Student hockey star Lily Walker: “Is women’s sport as good as men’s? I think it can be better.”

Undergraduate student and Commonwealth Games winner Lily Walker chats about balancing hockey stardom with her dissertation, and mental health in sport.

A young woman with blond hair and a red jacket sits on a bench, smiling at the camera.

Lily Walker

BA (Hons) Social Policy student and Commonwealth Games star Lily Walker is used to fighting her way through the midfield; not just in hockey, but in academia too. “Being a midfielder involves a lot of running,” she explains. “I connect the front line to the back line. I’m attacking and defending at the same time.”

Lily’s undergraduate dissertation focuses on the challenges young people face when they seek support for poor mental health. This is an area where she feels the front line really isn’t connected to the back line.

“When you’re from a sporting background, you’re taught to keep your body healthy, but until recently there wasn’t much focus on keeping your brain healthy,” she says. “A lot of people my age suffer with mental health issues in general. In sport, we’re constantly facing selection trials for teams and the pressure of balancing practice with our studies.”

Last year, Lily was part of the Great Britain Women’s Seniors Hockey Team, who brought home an historic Commonwealth Games gold win right on the University of Birmingham campus. For the nervous little girl who fell in love with hockey when she was just six, this achievement feels like the culmination of years of hard work.

Lily’s memory of the victory itself is a little blurred. “I just remember staring up at Old Joe and almost being confused; I was used to being on campus to study, so why were all these people here and cheering?” She smiles. “The fact that we won at the University of Birmingham made it even more special.” And how does someone celebrate winning a Commonwealth Games Gold Medal? “We went into town. All our friends and family were waiting with drinks, as a surprise. They were cheering for us, but I think we were thanking them, too.”

A young girl with blond hair plays hockey on a blue pitch

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Making the team

“You find out whether you’re going to play in the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup at the same time,” Lily explains. “There’s not much time between finding out and actually playing in the Games, so you almost have to prepare before you find out. It’s quite stressful—at training, you’re analysing every mistake you make for weeks.”

When selection morning came, Lily woke up early and kept refreshing her email account. “The list is alphabetical, which means my name is always last. That was quite tense!” As soon as she saw her name, she called her parents, who shared in her joy. “I had a massive feeling of elation. All those times I felt like, why am I doing this? It’s the relief that all the effort is paying off.”

A week later, the team met up for the first time after receiving the good news. “We’d all been through tough selection processes. Coming together like that was just a massive celebration of everyone’s personal journeys.”

That summer brought Lily a reprieve from her studies. As an undergraduate and a professional hockey player, she tries hard to maintain a work-life balance—a challenge that started when she was still in high school. “Things started to ramp up when I was selected for the Under 16s and then Under 18s,” she recalls. “It was a difficult process; I’d be at tournaments for regional and national teams with coaches watching everything I do. Meanwhile, in the evenings, I’d be struggling to fit in homework.” When she made it into the Under 21s team, those feelings intensified. “That was when things started to get serious. There were times when it almost felt too tough, but I've learned that you have to take it all in and enjoy every moment. There’s no failure in taking time away when things get too much.”

These days, Lily feels better about organising life, and her determination shines through. She plays hockey five days a week and studies for the other two, with some reading thrown in for relaxation—she loves mysteries and romances. When she has a big team selection coming up, she prioritises training, and now that she has a dissertation to write, that has to come first on rest days.

When you’re from a sporting background, you’re taught to keep your body healthy, but until recently there wasn’t much focus on keeping your brain healthy.

Lily Walker

Why Social Policy?

Lily’s passion for social policy began during her A-Level studies. “I took A-level History and became interested in how things like governments change through time. I like to see how systems work, and why.” Her experiences as a young sportsperson have influenced her understanding of policy systems. “My main interest is heath—mental health systems in particular.”

Researching a dissertation on the availability of mental health services for young people has been an emotional ride. “I’ve learned so much in such a short space of time,” she says. “People really don’t know where to start when it comes to asking for support, and when they do find it, it doesn’t feel welcoming. Under 25s suffer the most from a lack of provision—yet if you can help people early, that help is more effective.”

Lily joined the University’s hockey team when she was just sixteen as the team was in the Premier League. Thus began her love affair with the University of Birmingham campus. “The courses are great and the lifestyle is great. Everyone is just walking around smiling because they’re in such a nice place.”

A young woman with blond hair stands on a hockey field, wearing a white 'Great Britain' vest

Image provided by WorldSportsPics.

Flying the flag for women’s sport

“Women’s sport is receiving more media attention, and I think it’s about time!” Lily says. “The Lionesses really paved the way. There have been so many years of doubt as to whether women’s sport can be as ‘good’ as men’s; I think we’ve shown that it can potentially be better.”

When it comes to sporting heroes, Lily admires 2016 Olympic hockey champion Alex Danson Bennett. “Everything she does on the pitch looks effortless. I’ve heard so much about how hard she worked to get where she is.” Has Lily had the opportunity to meet Alex? “No…not yet.”

She wants more people to think about trying hockey, too. “You don’t have to go in playing high intensity games. Just play around with your mates,” she advises. “If you’re a bit scared of the ball, don’t worry. That’s natural. It’s hard, and often hurtling towards you at face height! Take it slowly.”

What’s next?

“The next year is about training and my degree. I just want to crack on with that,” says Lily. “Once hockey has calmed down, I’d love to go into charity or mental health work with young people. I feel mental health should be prioritised over physical health.”

Now that she’s in the Great Britain Seniors team, this year will be spent preparing for the European tournament. Next year, it will be the Olympics. Lily smiles at the thought. “Here you go, six-year-old old Lily—look how much you’ve done!”