An Olympic hopeful's lessons on pandemic adaptability

 Jo Hunter, left, works a flexible schedule for GlaxoSmithKline that enables her to compete internationally. This photo is from the 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze-medal match against India.
Jo Hunter, left, works a flexible schedule for GlaxoSmithKline that enables her to compete internationally. This photo is from the 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze-medal match against India.

COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of adaptability for Jo Hunter, ACMA, CGMA. She has been living that lesson for much of 2020. Hunter works part time in a finance role with GlaxoSmithKline. She also plays forward for Great Britain’s national team in field hockey. Team GB is the reigning Olympic champion from 2016, but its quest to win a second consecutive gold medal was put on hold last spring when the Olympics in Tokyo were postponed to 2021. Hunter discusses modified strength training at home, how accountant training has helped her look at tasks objectively, and how life in the pandemic has given her an understanding of “being present” that she previously lacked.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Hunter’s typical schedule of work at GlaxoSmithKline and training for Great Britain’s national team in field hockey.
  • Why Hunter called training in the early part of 2020 “a pressure cooker”.
  • How Hunter dealt with the announcement that the Olympics were postponed to 2021.
  • Why COVID-19 restrictions gave her the chance to do more of the fitness activities she fancies.
  • The lesson Hunter learned about presence when the pandemic forced a change in routines.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Neil Amato: A repeat guest on the FM podcast, Jo Hunter, welcome back.

Jo Hunter: Hello, thanks very much. Good to be back.

Amato: It’s good to talk to you. Good to see you. We’re recording on Zoom. We’ll just have the audio published. We’re recording on 2 October. Jo, in the past, you worked a partial, flexible schedule with GlaxoSmithKline that allowed you, as a finance professional but also an athlete, to set aside hours for hockey training. Is that still the case? How is that arrangement working these days?

Hunter: Yes, it’s still the case. So, I’ve been at GSK, now, for six years, which seems to have flown by, and I’ve competed with the [Great Britain] hockey team the past three years, well, four years, actually, now. And, yeah, so I’ve still got a part-time arrangement with GSK. So I train full time with the GB hockey squad, and I work part time with GSK, about two days a week across the year, so it sort of ebbs and flows. If I’m in a tournament, for example, I work fewer hours, but then we have a bit of downtime after a tournament, so I’ll pick up some hours after the tournament. So, yeah, I’m working about two days, on the whole, part time.

Amato: So, we’ll get to how much team training and such you’re doing, but first, we’ll address how things have changed for you just in the last six months. Obviously, life in lockdown has changed us all; maybe we’re not in full lockdown, but still, we’re in the middle of the pandemic. How has it changed your approach to life, to things?

Hunter: Yeah, hugely. So, as I’m sure quite a lot of people will be aware, we were meant to be having the Olympic Games this summer; it was meant to happen in July. So, for me, the past three, four years of training has been gearing up towards the Olympics. Obviously, the pandemic hit, and the Olympic Games has now been postponed to 2021. So, that had a huge, huge impact on my training, first and foremost. As you can imagine, we gear up to be at our peak for the Olympic Games; those two weeks pretty much is what we do four years’ worth of training for, it feels like. So, we were definitely cranking up the training, and then, as soon as the pandemic hit, it was sort of, “Whoa, foot off the gas. They’re not happening this year, so we need to sort of rethink how we’re going to do our training.”

And then, secondly, like a lot of people across the world, it had a huge impact on how I was doing my job with GSK. So, we’re working from home; we’ve been working from home since March of this year. And been learning how to live with that, really, I suppose, and make sure you still get your work done efficiently, make sure I still have good interaction with my team, and make sure I’m still providing the support that I need to for GSK, but whilst working from home.

Amato: Before COVID-19, when you were working for GSK, were you traditionally going into the office?

Hunter: Yeah, I had a mixed approach, actually. Generally, I would go into the office on a Wednesday; that would be my one day where I wouldn’t be training at all, so I could completely dedicate that Wednesday to a full-time day of work, which was great. But then, outside of that — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday — I would log on from home, and I would often have meetings virtually, like we’re doing now, and I do a lot of home work in that way. GSK, as a company, have been very flexible and understanding with home working anyway. This pandemic is obviously taking it to a new level, but I’d always had the mixture of being in the office and working from home.

