EVERY child that plays sport growing up, dreams of one day playing for their country in their chosen field.
Hockeyroo Kalindi Commerford, from Mollymook, was no different.
But Commerford, who was this year named in the Canberra Strikers greatest ever team, will be the first to admit playing at the highest level isn’t always all it’s made out to be.
Especially when the injury bug strikes – which the former Ulladulla High School student has dealt with numerous times over the past few years.
“Some of them [injuries] were easier to deal with than others,” Commerford said.
“The worst of my injuries was rupturing my ACL at the end of 2015 – initially when I found out I had done it, I was distraught, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to physically being sick while crying.
“There’s a bit of a misconception with injuries, people often think it gives you ‘time off’, but in reality, you work harder than non-injured athletes because you are working to come back fitter and stronger than before.
“The exercises are quite tedious and highly repetitive so you can go a little insane counting reps and sets.
“On top of this, you are working long hard hours for what seems like little reward, as you’re still limited.
“All this combined with the fact that you are in many ways isolated from the group.
“You’re doing a different program, during different hours – it can be a really lonely experience.
“Tied into all of this is the loss of a bit of identity.
“My body is my tool and when it’s broken I feel broken and a little depleted – I pride myself on my ability and when that’s compromised it can be really crushing.
“I would say that I grew obsessed with my body and training during ACL rehab.
“Not always positively and I still have times when I don’t get the balance right – used in the right way it can be really helpful, but other times I can be hypercritical.
“The hardest part of any injury is the mental state of the athlete.
“If you can’t find ways to grind through the mundane yet gruelling exercises prescribed, then quite simply you won’t.
“My greatest learnings about myself and my body is always during rehab.”
With all that being said, Commerford believes her ACL injury – which has been followed by injuries to her meniscus, ankle and hamstring – acted as the catalyst for getting her to where she is today.
“Ironically if I hadn’t sustained my ACL injury, I truly believe I wouldn’t have made the Hockeyroos,” she said.
Ironically if I hadn’t sustained my ACL injury, I truly believe I wouldn’t have made the Hockeyroos. It taught me how to push myself and took me to the next level in fitness, gym and hockey.Hockeyroo Kalindi Commerford
“It taught me how to push myself and took me to the next level in fitness, gym and hockey.
“Most of my significant injuries were sustained after my ACL, so comparatively I know if I can get through ACL rehab, then I can get through other shorter types.
“If I did my ACL again, I think I would consider stepping away – that’s how hard the rehab is.”
Speaking of stepping away, four of Commerford’s Hockeyroo teammates Georgia Nanscawen, Madi Ratcliffe, Gabi Nance and Kathryn Slattery, have prematurely stepped away from the Australian set-up in the past 18 months.
“Elite sport, whatever your game or event, is mentally challenging,” Commerford said.
“You play sport because you love it, however when you do it almost every day, with huge pressure placed on you, then it’s inevitable that you will have bad days.
“Sadly, when you have more bad than good days, then this takes away from the enjoyment and can be unbearable.
“I can only speak with respect to hockey and my lived experiences, but I think it’s challenging being in a team sport because it’s so unpredictable.
“You can do everything right to get selected but the decision is never solely in your hands.
“The hockey program is also centralised in Perth, so most people don’t have an immediate support network outside of teammates in Perth, which complex because in many respects they are also your direct competitors.
“I’ve also found it really hard to find work and social networks outside of hockey due to my training and frequent travelling.
“When you don’t have a good balance, it’s hard to switch off and I find, at times, I am always thinking about the stresses of selection or my performance, constantly reviewing.”
While Commerford appreciates at the end of the day, it’s the individual’s decision to step away from the sport, it always has an effect on the whole team.
“I think it’s alarming to see girls who are young and definitely still able to play international hockey step away,” she said.
“Being new to the role of an elite athlete [after debuting in November 2016], I guess I hoped that I wasn’t looking into a crystal ball.
“Everyone in the team is always really supportive of the person’s decision because we can all resonate with the same struggles and emotions.”
