• International

Sabbie Heesh: Life between the posts

“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” – Hal Borland.

For Sabbie Heesh, her grass came in the form of an admiral blue turf to which she walked out for Great Britain as they sought Olympic qualification.

Heesh had been there before in Changzhou, in Christchurch, in Eindhoven and everywhere in between but this time in Valencia she was between the sticks as GB saw off the Irish challenge and sealed their place in Paris.

“It was an absolute rollercoaster. I don’t think we’ll play higher pressure matches, especially from a tournament point of view.

“We had it in the back of our minds that ‘we can’t be the squad that doesn’t qualify’, of the 18 of us that played we were very aware that we were playing for everyone back home as well,” Heesh said.

The Derbyshire-born stopper had been all too aware of playing her bit from the sidelines, a role that she came to terms with and later mastered.

Heesh wasn’t first-choice during her youth career with England, playing a bit-part role for the under-16s and under-18s which led her to question her long-term future in the sport.

“During that time I didn’t want to put everything into it, I’d go on trips but I wasn’t really playing. I had this fear of putting all my eggs into something and not achieving it.

“I then went to university and I didn’t lose my way but I got my priorities a little wrong. At the time, I didn’t really know if I could do it as a job,” added Heesh.

The doubt in Heesh’s mind cleared after a dressing down by Craig Keegan.

“Keegs came down to my uni, sat me down and told me to get myself sorted as he wanted to take me to the Euros.

“His words were…stern but they sorted me out and he took me to Den Bosch as the only goalkeeper, we came third and I got player of the tournament. The trust he showed in me was huge,” Heesh said.

She later earned her debut in 2013 inside a dome in Germany and after being added to the group in 2015, Heesh hasn’t looked back except for the coincidence that first pushed her in goal.

“We were going to a National Finals with Belper for an under-13 indoor tournament and we didn’t have a goalkeeper.

“My twin sister and I both played football, so my coach at the time, Tim Barlow, said to us: ‘you play football, go and get the kit on’.

“My sister ended up being ill on the day and left me to do it all on my own, so I went down to the session in the kit and didn’t take the pads off after.”

Heesh cherishes the lessons and learnings on her journey, none more so than one from Maddie Hinch, who she spent years supporting as her backup.

“Being in that spot you learn so much about yourself not playing. It was challenging at first, I can’t say I was the easiest person to coach. I wanted to play, I was annoyed at a mistake and I was annoyed at everything.

“I had a conversation with Maddie and she said: ‘Sab, you need to get used to conceding goals, it’s not a perfect performance if you don’t concede.

“I know there is no such thing as a perfect game, you can just aim to manage an imperfect game perfectly.

“In the last five years I’ve learnt a lot about myself and it means I can appreciate the good times and understand what I’ve gone through to get here and know that I’ve earnt it.”

It’s been mindset shift of Heesh that has unlocked more tools in her game which has allowed her ascension to the top of the sport.

The process of patience has afforded her to no longer seek perfection.

“When Maddie was on the programme, the other keepers and I had chances here and there, so you felt like you had to perform because you didn’t always get the opportunity.

“I shifted to search for consistency rather than a 9/10 performance but then have a 4/10. If a goal goes in, a goal goes in. I just focus on the next phase and win that moment and deliver when the girls need me.”

Although her opportunity as number one had always been lurking in the shadows, when the call finally came it wasn’t the seamless transition she expected.

“I don’t think I realised how much of a change it would be and the step up I had to make, I don’t shy away from saying it was quite difficult in the beginning.

“My character has always been trying to care and give to everyone, that’s the number two role your there to support.

“Euros was an eye-opener, it was my first tournament leading the group and it showed me what tournament hockey was about. You’ve got to move on to the next game, leave the baggage and park it,” Heesh added.

Heesh, now 32-years-old, is no stranger to the big stage having been a part of five Pro League campaigns, helping England to a Commonwealth bronze and leading England into the 2023 Euros.

However, her Olympic experience in Tokyo was like few others. As reserve keeper Heesh wasn’t allowed in the Olympic village, instead she was homed just outside in a hotel with three members of the GB squad.

As with the case for much of Heesh’s career, the notion of ‘so close, yet so far’ rang true but with Paris on the horizon this summer, her evergreen career could finally have its time in the sunlight.