with Commonwealth medallists, Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh

In our Language of Leadership podcast series, we explore the lessons business can take from sport when it comes to leadership. We have analysed the language used by elite individuals in sports and business, and developed six lessons for business leaders to take from sports leaders. In this series, we'll be discussing one lesson per episode with a leading figure in sport.

In the final episode of the series, we investigate 'viewing failure as a positive force', looking at how sports leaders view failure and success as complementary to each other and focus on intent, rather than just victory. Broadcaster, Ayo Akinwolere, and Charlie Unwin, a sports performance psychologist, are with Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, Commonwealth field hockey medallists with more than five hundred international caps between them.


Ayo Akinwolere: Hello, I'm Ayo Akinwolere. I'm a broadcaster, changemaker and World Record Swimmer and welcome to the final episode of the Gowling WLG Language of Leadership podcast.

In this series, we're going to look at why business leaders should learn from sport and what sports leaders can teach business about the science and the art of getting the most from their teams and organisations.

Working with my co-host Charlie Unwin, a sports performance psychologist, Gowling WLG has analysed the language used by elite individuals in sport and business and developed six lessons for business leaders to take from the world of sport.

Today, we are going to be viewing failure as a positive force. But before we get into it, let's get our guests in, because joining us are Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, OBE, and MBE, Olympic and Commonwealth field hockey medallists with more than 500 international caps between them. The epitome of power couple really? So good to have you with us.

Helen Richardson-Walsh: Thank you for having us.

Kate Richardson-Wals: Yeah, thank you. I really look forward to it.

Ayo: Oh, boom, boom, let's get it on. Let's do it! And, Charlie, let's get into this then really, and the idea of failure as a positive force. What does this mean to you in terms of leadership?

Charlie Unwin: This one's a big one, isn't it? So, it's all about how to adopt an inquiring relationship with failure. The importance of analysing the factors that lead to failure, rather than just sort of letting them happen and not learning anything from it. But also, at the same time, maintaining it as a motivating force, motivating potential, which I think for a lot of people that they sort of failed to get that positive element from it. And it's great that we've got two for the price of one.

Ayo: Yeah, that's great, isn't it?

Helen: We've failed plenty as well! Lots of learnings!

Ayo: Well, that's interesting, though, because, obviously, within hockey, it's not always about winning, is it? Like, can you just give us an example of when a defeat was really pivotal to you turning things around for yourselves.

Kate: As Helen said, there's been so much failure in our career, but I think one that really stands out for me was London Olympic Games in 2012. We lost the semi-final to Argentina. And our vision as that group was gold, so we were going to those games, believing that we were going to go and challenge for that gold medal. So, to lose the semi-final, you know, that's off the table that's gone. And we had 24 hours to kind of pick ourselves up and turn it around to go and then compete for that bronze medal against New Zealand.

And it was just, it just really sits very clearly in the memory just because of the rawness of the emotion and the quietness and the stillness in that defeat. It was very emotive, and everybody was experiencing it in a different way. But then how we, how we turned that around and trusted ourselves and each other, to be able to navigate that emotional thing that we were going through individually just to cope with it to go through that grief cycle. And to then get ourselves and it was, it was like we had a, we always did our pool recovery together. We were in the pool and the day after we'd lost the semi-finals, were in there and the S&C coach just chucked a ball into the pool. And we jumped in and said, okay, let's go and play volleyball. And it was like, okay, we can laugh again. We can smile again. And then slowly, but surely, we turn ourselves around.

But there was a real pivotal moment there where the coach after the defeat, just wanted to get everyone together. He desperately wanted to wrap his arms around them and say, come on, we've got to pick this up. But you know, we need to bounce back. But actually, as a leadership group, we said, look, just trust us. We'll be okay. We'll be there. You know, we don't need to change anything. Let's just do what we always do. And you know, he trusted us. He empowered the group, and he trusted us. And we and we, we went out and there's no way we were coming away with anything but that bronze medal. It was amazing.

Helen: Yeah, you could see it in everyone's eyes, couldn't you in that line-up?

Charlie: Do you know what I take from that? And it's a really important first point, I think, is that it'd be very easy to confuse being good with failure, dealing well with it and coming out and adapting the other side with not caring about failure. Clearly you care, like failure for any athlete I've ever met and any business leader I've ever met, failure is horrible. It feels horrible. So maybe that's an important differentiation to make.