Amato: So you mentioned the Olympics getting moved to 2021 and how you’re training for that peak couple of weeks. How hard is that, mentally, when you had to have, you know, the words “Tokyo” and “2020” just ingrained in your mind, in your life schedule, for so long, and then it gets moved?

Hunter: Yeah, that’s it. And as I said, we pretty much train for three, four years, gearing up towards the Olympic Games. In hockey, and a lot of other sports, it is the absolute pinnacle, so to represent your country and the hopes of winning a gold medal in the Olympics is what we work for. And just before the pandemic hit, we were really cranking up the pressure; it was like a pressure cooker, really. So, whilst GB as a hockey team had qualified for the Olympics, they hadn’t actually selected the team who would represent there. So, for me, I was still training hard to put myself into a position where I would be selected anyway.

So, there were obviously a lot of emotions going on there, a lot of pressure every time I stepped on the training pitch, things like that. And then, all of a sudden when the pandemic hit, for that to be postponed, it sort of just completely relieved that pressure in a weird way. So, it was nice to have that sort of relief, but at the same time you kind of think, “Oh, my gosh, it’s not happening anymore.” It almost felt like it wasn’t happening. Obviously, it’s only getting postponed by a year, but, yeah, for me, that was — it was a really tricky one to digest, I suppose. As I said, it was nice to have that relief and the pressure kind of evaporating, but at the same time, you kind of think, “It’s not happening.”

It’s a really tricky thing to put into words about how exactly you feel, but it’s like with everybody in this situation, you just deal with the cards you’re dealt. No one could’ve predicted this. Obviously, at the start of the year, it was getting more serious, more in the press, COVID, things like that. So, for me, in the back of my mind, I always had that I thought the Olympics would be postponed. The International Olympic Committee took a little bit of time to announce that, so, that — the period between sort of COVID really hitting and the International Olympic Committee postponing the Games — that was a real period of uncertainty, which was tough to deal with. Because I, as well as many other athletes, were a bit unsure.

You want to keep training hard in case it’s going to happen, but in the back of your mind, you thought, “There’s no way this can happen this year. It’s just not the right thing to be doing.” So, that period of uncertainty was probably the most challenging period, actually.

Amato: You mentioned the fact that your team had qualified for the Olympics, but the team roster was not fully set, and so there was that time of uncertainty just for you. Can that teach you lessons, having gone through that where you had to, like, “Work hard, work hard, work hard. Oh. Still keep working hard,” you know what I mean?

Hunter: Yeah, yeah, and to be honest, my career has been plagued with that. Every single tournament that we play, there is a selection. We have a large squad, but only 18 go to tournament. And actually, the Olympics, only 16 go, so even fewer spots up for grabs. And, yeah, throughout my career, I’ve had numerous occasions where I haven’t been selected, and it’s a real rollercoaster journey. When you get selected, it’s an absolutely high to represent your country, be it in medal-winning matches, things like that. You can then go to the absolute opposite end of that, by not being selected, and that’s a real question of your character as an athlete, how do you react to that. How do you react to not being selected, when sometimes you may think it wasn’t even the correct decision?

I might think, and I have done in the past, that I deserve to be selected. So, yeah, it’s always been a real test of character, and it just goes back to the ultimate question of, “What do I want to achieve? I want to achieve going to the Olympic Games. I want to achieve representing my country at any — as many possible moments that I can.” So, yeah, the nonselection and those phases are tough; I just give myself a bit of time to digest the information, let your emotions go free, because they will. And then it’s the case of, “Right. Real focus. What’s my goals? These are my goals. OK, how do I get there?” And it’s sort of back to the drawing board that way.

Amato: Is it a help or is it a hindrance that you have someone in your household, obviously someone close to you, who was going through the same situation? And I’ll fill in the listener on this, that your husband is also a hockey player; he’s a goalie on the men’s national team, George Pinner.

Hunter: Yeah, exactly, and he’s a bit older than me [laughs], which I’m sure he’ll like me saying. He’s actually been involved with the men’s squad since the Beijing Olympic cycle, which was back in 2008. So, when it comes to experience, he has an abundance of it, and I do definitely lean on him and rely on him for that. There have been times when I haven’t selected, and I could be angry about the situation and think, “Wow, ridiculous, I should’ve been selected” — things like that, and you have all these thoughts, it’s only natural. He’s very good at sort of helping me rationalise those thoughts and helping me get a focus back. So, OK, I may not have been selected, but actually, I still need to be playing really, really well, because there’s a chance somebody could get injured.

