WORDS
I started writing a version of this piece a while ago when I was trying to heal and grieve the loss of hockey in my life.
All the tiny and huge moments of how I got here kept playing on an endless, incoherent loop in my mind and I knew I needed to put pen to paper to make sense of it all.
So one morning after I meditated whilst deep in the bushland of Yallingup on a solo escape from the world, I reached for a piece of paper and wrote 'hockey' in the middle of the page. Around the word I wrote all the moments that had led me to closing the chapter of hockey.
About a month before I found myself in Yallingup healing the mental, emotional and spiritual wounds of hockey, I had my contract with the Hockeyroos terminated.
I had requested leave from the training program for six weeks to focus on my mental health and wellbeing which had been severely impacted by the Hockey Australia environment.
The mental exhaustion and torment that I had been experiencing extended well before the rise of coronavirus and the postponement of the Olympic Games.
It had been eating away at me since I stepped foot inside the program.
Yet my request was not deemed reasonable, I was told I didn't have a real problem and I was forced to choose between my health and my spot in the team. I chose the former.
That choice threw me into the river, or maybe I was pushed.
I had no life raft, no swimming lessons to help and no way back to shore.
In the depths of the river, where female hockey players find themselves after wrongful termination or being bullied out of the program by staff, I decided I wouldn't let myself flow out to sea.
I was going to swim my way upstream and work out why the hell we all kept falling into the river.
"When I started looking upstream, I learned that where there is great suffering, there is often great profit. Now when I encounter someone who is struggling to stay afloat, I know to ask, "How can I help you right now?" Then, when she is safe and dry, to ask, "What institution or person is benefiting from your suffering?" - Glennon Doyle.
Who was benefiting from me being in this river?
Who had been consciously or subconsciously involved in walking me to the river bank?
Why does this keep happening to women in our team?
I was in the river and I wanted answers, so I swam upstream.
Along the way those moments that I wrote on that piece of paper in Yallingup began to reveal their truth.
I started to see what was happening upstream and it shook me deep.
'PAINFUL, DEEP CRYING OVER A GLASS OF RUM'
It's October 2019, we're about to play our do-or-die Olympic Qualifying game against Russia in a two-game series.
A month earlier we lost our first chance at qualification against New Zealand at the Oceania Cup, a disastrous three-game series.
The day before a game we have our pre-game 'check-in' where we sit in a circle and each take turns saying how we are feeling about the upcoming match.
A few use it as an opportunity to actually share how they are feeling, some share what they will be focusing on technically or tactically but most continually miss the opportunity to be honest and instead remain insular.
The check-in before the first game of the Russian series, the biggest game of the last four years, is no different.
I don't know why I thought it would be.
I was nervous as hell and I knew everyone else was too.
We had so much pressure on us because it seemed like such a winnable series - people weren't even sure if Russia played hockey.
But in that circle as I watched my teammates struggle to be honest about what they truly felt and thought, I became so frustrated at people's inability to be real.
I knew we didn't have this 'team' thing down pat.
I knew it was moments like these that were our barrier to success.
But it's not entirely my teammates' fault.
It's a combination of different levels of emotional intelligence mixed with the fear that being truthful will result in being pulled from the match or less minutes on the field.
Even without the staff in the room in these meetings, people are afraid to be true.
They're afraid they'll fall in the river.
When the series ends and we've secured our spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I'm asked in a TV interview how I will be celebrating.
In a very honest response, I say I will probably be crying.
I know myself well and later that night after celebrations in our change-room, I go home and cry to my partner.
Painful, deep crying over a glass of rum.
I'm relieved we were on the path to Tokyo and all the emotional build up to that series is releasing.
But in my search upstream, I realise I was hurting because I had 10 more months in an environment that was bringing me to my knees.
It's November 2019, I connect with a psychologist through the AIS Mental Health Referral Network. I, like many other teammates, do not see the Hockey Australia psychologist due to a lack of trust and respect in his approach - an issue that has been ignored time and time again by management.
HOCKEY AUSTRALIA CRISIS
After many episodes similar to the night of our qualification game of deep tears overtaking me, I know I need to speak with someone to get support.
I tell this new psychologist in our first meeting, or maybe our second, that I just want to fall asleep and not wake up until August next year when the Olympics are over.
I try to make sense of why I feel like this.
I try to find words to explain how the environment makes me feel or provide examples.
But it can be so hard to understand the truth of it when you're consumed by a culture that grooms you to ignore it. Those subtle daily events that remind you are disposable, you must be quiet and that you don't matter unless you perform on the pitch.
But now that I'm removed and swimming upstream, truth is revealing itself.
In pondering why I just wanted to sleep and why I felt so undervalued and disposable I recalled an event.
From about late 2018 to mid 2019 I was the starting centre midfield for the team.
Every game without fail until our Pro-League game against Great Britain in June 2019.