Kate: Yeah, definitely. And we always say, you know, feel the emotion and you're feeling that depth of emotion because you care, because you you've given so much time to things you love, this team, you love what you're about. And that's why it hurts so much. And actually, the ability to feel that helps you then learn from it, as you said and navigate it and move on to the next thing.

Helen: Yeah, I think for me, one of my biggest failures, and the thing that hurt the most is probably my ego, which is probably the biggest thing...

Ayo: It's also what drives you as well.

Helen: ...exactly. That's true. And we, and it you know, really allowed me to improve my performance because it was 2012 Champions Trophy. We're playing against the Netherlands, and, you know, the Netherlands, the top team in the world. And we win a penalty stroke in this game. And my instant reaction was, oh, no, I don't want it. And I was kind of looking around thinking who can take it, and thankfully up stepped Kate. But then Kate missed. And I'm thinking oh no, I should have taken it.

Or, and then at halftime, we you know, halftime our coach is a little bit annoyed, and he's like, right if we win another penalty, Christy - you're taking it. We get another penalty in the second half. She misses. And I'm thinking again, oh, no, that's my fault. And we end up drawing that game too - all against the Dutch, we've missed two penalties as well. So, after that game, I have, I kind of feel like I have a choice. Like I can just ignore what's happened and just keep going. Or I can actually face that, what I considered failure, and really ask myself some hard questions. Why did that happen? You know, and what can I do about it, basically.

And so, from that moment on, I put some processes in place that really, you know, allowed me to deal with that situation in a confident manner. You know, that first and foremost, I needed to know that I was on penalties, so I needed to have that conversation with the coach. And then I would always before every tournament, I'd always make sure I'd practice them. Always, before every game make sure that I knew where I was going to put it. And then as soon as that whistle went and the you know, the umpires signalled for a penalty. It was an initial, right? Yes, I want it. And I'd make myself say it. And I have a positive kind of stride forward towards the spot and get the ball and, and that failure just, it helped me massively. You know, that hadn't happened at that point, it might have happened in a bigger game. And then it's like, you know, so thankfully, I learned from that, in that moment in a game that okay, didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Ayo: Would you, just listening to that, and sort of saw you nodding a little bit, Charlie, because for me, it's this idea of ego, right? Especially as leaders, right? Running big teams, you know, you've got your ethos, blah, blah, blah, but also having that separation when the ego is dented to ask yourself, okay, what went wrong? What can I do better? Yeah, it's really interesting, isn't it?

Charlie: It really is. And the point that I take from that, and I really think this is, it epitomises very often, the difference between sports and business - where in business time isn't often taken to look back and review those little things. Because there is two things. One, it's the taking the time to do it, and to having that presence of mind. So, to review what happened. I'm curious! What can we discover from that? But even if you do take the time, it's the nuance of that. It's the little things that you learn. And I think sometimes the confusion comes, you know, success and failures. They're big things! They're not big things. They're little things. And Michael Jordan's often used as an example, isn't he that, you know, he won more games for the Chicago Bulls, than any other player, you know, in the last minute, but he also lost more games, more games in the last minute than any other player. But the success isn't winning of the games, the success is, how did he win the ball in the first place? Why did he choose that line to attack rather than that line to attack? And it seems that's what came across to me is it's actually the little things that we're talking about, not necessarily the big ones.

Helen: Yeah, definitely. Like we used to come away from tournaments, Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, you know, all these big tournaments, we'd miss out, and it'd be so close. And we'd be like, oh, we're so close. It was just, we hit the post there or, but actually, in reality, we were miles away. And when we actually started to, you know, kind of not think about the result and actually think about the how, and the process of how we were you know, doing it, and what we could improve, then that made such a big difference.

Ayo: Is there an idea here, that actually having a bit more of a curiosity around what success looks like, you know, we always set the bar at a particular level and if we don't reach that level, then the disappointment dips in and actually probably something that comes with experience really, and, having failed over time? You know, and you learn right, so many times?

Kate: Yeah, I think yeah, we were talking about looking behind the score line, weren't we? So, and you know, almost regardless of what the score is, do you still debrief that game with the same curiosity and openness and looking at all the detail? Because it'd be so easy to say we won that, let's move on to the next one, we don't need to look at it. But actually, you know, what was the performance like?