And if that chance arises, obviously it’s very sad for my teammate, but I want to be the person who’s in the coach’s head of, “Yeah, that’s who we want next.” And I have actually found myself in that position quite a few times. So, yeah, the advice I get from him I do really rely on, and it helps hugely for me to put things into perspective and just make sure I give myself the best possible position to succeed.

Amato: Rebecca Adlington, a former Olympic swimmer, was on a BBC podcast, talking about how she thought, and she was not living it as an athlete, but how she thought lockdown could actually be a chance for a competitive athlete to kind of stop and reflect. And I know you kind of addressed that a little bit earlier: to reflect, to slow down, to take the pressure off. You’ve lived it — what do you think about it?

Hunter: I couldn’t agree with her more. She’s absolutely spot on. I think it’s something that we didn’t — well, I personally didn’t realise I needed, but actually, now reflecting back on that period of time I’ve had in lockdown and just slowing down, I’ve really appreciated a slower pace of life. Of course, competitive hockey and sport — I live for that and I would never want that to disappear from my life. But what I did learn is that to give myself time back is really important. It’s so easy for us all nowadays to get wrapped up in this what feels like million-miles-an-hour life that we live, and it feels like every minute of every day is busy with something, whether it be work or sport or social. And by those things actually almost being completely taken away from us during lockdown, it really made me reflect and realise I don’t need to fill every single minute of my day doing something.

Actually, to just stop, be present, be in the moment, enjoy what I’m doing, enjoy my surroundings, whether that be going out for a half-an-hour walk and just being out there, not being on my phone, things like that. Or whether it be me, “OK, I’ve got a free Sunday,” the first thing I normally do is see who out of my friends is free to catch up with. Actually, what lockdown has taught me, maybe that’s not the right thing for me; maybe I want that Sunday completely free, to just relax and, as I say, be present. That’s something that I never really understood, I suppose, when people talked about “being present”, and I know it’s linked to a lot of mindfulness and things like that. But I think I get it, now, I get that whole slower pace of life, and just, if you’re doing something, do it properly. Don’t have all these distractions and things that are around you.

So, yeah, Becky Adlington’s comments really resonate, and she’s spot on. I think it’s been a really good period of time just to learn, and there’s definitely things, like slower pace of life, that I will adopt now that we’re coming out of this.

Amato: How, as an athlete, did you have to adapt your training because of COVID-19?

Hunter: In England, we first went into lockdown, and at that point in time, the Olympics hadn’t been postponed. As I said earlier, we were sort of trying to still train for the Olympic Games, because it hadn’t been postponed, yet, but without the facilities that we need to train for Olympic Games. So, we were all independently training at home. We were in a very fortunate position where we were given gym kit to borrow, so my husband and I set up a proper gym in the back garden, had a squat rack which was made out of wheelie bins, which [laughs], fortunately, survived the weights that I put on it. And, yeah, we just had to make do. It was a bit of a laugh to start with, because it was just something — a new challenge, almost that, “Right, I’ve got – there’s limited space, I’ve got limited equipment, I don’t have the great facilities I’m used to — what can we do?”

We just made it work — obviously a lot of running, things like that, cycling, just anything we could possibly do. So that was at the start of lockdown, when the Olympics hadn’t been postponed yet. As soon as the Olympics got postponed, the message was sort of, “Right, chill out, keep yourself healthy, active, but the Olympics isn’t happening this year, so we don’t need to be going at 100% right now. Now is not the time to do that. It’s actually more important to just give back to yourself and make sure you’re in a good place mentally, make sure you’re happy, make sure you’re healthy.” So, as soon as it got postponed, it was then a case of actually, rather than doing prescribed training, which a lot of our training is prescribed to us, I was able to just do things that I fancied, things that I enjoyed. So, I’d do different types of running sessions, or I’d go on bike rides, just things like that, which I don’t always get the opportunity to do, being in a hockey programme.

Amato: Yeah, I believe in our previous podcast, we had talked about your athletics career. Did you have a sort of favourite running workout that you did?

Hunter: Yeah, so, one of my favourites is hill reps. It’s a bit of a killer, but there’s a hill right by my house, and I would just run up it for a minute, jog straight back down, run up it for a minute, jog straight back down, and I just varied the times I did. But I think that kind of training is brilliant. It’s hard. Also, it’s hard, but it could be quite a short session. You don’t have to go out for an hour, an hour and a half; you could do a decent hill session in 30 minutes and feel the benefits of it. So, yeah, I did things like that, which was different to what I normally do, obviously, on a hockey pitch.