I wasn't named on the starting line up for that game or any game after to this very day. During all the games and months that followed I kept wondering why I was no longer starting.
The staff had said it was because new personnel were back in the team and they were trying different things but I had a sense it wasn't quite true.
I was performing, I was training well, I was contributing strongly to our team but that no longer seemed to count for anything.
I was playing less and less minutes and I felt like I just didn't matter to the staff anymore. Only now that I've stepped back and analysed have I realised what the true reason may have been.
CONFRONTING THE BOSS
See, the game before Great Britain was against China.
The girls had decided that during our pre-game check-in we needed to bring something up with the head coach - his crazy emotions and actions during the pre-game training session.
He would always freak out in the last session before game day; throw things, kick things, yell nonsense and question whether we were even good at hockey.
His uncontainable stress fell on us and it was too much to keep carrying.
So in this meeting I decided to speak up on behalf of the team and tell him and our assistant coach how their actions were negatively affecting us.
I can't remember everything I said but I gave them a good and respectful roast.
After the meeting the girls were proud of everything I said and thankful that I spoke up because it proved to have worked for the rest of the year.
But after that meeting, I was never on the starting line up again … still to this day.
Perhaps a subtle punishment for speaking out. A step closer to the river.
It's December 2019, the weather in Perth, Western Australia is the quintessential summer day. There's a nice ocean breeze in Fremantle as I go for a quick swim with my partner before he drops me at the boat ramp to head to Rottnest Island for our pre-season camp.
With a bit of time to spare, and because I don't want to be the first one there, we grab a quick breakfast near the dock.
The tears come back.
I sit in a cafe deeply crying again with my sunglasses on as my partner holds my hands between cups of coffee and plates of smashed avo.
I hold his hand tight as the words I'm too scared to say spill into the air.
"I don't know if I can do this for another eight months."
WORDS AND THE DAMAGE THEY DO
The 'this' is so hard to put into words at times.
What is it in the program that drags us down to the river bank and pushes us in?
Sometimes it's obvious but most of the time it's subtle.
It's being told by the head coach that it's not his job to motivate you or give you confidence. It's voicing your opinion on a game plan and being told they know better.
It's being forced into a room to bitch about your teammates.
It's staff rewarding and ignoring poor behaviour.
It's a high-performance director inferring that girls complain and men have good suggestions. It's the whole team asking for a new psychologist and being told we don't know what we need.
It's seeing the coach ignore teammates before he drops them.
It's never getting transparent feedback on your performance.
It's being told 'if you don't like it, you can leave'.
It's being put on a pedestal when you play well and ignored when you play bad.
It's sneaky comments from staff about other players to see what you'll say.
It's players who follow the staff's lead.
It's subtle as f*** but it seeps into everything we do.
And when I look across at my male counterparts, the Kookaburras, I see the opposite.
I see voices being heard and opinions being acknowledged and applied.
I see collaboration between players and staff.
I see balance between hockey and life.
I see training times that allow for careers away from the field.
I see staff suited to the players needs.
I see a group of men who love what they do and respect everyone around them.
When I see them I always wonder why we can't be more like them?
PANDEMIC HITS, EVERYTHING CHANGES
It's March 2020, we lose both games to Argentina in a home leg of the Pro League in Perth. After the second game we gather in our change-room to be informed by our medical team that our Pro League leg to Europe is cancelled due to the health risks of coronavirus.
I'm mostly relieved.
The 2019 inaugural Pro League was not what it was cracked up to be at the start.
A home-and-away series across the globe.
Travelling to one country to play one game. Fly-in-fly-out.
Catch a respiratory infection on a plane.
A 66-hour return trip from the USA after delays and route changes.
A few days off across the six months.
Over 196 hours on planes. Roughly 112 nights in hotels. It sucked.
So I'm pretty relieved when we find out that we won't be travelling to Europe for a couple of games.
Over the next few weeks the world begins exploding.
The news is constantly monitored and toilet paper is flying off the shelves.
Everyone in the world can sense it.
There is heaviness in the air, a fear seeping into our lungs through every breath. 'What is about to happen' is on everyone's mind.
It's March 23, 2020, we're called for a meeting first thing in the morning before our usual gym session.
Inside the gym we stand in a circle full of every player and staff member.
All ears tune into the head coach.
The Olympics have been postponed indefinitely and our high-performance program is being shut down effective immediately.
BROKEN, YET RELIEVED
A low vibration seeps into all of us.
Our regimented, task-focused way of life was both paused and exploding at the same time. The dream I'd be chasing since age seven was nowhere in sight.
I'm broken, yet relieved. Why was I relieved? Was this my way out?
Over the course of the next few months of social distancing, bread making, our pay getting cut by 73 per cent and the staff only by 20 per cent or so, face masks and all other 2020 things, I'm lost.
I have no motivation to train at home. I feel empty most days.
And when there's talk of the Olympics happening in July 2021 the feeling of just wanting to sleep until it's over returns.