And we talked about, we had KPIs, we had so many numbers that we knew we needed to hit, you know, and were we hitting those numbers and really analysing video and it's giving it time. We had so much time as individuals and as collective team to debrief games, debrief training, our training was videoed, we were constantly reviewing and that was, it was a process that happened in the moment and also away from the moment. So, giving yourself a bit of space, headspace, for the ego to kind of deal with it all, and then be able to look at it in a new perspective.

Ayo: How much of what you guys have done over time, and I think you've probably alluded to this a little while ago, is practicing the things you're not so good at, sort of, what's the word I'm looking for, to kind of dampen the elements of failure over time? Or do you know what I mean, like living in the discomfort of failure, and also practicing the things that you might not be the best at? Or the thing that made you quote unquote, fail?

Kate: Yeah, I mean, I suppose in a way, we did that more with the kind of psychology. We were pushed in certain training sessions. One particular on a Thursday was called Thinking Thursday, it was basically small-sided games, and every week, there'd be a new scoring system, new points, new teams, and you'd have to find a way to win, but there was high pressure, and the focus was on winning.

And you're fatigued, you're under pressure. How do you mentally cope with that? You know, we've all got weaknesses there. The coach's job is to find the little chink in your armour and poke it. And you know, and then to be able to manage that, to be able to be mindful and conscious and aware of how you're dealing with that pressure. Where are your weak spots? And what can you do about it to kind of overcome them? What support do you need from your teammates? And I'd say that was a massive, I mean, for me, I was in anger management most weeks.

Helen: The orange team!

Kate: The orange team was anger management.

Ayo: What could the world of business and leaders learn from this really? Is there a model whereby, you know, leaders identify where the weaknesses might be in their team and try and challenge that to get them to solve that, those problems themselves?

Charlie: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it strikes me that a lot goes on around the edges, you know, of sport. So actually, what happens on the field is really just part of it. And I think business can learn a lot from that. I mean, we started that, you know, part of the conversation talking about the moment you set a goal, you create a standard whereby success and failure become inevitable. So, you could see that as a positive or a negative. For many people, it's a perfect excuse not to set ambitious goals, you know, sales teams, especially. And I think, you know, I see a lot of sales teams who, for example, they hit their goals, and then immediately they just raise the bar, just for the sake of it.

Actually, I, for me, you know, I'd rather spend that energy in that time understanding how we hit our goals. And what's, you know, what did we do well? It's also something I've learned, it's very difficult to sort of know how good you could be, when you really just truly focus on what are we trying to do here? What's our intent? You know, all we have, we have quite crude ways of measuring performance, don't we? And KPIs, we try our best with KPIs. But it is just a proxy, the devil's kind of in in the detail and the behaviours, it's in the very human elements of it as well, isn't it? And I think sport gets that right in a way that perhaps business can struggle with a little bit.

Helen: I think, going back to like setting the goals that we had, the difference between the London Olympics and the Rio Olympic Games for our goals, our vision for London was gold. It was very clear. It was very black and white. It did have more to do other than the result, but the result was the main thing. And when we then didn't get it, there was definitely a sense of that we've failed to the point where you couldn't find any kind of win, if that makes sense.

Ayo: Was that because of the pressure of being home games, as well?

Helen: Well, I think because we didn't win gold. And so therefore there was, if we didn't win gold, then we'd failed. That was it. Whereas for the Rio Olympic Games, our vision was to be the difference, create history, inspire the future. Very different. And that kind of vision was more than what we were doing on the hockey pitch. You know whether actually, you were selected for those Rio Olympic Games or not even selected and you know, kind of at home watching, you still had an impact on that vision - when you went into a school, and you were inspiring the future. And so that kind of really, I think, allowed us to change the perspective of what is success. What you were saying earlier, what is success? And we didn't dance around the whole thing of, you know, not talking about winning. One of our values was we are winners because we wanted to win, but we still created something that had a little bit more purpose rather than just what we were doing on the hockey pitch.

Ayo: Values is fascinating, isn't it? I think we spoke to Ebony about that and setting a clear intent as to what you want. Giving people a reason to do something. I remember a few years ago, I was trying to teach a group of people to swim. I'm talking adults and quite older teenagers. The idea was to try and get them to swim, but not just that, try and see if I can get whoever could swim within this group to swim, do the Great North swim with me, Windermere and stuff.