Amato: Has there been any talk or any actual resumption of team activities? I don’t know where things stand with that, and training.

Hunter: Yeah, we’ve been back for — I can’t think exactly how long, but a couple of months now. So, we first went back, and obviously we’re following all government guidance on social distance and things like that. So initially, it was very much individual skill focus; we couldn’t do any contact or attack versus defence. It was quite literally, “Right, this is my area of the pitch. These are my hockey balls. I’m going to do some skills by myself.” And we were in subgroups, so I think I only had three people in my subgroup with the coach, and we had a whole half of the hockey pitch, so huge spaces. But actually, that was really good, because we don’t always get the time to do the sort of technical individual sessions, so it was quite a nice thing to do actually.

And then, we’ve recently been back playing contact, for a good four to six weeks, again, following any government guidance. We have elite dispensation, which allows us to train, which is great. And the domestic league’s actually now resumed in England as well, so we’ve played two Premier League matches already, which is good.

Amato: Yeah, it’s good to have games to play again, that’s for sure.

Hunter: Yeah, that’s it. Yeah, without games, you kind of think, “OK, training’s good, to a degree, but I want to play a match.”

Amato: So, what in your training as an accountant has helped you manage this situation?

Hunter: That’s a really good question. So, I suppose there’s two parts to that for me. Firstly, working for GSK, who are a pharmaceutical company, I’m no expert, but it did give me more of an insight into what we were facing in terms of the scale of COVID-19. And obviously the solution, or one of the solutions, is to produce a vaccine. GSK is a big player in vaccines, so I had a bit of an idea of what that meant in terms of timescales, things like that. So, for me, I could maybe understand and rationalise better the decisions that were being made, such as the Olympics being postponed for a year. It made sense to me, because I knew what such a big impact COVID-19 was. And I also had a bit of an idea of the timescale it could take for us to even get a vaccine, things like that.

So, early on, it helped me to understand what could happen. Obviously, no one knows, but it helped me to understand that. Another big thing is, obviously, as an accountant – it can be quite a stressful job. With all jobs, you get huge asks of you, whether it be budgeting, things like that. Sometimes it can feel like tasks are really daunting, I find, when you’re at work, but actually, what I’ve learned through my training is, “OK, this is a task. Let’s look at it completely objectively. Take away all emotion and whatever that you might go through. These are the facts.” So, what accounting has taught me is to be very fact-focused and fact-driven, and that’s something that I like to try and take onto the hockey pitch as well.

So, again, the facts are: “Here, the Olympics can’t go ahead. It will go ahead next year. What’s the new plan?” I try not to dwell on things, and again, that’s something that I’ve learned at work, so, yeah, there’s definitely things that have helped. Another huge thing in the working world is technology. So, for us it’s common that we use technology the whole time, don’t we? So, as I said, GSK, I have been working from home before the pandemic, and that use of technology was fairly normal for me. When we went into lockdown from a hockey perspective, all of a sudden, we went from team meetings and team video analysis all together in one room, to all of a sudden, that had to be done on the internet, using technology. So, again for me, that was just something that I do every day at work; that translated very easily for me into hockey.

Amato: In general, what do you think the events of 2020 can teach people, can teach professionals, or just, you know, working people, non-working people, just about being ready for anything?

Hunter: No one could’ve predicted this — well, I’m sure it got predicted at some point, but no one knew this would be 2020, did we? One of the biggest things that I’ve been really impressed with, with my colleagues at work and my teammates at hockey, is how adaptable they are. And I think that’s one of the huge learnings I’ve taken: you have to be adaptable in this environment. So, COVID, we have no idea what could happen next week, what rules could be imposed, things like that, so as long as you get your head space thinking, “OK, whatever’s thrown at me, I will adapt.” And that’s one of the biggest things I think I have learned from this, and hopefully others will learn, is there is always uncertainty in the world and nobody knows what’s going to happen. But as long as you sort of look at it with the positive spin of, “But I can adapt,” I think that puts you in the best possible position to succeed really.

Amato: I think that’s an excellent way to close out. Jo, thank you.

Hunter: Thanks very much, Neil. Great to chat to you.