Kate Richardson-Walsh, who inspired Great Britain to hockey gold at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, shares her advice on leading a team at the Olympic Games.
Being captain of Great Britain was a huge honour and something I will always cherish. And standing on top of the podium was a lifelong dream realised.
There have been many highs and lows throughout my hockey career, but on reflection, Team GB have bonded most tightly as a group when we have had a strong team culture that has been moulded and formed by the entire team and staff as a collective.
I think it was this collective focus that carried us over the finish line.
Building trust in the build-up
In the two years prior to Rio 2016, one of our mantras was: “We are one team”. There were many things underpinning this, but most important was our “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine” attitude. We built a huge amount of respect for each other as individuals because we trusted that we were all pulling in the same direction for the good of the team, every single day.
I tried to lead by example at all times. I could never ask of others what I was unwilling to do myself. I think this was something that every player did in the squad – each player led and challenged themselves. Only then do you have the foundation and respect of the group to challenge each other.
Getting the team switched on before matches
Physically and mentally switching on is critical, but it can take a while for each individual to hone. The most important thing is that each person understands her personal needs and works this into the team processes. There is a psychological sweet spot where you are neither too relaxed nor too pumped up: just completely in the moment.
We worked hard as a group to understand what we needed physiologically and biomechanically in order to be ready for the high intensity sprints, lunges and changes of direction required in a game of hockey. Refreshing the team focus points in the huddle before a game is a good way to switch everyone on, and then having some specific outcome targets for the first two to three minutes gets everyone into the game.
Preparing for pressure situations
We spent many hours both on and off the pitch talking about and working on the concept of being in the moment and thinking clearly under pressure. We played many hours of match play – in tournaments, practice test matches and smaller game situations in training. Critical moments present themselves in all games. We would do ‘live’ reviews during practice sessions and longer debriefs with video footage after games and training. Over time you build up a bank of intuitive team action plans.
Practising these game situations in a high-pressured environment with high levels of fatigue meant when it came to playing on the biggest stage of them all in Rio it felt like we were back at our training base, making the same decisions we’d practised for months.
Keeping faith in your methods
The most important and basic message is to understand and do your job for the team as best as you can in any given moment. Always work hard for each other and stay true to the vision, values and behaviours you’ve formed and signed up to. Through victory or defeat, you need to stick to your processes, and under pressure you should be flexible while maintaining faith in your tried and trusted methods. It’s important that your behaviours don’t swing wildly based on your result. A tournament is a long journey, and the more you can maintain a consistent set of behaviours and processes, the better you can cope with the rollercoaster as a group.