Bhubaneswar — “For me, there was too much light at the end of the tunnel and I didn’t want to just give up on this hockey dream.” So says David Condon, England’s most capped current player at this World Cup, on a career in the last few years which has been far from plain sailing. Unlike England’s start to this campaign, which kicks into life on Wednesday when they face their biggest test yet against old foes Germany.
In a revealing interview at the team’s hotel in Bhubaneswar on Monday, Condon told The Hockey Paper how he overcame disappointments, how he turned to his super strengths, the chart which pointed to the men’s medal-less tournament finishes and how he believes this current World Cup squad can finally end a near 14-year wait for a global title.
Condon has been more or less part of the set-up in that time, encountering hundreds of training sessions as the national programme at Bisham Abbey. “The great transition for me has been how to see Bisham and training, and everyday not viewing it as a test that I had to pass to be selected,” he says. “As I’ve got older I’ve realised it’s not a series of tests you pass or fail, it’s practice. I read a book when I was around 23 on growth mindset and that’s what flipped the switch for that progression.
“The coach isn’t looking at his whiteboard and ticking or crossing. It’s part of training, putting yourself out there so you can keep getting better. You have to love it day in, day out. If you don’t see it you don’t realise how hard we are working behind the scenes.”
Nick Bandurak is one such example, says Condon. “His story is amazing,” smiles the Wimbledon man. “He grafted all those years and he is reaping those rewards. Now he’s in it, his eyes have been open to the world.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m getting to the latter end of my career but it will be one of the biggest things I miss. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t matter at Bisham. We have those standards we set each other and you have to live up to those expectations.”
“A lot of kids may struggle with the pressure of coaches, they feel like they are getting judged at every corner,” says Condon, referring back to that growth mindset. “It’s not that, it’s about viewing life differently and everything isn’t a test.”
Condon’s first senior examination came when he was called up for England, aged 18, at the Champions Trophy in Melbourne. It was a baptism of fire in Australia’s searing heat. He came off after a draw with Spain, turned to team-mate Richard Smith, who said, ‘How did you find that?’ ‘Tough’, Condon replied. ‘That was jogging,’ Smith retorted. He then found himself ‘chasing shadows’ against Germany two days later.
Coaches were looking at a London 2012 squad and he was told on a phone call in the school car park that he was just off what they were looking for. ‘I was telling my mate in the car to shut up, the head coach is on the phone!”
He stayed on in the junior set up and studied at Loughborough University. But he doesn’t view those Melbourne matches in 2009 as his proper first caps, his career trajectory instead coming in 2012 when he was given a central programme contract.
That summer in 2009 was also the last time an England or GB men’s squad last won a major title, at the EuroHockey Championships. Signing off his career with a global trophy is, says Condon, a massive drive for the 31-year-old. “Obviously there are new boys who have come into the squad and talked about the team that was with Jackson, Middleton, Lewers, Catlin, Brogdon, Mantell,” he says. “If you look at the team we had, we were so close so many times. We came fourth so many times and were never able to make that step.”
In early 2022, the squad met at Bisham to discuss the legacy and the identity of this new team. The coaches had stuck a chart up on England and GB’s positions over the last decade. “It was like fourth, fifth, fifth, fourth, one third every so often,” recalls Condon.
“I was in a lot of those squads and the new boys are seeing that as history. It stunned me a little bit. If I was picked for more matches, I said then I would give it everything to change that, even if I had one more chance.”
There was a period in 2019 when he may not have been given the chance. Omitted from the EuroHockey 2019 squad and then the Tokyo Olympics under former coach Danny Kerry, Condon’s international career was looking dicey.
“It was tough, I will admit it was a struggle,” he says.
“I carried on and tried to ignore the external factors. My mindset was that I wanted to be told [by Danny Kerry], ‘Thank you for your time’, and not to walk away and regret it. I wanted to be told.”
When Tokyo came, Condon admits now he was off the pace for an Olympic berth, despite remaining hopeful, as is an athlete’s wont. Rather than any mentor or coach, Condon says, after a frank conversation with his girlfriend, it was purely his own internal drive that set him back on the path to reselection.
Condon has worked with England and GB performance psychologist Katie Warriner, who also helps the squad with plenty of mental priming. “If you require someone to keep going at this level, you will fall by the wayside. It has to come from within,” he says. “Speaking to Katie it was about a proper look at myself and did I actually warrant being picked over the last two years. There were players who were stronger and playing better than me.”
Once the Tokyo cycle finished he reset and looked at his strengths. “I haven’t got the most skilful hands and so it was my physical attributes. Even as one of the fastest in those years, I was below average on fitness.”
He admits that he didn’t fit into Kerry’s zonal plans, as the last World Cup turned into viewing with a Tokyo lens. The game play didn’t suit Condon either and he tried to change his own style of play. Even his sports-mad brother who lives in Canada saw a difference. “He rang me and said, ‘what are you doing?’” And so Condon turned to his super strengths and he hasn’t looked back. The new zonal press under Revington and Co is to his liking, too.
He calls it ‘ridiculous’ but Condon admits that one of his proudest moments in the last few years came in the Pro League in Valencia in early 2022. He scored two goals and won player of the match, a first in his career. He says: “I was reserve on the trip and someone had Covid, so I played and wanted to prove that all that knuckling down was worth it, as well as realising that I could still do a job.”
Since the autumn, Condon has seen the rapid rise of the new England players, such as Nick Park and Stu Rushmere, who won several junior titles. “They know how to win and expect it,” says Condon. “You can see Stu’s mindset from his face (five stitches from the India group game). That blend of youth, experience and mindset has completely transformed what we are about.
“Their willingness to throw themselves in front of shots has spread across the group. Players have taken inspiration from it, Stu has a bit of war wound and it’s great to see.
“Some of those lads who had never played Australia at senior level said they had never lost to them at junior level and they weren’t going to lose now. My experience of playing Australia is very different to that. And that shows where they are with their mindset and they aren’t scared of anyone.
“[Previously] We trained everyday but it was almost like we were searching for a missing piece of the puzzle. External people would say that we train more than other countries, yet we never made that step up to the podiums.”
Condon, who teaches hockey at a local school St Benedict’s, says that new assistant coach Craig Sieben – appointed in June 2022 – has also ushered in “a level of relentless”, adding: “When he joined, he was sweatier than us from the way he coaches us, from the drive and standards he expects,” laughs Condon.
Is this now the missing piece – the coaching, team collective – England and GB is searching for? Condon believes so. He adds: “The way we are playing is a reflection of that: each game we show up, go toe-to-toe with whoever we are playing and that’s how we are living.”
On his first England player interaction
Condon was taken to the Skegness festival where there was a shop owned by Glenn Kirkham’s dad. “Glenn was the England under-21 captain at the time and happened to be there. My dad went to get a Mercian wooden stick cut down so we could use it as an eight year old.”