After Great Britain’s women’s hockey team won their memorable and historic gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a number of the victorious squad announced their subsequent retirement from international competition, including experienced and influential captain Kate Richardson-Walsh.
What followed was a period of transition for the squad, with players who were still relatively young making the step up to be recognised as senior members of the squad.
One of those was Hollie Pearne-Webb, who then took over the captaincy in 2018. After leading Great Britain to a bronze medal in Tokyo, she spoke to BAC Athlete Engagement Manager, Kristian Thomas, about her experiences of leadership in sport, and the advice she’d pass on to athletes having to take on similar roles within their sport post-Tokyo.
Kristian: How important is it to have leadership figures within a group?
Hollie: It’s really important to have strong leaders, but I think what people sometimes define as a leader in their head is very different to what a leader actually is. Everyone will have had people who they’ve looked up to because they’ve led really well, whether they realise that or not. You don’t have to have a title to be a leader.
Leaders have been really important in my life, really important in team sports, really important in the workplace. Leaders aren’t necessarily the ones with the job title, but they’re the ones that do things the right way by everyone else. They sometimes don’t need to say anything, but behave in ways that you want to see within your sporting team or among your colleagues. So it’s really important when you want to deliver high performance – leaders set a bit of direction so that everyone is pulling towards the same vision and the same goal.
Kristian: That idea that everyone can be a leader – how relevant is that to sport?
Hollie: If I think of our squad, I would want everyone to think of themselves as a leader, and to give their opinions and use their voices. Obviously not everyone is going to get things the way that they want, because there are 28 different voices, but it’s important to make sure that everyone is heard.
Everyone leads in different ways. Some of the women on our programme are exceptionally good at leading on the pitch, through their actions and how they train. They you have other leaders who are a bit louder are mor extroverted off the pitch, and more demanding. But everybody, no matter their age, experience level or anything else, can be a leader, and it’s definitely a role you can learn, and skills that you can develop. Of course there are people who have natural skills that strongly align with leadership, but I think that everybody has the ability to develop leadership skills.
Kristian: What do you see as important leadership qualities?
Hollie: Leadership is a bit of a hot topic at the moment, and leadership qualities have – probably rightly so – changed. An old school definition would be someone telling you how to do something, then you do it, and that’s it – no questioning. Nowadays, I think that more people are looking to leaders who are really good at bringing people together, bringing people on board and making sure that everyone in that team has a voice. That’s something that, within our squad at hockey, we try to instil – that it doesn’t matter of you’ve been on the programme for 12 years or a month, everybody has an equal voice. I think that’s a really important skill for a leader – to make sure that everyone feels valued and confident enough to give their opinions and to speak up.
There are so many other skills that people probably wouldn’t consider ‘traditional’ leadership qualities. You can have quiet leaders who aren’t your typical extroverts, but they lead in terms of their behaviours, which is so important to have. We have a number of those within our squad, who probably wouldn’t label themselves as leaders, but they very much are.
Kristian: Which leaders were important in shaping your career, particularly the earlier years of it?
Hollie: I’ve been so lucky in that regard. Whether that be coaches, setting the direction and leading a programme, or captains: Kate Richardson-Walsh captained Great Britain for 13 years, then after her we had the incredible Alex Danson, and they were two of the best leaders you can find in a sporting world.
But again, it was never just those two figures – there were many other leaders that I looked up to, who probably wouldn’t have considered themselves leaders, because they didn’t have that title. They led by their behaviours, whether that be in the gym, or with their nutrition – showing us youngsters, without realising, what it takes to be an elite athlete and what behaviours we needed to exhibit. So I’ve been very lucky with the people who have come before me, and I’ve been trying to steal nuggets from all those leaders!
Kristian: Despite those great examples, how important was it to you to develop your own style of captaincy, and how would you describe that?
Hollie: When I became captain I knew instantly that if I tried to replicate Kate or Alex, I would fail, because I wasn’t them. I knew from the start that I had to lead my own way and find my own feet. I was conscious of being my authentic self. In the squad, we had a vote process – all those who voted for you would give a reason why, so I went back to those reasons why people had put me in this role, which gave me a lot of insight into what the women on our programme valued from me. That was just me as authentic Hollie, I guess, so I didn’t want to stray too far from that – that was my foundation and starting point.
I’m still learning on the job right now, but I’ve tried to learn from the new situations that have come up – the pandemic was one example. There was no-one to turn to who could advise me on how to lead a squad virtually…particularly one which was separate but still training for an Olympic Games! So being agile, constantly wanting to learn, reflecting on how you can do things better are important.
Kristian: Sport obviously includes many highs and lows, but how important is it to keep leadership consistent in good and bad times?
Hollie: As a player and an athlete, I think consistency is one of my strengths, and I also want to be a consistent leader. Whether we’re in good times or bad times I try to appear as consistent as possible – obviously that’s not always possible, and people can realise when I’m a little bit stressed, but I try to keep things within a range. One thing that we as athletes are really good at is being process-focused, rather than outcome-focused, and as a leader that can also help you in difficult times – focusing on the here and now, what we can do right now and what we need to achieve, rather than on the end goal, which can be overwhelming.
During the pandemic, for example, the biggest thing was just making sure that everyone was actually ok, regardless of them being an athlete, but just as a human being in a difficult time.
Kristian: As your career has developed, how conscious have you been about being a role model?
Hollie: I don’t think I ever considered myself as a role model…and I probably still don’t! I still see my role models, who I look up to, and don’t believe that I am the same as them. But particularly post-Rio, when we had a lot of players retire, a new group came in and I moved from being one of the newer, younger members to immediately being one of the senior, older players, I then felt more of a responsibility to role model behaviours, and trying to help the new girls on the programme with dealing with being elite sportspeople. I was conscious that I had more responsibility, and I guess I am a role model although I’ve never considered myself as one.
Kristian: Finally, what advice would you give to athletes wanting to develop their own leadership qualities?
Hollie: Firstly, everyone should realise that they are a leader. There doesn’t need to be a job title or a role, you don’t need to wear the armband, but you can lead in your own way. I’ve learnt a lot from sports psychologists, from speaking to my team-mates and other athletes to develop my skills in that way.
Also, we have a leadership group within our squad, we have values groups which each include a leadership role, and we have Athlete Representatives who work with the BAC, so there are various different ways in which you can develop those skills. I also tend to read a lot and ask people different questions. I want to learn from those incredible athletes who have gone before me.