A lot of these people have never done open water swimming before. But I realised that very early on the fear of the water was greater than the trying to learn to swim process. So, the focus was, can we deal with the fear of the water first? So, I literally was like, why do you want to learn to swim? And as well as fear, so many other things came out, like, you know, a guy called Charlie, he was in his late 40s. He's like, you know, I just want to be able to connect with my boy because he can swim, I can't. So, then that gave him something to aim for, that gave him a nugget, you know, yeah, huge motivation. And all these kinds of stories, knocking around. Remy just had a daughter, she was like, just had a daughter and, you know, I'm already taking her to class, but I'm standing on the side of the pool.

So, the moment you find a hook, the moment you find a purpose, the moment you give people a vision, something to focus on, that element of success. I mean, it's also a bar that's realistic as well, right? And by reassuring people that regardless of what happens at the end of this process, you're still going to learn how to swim, then you've got two visions there. You've got two purposes there, that there is kind of no failure at the end of this. Do you know what I mean?

Helen: When you do go through difficult times. Or you're finding it hard. Or you're struggling, you then just go back to why you're doing it as well. What's the point of this? And that is then enough motivation to kind of get you through that difficult time.

Charlie: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned intentionality there as well. I noticed you kind of nodding as well, Kate. Because it seems to me that there's only one mistake - and you might tell me, I'm wrong - there's only one true mistake someone can make and that's not doing what you said you were going to do. And that's a painful mistake, isn't it when you said you know what? We knew. We knew that's what we had to do we just didn't do it. But, that idea of intentionality, almost we talk about the after effect of failure and making mistakes but actually, we're kind of set up for success or failure beforehand, right?

Kate: Yeah. And I think the role for leaders is really key in that. The example that leaders set, the intent that they have. It's not that you're gonna be perfect, because nobody is going to be perfect. Although I try.

Ayo: That's why you're wearing the orange bib.

Kate: My therapist is like, what kind of egomaniac thinks they can be all things to all people?

Yeah, it's not about being perfect. But there's that need, I think, for certainly for assigned leaders, but really everybody to set the standards. To set the standards that are in that cultural fit of what that team has decided it is about. And, having that intent to really push and to constantly try and deliver against that. And to be honest and hold your hand up and say when you failed. And I think that's when we were really firing on all cylinders as a team. I think leaders and everybody within the group, were really intentional about behaviours, about bringing the culture to life through everything that we did, that we thought, we said. It was living and breathing in every single one of us.

Helen: Anybody can say I want to be an Olympic champion. But who's actually got the mindset and the intent, as you say, to go out and do, live the behaviours that is going to make you one? And that was the difference for us, wasn't it? Like the first kind of half of our career, you know, we had mission statements, we had those conversations around visions and what we wanted to be about, but we didn't live the behaviours, and that was the difference.

Ayo: What kind of stuff did you guys do on a personal level to improve your performances? People talk about getting sports psychologists in for instance, to help improve their performances. Like as athletes, to go that extra mile you knew where you were lacking, what kind of stuff did you put into place on a personal level?

Kate: We were talking about this earlier. It was almost a daily task because you know, when we were full time, we were training twice a day most days. Some of that training is monotonous, you know, it's just running up and down. And so how can you frame that in your mind? For me there was that constant okay, what's the motivation here? Like, how am I going to make this fun? You know, I mean, I love Mary Poppins - every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. And so, you know, for me, it was a running session just straight up and down shuttles. I'd be like, right, in my 10 seconds rest I'm gonna think about an opposition player that I'm going to play against. I'm gonna have to mark as a defender. I'm gonna run against her go, and so my mind was having to think quick, my body was working, and I was in tune with what I was doing. We were constantly experimenting and trying different things to keep us, I suppose, fresh and motivated and pushing ourselves.

Charlie: Because that ability to experiment, right there, is often now what's differentiating those businesses who are adapting, who are changing. And my word, has the world changed, you know, just in the last few years? But that that mindset to be willing to adapt because of course, experimentation and failure kind of go hand in hand. Well, what else did it take to make that possible? To have the trust. You know what, let's have a go at this, what did it take as a team to do?

Helen: Well, I think the environment was obviously really key. You know, creating an environment that allowed people to fail, basically, you know, that's essentially what it comes down to. Because if as a, you know, a coach, but also key members of a team, like we were, for example, leaders and experienced people, if somebody makes a mistake, and you shout at them, or berate them for that mistake, they're not going to try again. And, you know, that was probably a hard lesson that we both learned over our career, as we got older and became leaders in the team. And that whole, just allowing people to make those mistakes and really encouraging it.

