From burnout to balance - prioritising wellbeing as an elite athlete

9 August 2021

Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship alumna and former Black Stick Brook Neal runs her own successful business as a mindset and wellbeing coach.

Brooke Neal is on a mission to help young sportswomen take control of anxiety, perfectionism and burnout so they can perform at high levels for longer, and enjoy it.

The former Black Stick is an in-demand speaker and workshop facilitator, specialising in wellbeing and mindset strategies which helps participants overcome adversity. Her work is often geared towards young women, particularly high-performing sportswomen, to help them prioritise wellbeing and self-care – the types of things Brooke wishes someone had taught her when she was at school.

As a former New Zealand representative hockey player, Brooke knows all too well the stress and anxiety that comes with performing at the top of your game. She played 176 games for the Black Sticks over nine years, came fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics and won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia.

Hockey was, and is, Brooke’s passion. Brooke played competitively throughout her high school years, while excelling academically and taking on the position of Head Girl in her final year at Whangarei Girls’ High School.

In 2011 she received a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship to study at the University of Waikato, embarking on a Bachelor of Communication, majoring in Public Relations and Management Communication. The Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship programme is the University’s most prestigious student scholarship and supports students to grow and achieve in their sport or creative of performing art, academic achievement and leadership.

Brooke’s hockey career continued to ascend during her time at University. In 2012 she travelled to India to compete with the Junior Black Sticks, and in 2013 was selected for the Black Sticks development squad, before being promoted to the team later in the year.

Brooke says life was full on as an elite athlete. During her studies she would drive to Auckland from Hamilton three times a week for training, and after graduating in 2013 and moving to Auckland, would cram in part-time work at a marketing agency with a demanding training schedule, while travelling over 180 days of the year to compete.

Adding to the physical stress of training and competing, was a feeling of “never enough-ness” due to the pressure she would place on herself to achieve at the highest level.

Brooke says she isn’t alone in experiencing this and believes the constant striving for perfection is a silent epidemic among young high performers, particularly girls.

“High-achieving young women are getting overlooked by counsellors, teachers and coaches because on paper, they’re the A+ students and successful athletes, so they must be doing well. In reality, they’re dealing with a huge amount of unspoken issues that if left unaddressed, will eventually reveal themselves in big ways.”

Brooke knows, because it happened to her. After years of pushing herself mentally and physically to the extreme, she came to a breaking point and knew things had to change.

“I had this mindset that if I kept pushing through, things would eventually change. But what I didn’t realise was that all of the training, trying to work part-time, plus this internalised fear I had that I wasn’t good enough, was getting on top of me, until one day I just knew I couldn’t go on like this.”

After the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Brooke made the tough decision to retire from international hockey and step full-time into her business, All About Balance, which she started in 2016.

Drawing on her own experiences of burnout, and subsequently bouncing back, Brooke has developed a hugely successful career as a mindset and wellbeing coach. Brooke speaks regularly to corporate and school audiences about resilience and overcoming adversity, and is particularly passionate about helping young sportswomen and high performers regain a sense of balance and wellness through a range of different tools that have worked for her.

“Thinking about what I’ve seen growing up as a competitive sports player, I noticed there was a gap between those who ‘know’ objectively what burnout is, and those who have the lived experience and can draw from it to help others,” says Brooke, whose own stories of burnout and stress are a relatable feature of her seminars and speaking events.

“I’m trying to be the person I needed when I was growing up, that person who tells you it’s OK to slow down, that you are enough just as you are.

“It all starts with the mind – you train your body to be strong, why wouldn’t you train your mind too?”

And it seems to be working. Brooke has worked with hundreds of high school students around the country and presented at several corporate conferences, including Craigs Investment Partners, who also fund her to speak at low-decile schools. She also runs a successful eight-week online course, Finding Her Balance, and is a certified yoga teacher. More recently she returned to the University of Waikato to share her wisdom with current Sir Edmund Hillary Scholars at an event.

Find out more about Brooke and her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

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