Performance


Gemma McCaw on finding balance and being her “best”.

3 September 2021

You’d think wellbeing would be second nature to an elite athlete. But to New Zealand Olympian Gemma McCaw, wellness was a learning process with implications beyond the sports field. The hockey legend reflects on her personal health and wellness journey and how it inspired her to help others.

Performance


Gemma McCaw on finding balance and being her “best”.

3 September 2021

You’d think wellbeing would be second nature to an elite athlete. But to New Zealand Olympian Gemma McCaw, wellness was a learning process with implications beyond the sports field. The hockey legend reflects on her personal health and wellness journey and how it inspired her to help others.

Gemma McCaw in front of a Mercedes-Benz vehicle.

Since wrapping up her professional hockey career, Gemma has had more time to focus on her health and wellness coaching business Performance Wellbeing. Image: Nancy Zhou.

Like so many others at that age, wellbeing was not really a priority for 18-year-old Gemma McCaw. Then Gemma Flynn, the Tauranga-born athlete had just pulled on the Black Sticks jersey to represent New Zealand at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But while she may have been operating at a physical level most of us could only dream of attaining, she acknowledges that it was through the lens of performance rather than of overall “wellness”.

“At that stage I was going out there and enjoying what I was doing, and I knew things like sleep and nutrition were important, but I guess when you're 18 years old, you're not prioritising it as such,” Gemma says. But then as she got older, “and maybe a bit wiser” she started to make connections between her wellbeing and her ability to perform and improve on the field, and off.

Gemma McCaw playing hockey for the Black Sticks

Throughout her illustrious hockey career, Gemma’s personal wellness story developed into something more nuanced than physical fitness. Image: Getty Images.

More than physical fitness

Over the course of an illustrious hockey career that would see her compete in two Commonwealth Games and three Olympics (with her fourth appearance in Tokyo only frustrated by the Game’s delay), Gemma’s personal wellness story developed into something more nuanced than physical fitness.

While playing professionally, Gemma earned an undergraduate degree in sport and exercise science and post-graduate diploma in positive psychology and learned to see her own development as something of a wellbeing experiment, the results of which had wider applications.

“I started to become really passionate about this kind of wellbeing and allowing people to effectively be at their best – not just on the sports field, but in life as well.”

Finding ways to be better

Having now hung up her hockey stick, Gemma shares her health and wellness expertise through Performance Wellbeing. Gemma co-founded this performance consultancy – which counts the likes of the NZ Army and New Zealand Rugby on its client list – with clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Anticich and mental skills coach John Quinn.

But the support her team offers, she says, doesn’t just apply to high-performance professionals and athletes. Gemma is all about helping individuals find ways to be better in their everyday lives. “I think we talk about wellbeing and wellness and it can be really hard to define,” she says. “I just ask myself, ‘How do I be at my best?’” she says.

Gemma breaks her response into six pillars – eat, sleep, move, think, feel, and connect – which together represent the core foundations of wellbeing. Eat, sleep and move address the physical, while the mental skills of think, feel and connect include mindfulness and fostering supportive relationships.

Gemma McCaw driving a Mercedes-Benz vehicle.

Gemma breaks wellness and wellbeing into six pillars – eat, sleep, move, think, feel, and connect. Image: Nancy Zhou.

“What we know is that they're all important in order to flourish,” she says. Addressing these separate but interconnected pillars, she explains, often involves making small changes that can lead to greater outcomes. Something as simple as going for a walk (move), or reaching out to a friend (connect), she says, are acts of self-care that help improve your overall wellness. “It’s about knowing what you need in that moment,” she says. As with so much in life, balance is the key.

No one-size-fits-all

Balance, of course, is not always an easy thing to find, as Gemma knows only too well as a businesswoman, ambassador for women’s sport in New Zealand and mum to two young girls. (On the day we talk, Gemma’s husband, former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, is away on a business trip and she must briefly excuse herself to deal with an unfolding crisis involving a water bottle and a Wiggles t-shirt).

Gemma McCaw in Christchurch

Something as simple as going for a walk (move), or reaching out to a friend (connect), she says, are acts of self-care that help improve your overall wellness. Image: Nancy Zhou.

Women especially, she says, are pulled in so many different directions every day and tend to focus on their weaknesses rather than their wins. It’s important to realise that wellness is not a once-size-fits-all concept, she says, and the individual needs to find the balance that works best for them.

In a world where ‘self-care’ and ‘wellness’ have become buzzwords and anyone with a social media account is ready to offer pearls of wisdom, Gemma’s approach is refreshingly simple. “It's accepting that you're not going to nail it every day,” she says. “I would just say understand what you need to be at your best… how can you turn up as the best version of yourself more often,” she says.

By Krysia Bonkowski