Charlie: How did you make the differentiation between when someone tried and just got it wrong versus actually, you need to do better? How do you?

Kate: Well, I think our coach set, certainly set sessions where, you know, for example, Thinking Thursday was about, this isn't really about experimentation. This is very much about winning, and about performance and delivering. There would have been experimentation, of course, in that, but there was definitely lower risk.

But there were other sessions when it was just absolutely about, really push. I was gonna say, on the back of what Helen said, was also about taking people with you on your journey. So, I might be working on something and saying, I'm going to try and thread a few of these passes through today. And it means I'm probably going to turn over, I'm gonna give away quite a lot of possession maybe. I'm going to fail a lot in this session. If I didn't tell anybody else that's what I'm doing.

Ayo: They'll think you're not good. You're not on your game today, right?

Kate: Yeah! And as Helen says, you know, they might say something to my face. They might just give me a bit of a dirty look. And actually, if I say, look, this is what I'm doing today. This is what my, the potential downside of this might be, you know, then there's a support network there immediately, and an understanding there, so I think that's really important.

Helen: And then also, as the captain doing that, you know, that gives permission for everyone else to do it.

Ayo: And be able to vocalise it as well.

Helen: Exactly.

Charlie: There is a great tool, actually, that all leaders can use. And I've encouraged this to happen a lot in business, which I call it left page, right page. It's really, really simple. In sport, every athlete has their performance journal, right? Again, something I definitely encourage business leaders to have more of. Not to write to-do lists down or anything like that. It's a completely different book. It's to write down things that are helpful to you, to your performance. Things that you've learned. It could be a quote; it could be motivational. It could just be a tool; it could be an idea, but it becomes your kind of good news Bible really.

On the left-hand side of the page, it's always about intent. What do I want to do? How will I know if I've been successful? And, as we've discussed, make it as precise as possible. What that does, then is on the right-hand side of the page, it's always about what happens. You're effectively drawing a line across the page, so you're forced to link it to the intent. If the intent wasn't there, you cannot be too hard on yourself. I just never had the intent in the first place. And of course, you can't try and do too much. You can only write so much on the left-hand page. And I think it just helps kind of regulate that process. Because if as a leader, you find yourself constantly writing on the right-hand page and picking people or yourself up for what's going wrong. And the left-hand page is completely blank. Well, there's your answer right there. So, it's a very simple way I think of mediating that process.

Ayo: That's really good. It kind of brings us to the end really because you've kind of summarised what you'd like leaders to take from this conversation and given them steps to do it. But from you guys as well, like this idea of learning from failure, what are your thoughts that you'd love leaders out there to take away from this conversation?

Helen: Well, I think for me, probably come back to my first point about ego. Probably because that was my biggest thing. Just basically check your ego. Once you do start thinking about your ego, is it Eckhart Tolle who's a bit of an expert in this area, he says, once you notice it, then it isn't ego anymore. So just think about your ego and is that the thing that is kind of not allowing you to be curious and to learn from the failures or the mistakes that you're making? That would be my thing.

Kate: Yeah, and I think my point is a little bit linked to that. As leaders, understanding how you're dealing with failure and how you can best deal with it and use it as that positive force but also have the empathy and understanding to really get an awareness of how everybody else in your team and who you're leading is dealing with that failure, because it's likely to be really different. Some people you know, you fail, but they might think they've actually performed really well, and actually inside are really happy. Other people will be devastated. So, how can you have that real care and empathy understanding for every person in that team that you're leading and yourself at the same time?

Ayo: Words of wisdom right there. Well, I tell you what, Kate, Helen OBE, MBE, over 500 appearances between you, Olympic and Commonwealth medals. So glad you could join us. This has been an absolute pleasure and thanks for sharing your words of wisdom with us.

Kate and Helen: My pleasure. Thanks for having us.

Ayo: And Charlie, it's our last episode bro.

Charlie: I'm sad. we need to do this again.

Ayo: We will be reunited at some point.

Charlie: It's been emotional.

Ayo: Very very emotional.

And for you guys listening to the podcast if you want to catch up on any of the previous episodes head over and give them a nice little listen and also give us a little like as well because we want lots more people to learn from this lesson as well. But from me, Ayo Akinwolere, enjoy.

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