As she alludes to, most of the girls in her team go through the same experiences – both good and bad.
“One of the hardest things [about playing for Australia] is moving across the country away from your family and friends into an environment where most of your network are hockey friends,” she said.
“In a way, you lose the direct ability to switch off and escape from the pressures that come with sport.
“Personally, I live with two of my best friends and teammates, who also happen to be sisters.
“The chat will often circle back to hockey and selection day is that little bit more emotional because someone may miss out.
“So you need to support that person whether the news is good or bad.
“It’s also hard to work as an athlete because our training and travel schedule is so heavy and often unpredictable.
“We aren’t ideal for employers, who rely on having people in the office regularly.
“I’ve found people who are happy to hire as a favour will, but people who genuinely need an employee won’t.
“More so in jobs related to people’s studies.
“But we also need to work because we aren’t ‘low-key ballers’, when the funding is split 27 ways then it is quite scarce.”
As such, Commerford has developed her own coping mechanisms to deal with the stresses of playing international sport.
“Somedays I will have a ‘no hockey chat’ post training policy, which my housemates are always happy to do,” she said.
“Other times I do solo activities, like a walk with my headphones on or drawing.
“I’ve also found a simple 10-minute meditation can really clear the mind.
“And when team selections are being announced, I like to be in my own space, so I can react to the news however I need to.
“I’m still learning though – there are times where I simply don’t cope for days and it all weighs quite heavy on me.
“In these times, I might reach out to friends or family or try to implement little strategies such as those listed above to work my way out of the angst.
“I don’t think I’m alone in this though, this is elite sport – if it was easy than everyone would do it.”
Commerford, who trains with the Australian team, which also includes Gerringong’s Grace Stewart, for up to three hours, six times a week – which doesn’t even factor in physio and other appointments – admits her hectic schedule does weigh on her at times.
With this being the case, the team has a psychologist who works with them on ‘team related issues’ and ‘individual qualms’.
On top of that, the Australian Institute of Sport recently introduced an athlete well being and engagement framework, aimed to support athletes with careers and offer counselling where needed.
“This program is relatively new but it seems the focus is on a well rounded holistically healthy athlete, which I think it very positive,” Commerford said.
“Because, in my opinion, if an athlete is to be successful, they need to be just as mentally strong as they are physically.
“Both are equally as important – it’s just we understand the physical more than the mental, so the mental needs more attention.
“In any area of health, the best measure is always prevention.
“We need to continue to work to remove the stigma and taboo of mental health to understand it and work on early detection, both individually and as a society.
We need to continue to work to remove the stigma and taboo of mental health to understand it and work on early detection, both individually and as a society.Hockeyroo Kalindi Commerford
“A team is made up of hockey players and a hockey player is a person – if the person is struggling, everything else will too.
“On a larger scale, the physically difference between the top teams in the world is minor.
“The edge definitely comes from having a certain mindset – you can win or lose a game before you step on the field.”
Commerford hopes by opening up and explaining what athletes battle on a day to day basis, that structures will be put in place for future stars to better excel in the respective environments.
“I’m not sure what the answer is going forward or what the saving grace will be, but I would hope that we can look at patterns of why people are leaving their sports early and look at how to detect this early on to prevent it escalating or pick up on it in other people,” she said.
“My guess is we have a solid structure around developing the athlete.
“But in this generation, I think we need ancillary structures to support that person in other areas.
“Currently, I think sport can temporarily stunt development in other areas of life people may be interested in.
“This is a problem because it makes up the identity of who that person is, and without the ability to explore it then it’s easy to feel one dimensional.”
With all this being the case, Commerford is excited to take a slightly different approach into her busy 2019 season.
“Mental injuries are just as debilitating as physical ones,” she said.
“I’ve spent so many hours of my life treating and preventing physical injuries, and only a slither of time on my mental health.
“This year I’m going to spend more time learning about my entire body, including my mind to prevent and treat whatever may come my way.”
If you’d like to talk to anyone about the issues raised in this article call Lifeline on 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or MensLine 1300 789 978.