In conversation with Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE OLY
Olympic gold medallist and City alumna Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE (Organisational Psychology, 2021) is about to publish a book with her wife Kate Richardson-Walsh OLY OBE. In Winning Together: An Olympic-Winning Approach to Building Better Teams they use their own insights and experiences to help teams of all kinds be the best they can be.
The Tokyo Olympics 2020 had some thrilling moments. Olympic gold medallist and now City alumna Helen Richardson-Walsh wasn’t going to miss out on the excitement even though she no longer plays for the British women’s hockey team.
“I was actually working for the BBC on the Olympics, for their 5Live coverage on the radio so of course, I did watch all the TV hockey matches”, Helen says. “And there was a part of me that obviously missed playing. But it was just amazing supporting the whole of Team GB, and we did amazingly well. I’m really proud of them all but in particular the women’s hockey team for winning that bronze medal. I think that was an incredible achievement.”
Helen knows first-hand what it feels like to win an Olympic medal as she and her wife, Kate Richardson-Walsh OBE, won gold in Rio, 2016, playing hockey for GB.
“As soon as I saw the Olympic rings…” Helen says. “It just brought back all the memories.”
Helen may have left professional sports, but she hasn’t been resting on her laurels. She became a mum in 2019, she successfully completed her Psychology degree from the Open University in 2017 and then chose City for her MSc in Organisational Psychology and graduated this year. She and Kate have also written a book: Winning Together: An Olympic-Winning Approach to Building Better Teams, which will be available in October.
“We had such long careers, we both played in the national team for 18 years, and we learned so much about ourselves as people. We also experienced so much working in teams and working a lot with psychologists as well, that we wanted to share our experiences.”
The book, containing elements of memoir but primarily written as a book on leadership, should have plenty for the hockey fans, but also contain insights and knowledge that can be easily applicable to any kind of team that wants to get the best out of themselves and the people around them.
“Your mindset and approach is something that is pretty key and can be transferred from sport to business” Helen says. “Like dealing with pressure and learning how to cope in certain pressured situations.”
According to Helen, much of it comes down to self-awareness.
“One of the biggest things is a general understanding of yourself. Most of us grow up and aren’t really asked to stop and think about what we’re thinking and feeling and how we’re reacting and behaving, and what impact that’s having on ourselves and the people around us. And so whichever team you’re in, that stuff is important. Whether you’re in a corporate team, or a sports team, a teacher in a school or even your family.”
How did Helen find the process of writing a book and working on it with Kate?
“Obviously, we’re very used to working with each other,” she says with a laugh. “But we’re very different with how we work. She’s kind of the hare and I’m the tortoise. She’ll just get everything down and then have to read it and probably delete quite a large bit and change lots. While I go slow and when it’s done, it’s done.”
Writing a book isn’t always a straightforward process, something Helen and Kate found out for themselves.
“The first email exchange we had with the publishers was in 2017, so it’s taken us a fair while but we have had a lot going on,” says Helen. “Just trying to figure out what to put in the book and what to leave out, and then how to put it all together was pretty challenging, and it has changed a little bit from what we first thought it was going to be. But now we’ve got the book that will be the best for most people.“
Helen began her postgraduate studies in Organisational Psychology at City, University of London in 2018. Looking back, she’s happy she decided to study part-time as it meant Covid-19 didn’t affect her entire degree.
“One of the things I wanted to do was actually connect with people and so that’s why I went to a university rather than do a Master’s degree with the Open University. I wanted to meet people and I would have been a bit gutted if I’d had to do it remotely.”
The decision to study psychology both at undergraduate and postgraduate level comes back to her experiences as an athlete. When her team didn’t perform as well as other national teams despite having the same technical skills, she began to look at other factors.
“What goes on in the mind is really the biggest thing in achieving high performance. I also struggled with my mental health at certain points in my career and that was another reason why I wanted to explore it a bit more, and that’s why I started my degree. Then I went into Organisational Psychology because for me that was the kind of thing that had the biggest impact on our team. It was more the cultural aspect than necessarily the sport psychology aspects that had the biggest impact on our success. So that’s why I went down that route as well.”
As the women’s hockey team started to focus more on their minds, they began to make progress.
“As a team, when we were our best, we were really consistent. We worked hard on our self-awareness. And it was really difficult. You know, being able to hold that mirror up to your face, and look at yourself and go; how am I? How am I being and how am I impacting my team? We worked really hard on understanding that and learning that about ourselves. And we were lucky as athletes because we had access to some great experts and our psychologists were fantastic. They really helped us learn about ourselves and gave us the skills to get our minds in the right place before training and before competition.”
Since November 2020 Helen has been working part-time with Tottenham Hotspur’s Women as a performance psychologist, something she’s thoroughly enjoyed.
“It’s been great to get back involved at that level of a sports team,” she says, reflecting on what it’s like to do something new after close to two decades as a professional athlete.
“I’m almost having to start again, essentially, which is taking me out of my comfort zone, and I’m learning lots and being challenged in so many different ways. But it’s been really good so far. I’ve really enjoyed being part of the team and enjoyed trying to impart some of the learnings that I’ve had over the years to help them be the best that they can be as individuals and as a team as well.”
Again, no matter what you’re trying to achieve, it comes down to self-awareness and learning how to respond to what you are feeling.
“I always say that’s the first thing people need to do; start to notice what’s happening to them. What thoughts are they having? What feelings are they experiencing? And what actual physiological things are happening with the body because when you’re nervous you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach and all that stuff is like real data, essentially. Once you start to notice those things, you can start to control your thoughts and your feelings and start to move them in the direction that you want,” Helen says. “Your brain is a muscle as much as the muscles in your legs, in your arms, and it’s adaptable. It has the ability to grow stronger and adapt to the different contexts that we put within it.”
What does Helen Richardson-Walsh want to focus on in the future?
“Kate and I have obviously written this book, and we want to start our own business working with teams and people, helping them get the best out of themselves. When you create that culture that you want to be a part of it can be the best feeling in the world, so we want others to try and experience that as well,” she says.
And if someone wanted a similar career to Helen’s, especially in professional sports, what advice would she give?
“A lot of it comes down to your will, as long as you have the skill level,” she says. “I noticed some people who were deemed to be very, very talented, but they didn’t want it enough, so they didn’t make it. And so, for me, again, it comes back to the mind. How much are you prepared to put in and how much are you prepared to give? Because if you want to achieve at the top of your sport it’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of effort. So, expect that, but also try to enjoy it at the same time. Try to stay in the moment. Don’t necessarily think about where you want to get to and how far away it might be because you only get to be an athlete for a very short period of time and you want to enjoy it whilst you can.”
A big thank you to Helen Richardson-Walsh for sharing insights into her new book Winning Together: An Olympic-Winning Approach to Building Better Teams, her studies, and the lessons she’s learnt as a top professional athlete!