It's May 2020, and I notice a pattern creeping in again.
CRISIS AT HOCKEY AUSTRALIA
It's not strictly linked to my hormones but every three weeks I have a surge of harrowing cries.
It's a Monday night and the surge has found its way back into my body.
The weekend just gone leaves a lingering sadness that I can't shake.
As I sit in bed with my partner I stare at the wall and say "I just feel so sad."
I lean into his chest and I cry a cry that seems to have been buried inside for a lifetime.
The tears are painful.
I can feel them deep from inside the pit of my stomach.
My partner sits with me, makes me tea and he eventually says "maybe this is little seven-year-old Lily dying".
Tears flood as his sentence ends as I know some part of me is dead.
THE DAY MY PAIN WAS SILENCED
During May I have some run-ins with the staff as I begin to open up about how I feel.
In an online meeting with a few staff members to discuss my return to formalised training I open up about my struggles and how empty I feel.
They tell me if people aren't committed they probably won't get a spot in the team next year. I sat there stunned and hurt as their subtle threats poured out of their mouths.
My pain was silenced and it was clear I had to just get on with the job.
I feel so close to the river.
It's June 2020, I find out I have a fascial tear in my Achilles and I won't be training for a while.
It's nothing major but the news hits me hard, as club hockey is on the horizon offering me a little glimpse of happiness but I won't be ready until round 9 in a 14 round season.
It's July 2020, I'm in the gym when my head coach asks me how I am. I say with honesty 'yeah, not great actually.'
Our head coach, and the other staff members that hear my response, all seem unsure how to respond and no one speaks to me.
The silencing of my pain hits me hard.
But I suck up the silence and lift heavy weights because that will obviously help.
I can feel the river lapping over my toes.
It's August 2020, and I'm knee deep in the river trying to hold onto the root of a tree along the shoreline but the current is strong.
I'm back into full training and ready to play club hockey on the weekend but in a meeting with the staff I'm told I can't play and they want a few more weeks of training out of me.
The river is pulling me and I can feel someone chopping away at the root I'm hanging on to. My mental health is on the edge.
For the last few months every time my alarm sounds in the morning for training anxiety fills my body but I tell myself to suck it up and just go get paid to train.
My mind is aching to play hockey with my club team so I can find some light in all this darkness.
I knew the staff wouldn't let me play because they don't value club hockey.
I tell them again how I've been feeling and that I just need to play to try to feel something again.
It falls on deaf ears and a stubborn wall of protocol.
I understand their safety measures but I can't understand how much more I need to show them and tell them I'm struggling before they truly listen.
So I organise a follow up meeting and my partner joins me for what I know will be an emotional conversation.
I tell the staff, again, the place I'm in mentally.
I tell them everything I've told my psychologist.
It's nothing terribly dark and unsafe, but it's a headspace I don't want to live in.
I request six weeks off from the national training program and state that during the break I will play and train with my club team.
I say that I'm not wanting to leave the program, that I want to be the best athlete I can be for the team but in the headspace I'm in right now, that's not possible and I want to get in the right headspace so I can be the athlete I know I can be.
As I speak all I see is empty eyes and all I hear is immovable minds.
The root is being cut and someone on the river bank has a shovel smashing down on my hands so I have no choice but to let go.
They tell me if that's what I want to do then my contract will not be renewed after August. My partner and I try to explain to them how unfair and unethical their reaction is and try to get them to meet me halfway and work with me on this.
They don't budge.
They say to me that there is a difference between being unhappy and a real mental health issue.
They tell me I don't have a problem.
They say all of this without diagnosing me or making any contact with my external psychologist.
IT ALL COMES TO AN END
A few days later I received an email from all the staff members and our high performance director.
The first line reads 'Thank you for outlining your intention to leave the program.'
I'm flowing down the river. Hitting rocks that bruise my already bruised body and mind. There is no way back to shore and I'm terrified.
But something stops me from flowing out to sea - the truth that I've always held inside me - that women's voices should not be silenced.
I knew being in the river was not fair.
I knew there was an institution upstream benefiting from me being in the river.
I knew I didn't deserve to be in the river.
I knew all the women before me didn't deserve to be in the river either.
I knew I had a voice and I knew it was time to use it.
So I swam and I swam upstream. And this is what I found:
An institution that views its athletes as disposable.
An institution that does not value or respect its female athletes.
An institution that is sexist as its underlying belief, that influences all its decisions, is that women's voices and lives don't matter as much as men.
An institution that fears bold female leaders.
An institution that prioritises performance and profits over people.
An institution built in the 20th century that is not adept to 21st century leadership.
An institution where women in leadership have to mould themselves to the dictatorial male approach.
An institution that is failing.
I have pulled myself out of the river so that my voice is not silenced like they hoped it would be. I pulled myself out of the river so I could dismantle what is happening upstream.
Originally published as 'Part of me died': Hockeyroo reveals brutal treatment