Celebrating International Women’s Day

8th March 2018

In celebration of International Women’s Day we spoke to ex-Team GB and England hockey players Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh about their experiences as women in sport and in their new roles as leading motivational speakers on mental health, leadership and well-being.

celebrate international women's day

Please can you tell us a little about yourselves…

Kate – My name is Kate Richardson-Walsh and I am a retired GB & England hockey player. I played in the national team for 17 years from 1999-2016, retiring after the team’s Gold medal win at the Rio Olympic Games. I was born in Manchester and although I have lived down south for over 18 years I still class myself as a northerner! My parents live in Liverpool and Yorkshire with their partners and my sister lives 10 minutes down the road from Helen and I in North London. Helen and I have been together now for nearly 10 years and married for almost five. My work now is varied week to week but includes corporate speaking, school and hockey club visits, some commentary and punditry and writing. I love to keep fit along with, cooking, fashion, travel and all kinds of sport. I’m passionate about making sure everyone has the opportunity and access to sport and promoting mental well-being.

celebrate international women's day

Helen – Oooh where to start! Well, I’m in my mid thirties and being a bit of a nomad I am calling North London my home for now. We only moved there last year but I love being close to the City, whilst it being easy to get out north to Cambridge City where I’ve been playing club hockey this season. I love sport in general, always have done having grown up the youngest of four with three older brothers; we played a bit of everything when I was younger: football, cricket, hockey, tennis, well all the mainstream sports anyway. I joined my first hockey club in West Bridgford, Nottingham when I was 7 and I’ve dedicated much of my life to hockey. After making my debut in 1999 at 17 years old, all I ever wanted was to be the best I could be, which included winning some gold medals along the way of course. Unfortunately I didn’t win any along the way, but I’m thankful to have won a couple, literally right at the end, and all the disappointments made them taste even sweeter. I graduated last year with a psychology degree and having stepped away from international hockey I’m exploring various options within that area. Lastly, the best treat I can give myself is to eat out in a really nice restaurant!

celebrate international women's day

What or who has been your biggest inspiration throughout your careers?

Kate – I would say my family has been a huge inspiration. I feel very fortunate to have a supportive family. My Dad gave up much of his social life to drive my sister and myself to training and matches before we could drive. My Mum showed us how to be ambitious, knowledgeable and empowered women. Although my sister and I fought a little as teenagers we are best of friends now and support each other through life’s up and downs. Like most families, we have our moments, but I realise my privilege in having the family that I do.

Helen – Various people or things have inspired me. My Mum has been a constant inspiration though. She’s shown me how amazingly tough women can be and taught me to never give up however hard things get. When I was going through some difficult times myself, particularly with injury, it was that attitude, along with a vivid image of standing on top of an Olympic podium that kept me going. And then my inspiration to get through the daily grind of training came mostly from my teammates, together we pushed ourselves and each other to achieve our vision, regardless of whether you’d be on the pitch in an Olympic Games, and I couldn’t let them down.

What advice would you give young girls who’d like to make a career in professional sport?

Kate – I would say go for it, with everything you’ve got. This has only recently become a viable option for women and girls unfortunately. However, times are changing, albeit slowly and now is the time to seize the opportunity to really be the change in the world. Be the best possible version of yourself that you can be, stay open and curious about the world and make the best of every situation with which you are faced.

Helen – Go for it! Sport is such a rewarding environment to be within for so many reasons. Whether as an athlete, for which women’s sport is starting to gain traction with the media, funding bodies and sponsorship so it will continue to grow over the coming years, or in one of the many supporting roles such as coaching, officiating, physio, psychology, nutrition, governance, marketing, the list really is endless and the more women that are involved in sport at every level, the better it will be and enjoyed by all.

celebrate international women's day

What were the biggest challenges that you faced as women in sport? How did you overcome them?

Kate – As a woman, playing sport, I only earned enough to live on in the last eight years of my career. This was all thanks to the National Lottery and our UK Sport funding for which we were all truly grateful. However, prior to that we all had to juggle work and study with training as an international athlete. Whilst the top male hockey players have been paid to play for their domestic club for many years this has only recently become an option for women in this country, and still not all. Male players could try out for a spot in the Hockey India League where they could be paid up to £100k for six weeks work. Alas, there is no equivalent for women and unfortunately the cycle of fewer opportunities means less media coverage and therefore lower sponsorship deals has been perpetuated over and over again. Things are changing and by talking, sharing and now, on retirement, actively trying to break that cycle is the mission.

Helen – It’s difficult to distinguish the general challenges from the challenges as a woman so when I look at my whole career the thing that has been pretty constant is probably the general feeling of being made to feel second best. It’s a difficult thing to explain but there are consistent little things that happen like being shoved into the worst changing room in the club house, with the best ones saved for the men’s teams, or there’s the bigger things like the sport of hockey developing new and exciting tournaments for the men’s club teams but not the women’s, such as the EHL (European Hockey League). Whether these things are done for legitimate reasons or not, being told your value as a person is less just because you’re a woman, something I can do nothing about, is a difficult thing to accept; so I haven’t. I guess I’ve dealt with it then by doing what I can to make the changes happen, by speaking to the right people and having conversations when I don’t think something is right, some which can be difficult to have, by working with others who also want to see change happen and more recently by joining committees and commissions to help develop sport for everyone.

You’re both delivering inspirational talks about leadership, mental health issues and teamwork now. How did you make the transition from the pitch and how is it working out?

Kate – Any form of transition is hard because everything you have known and part of your identity has gone. It is also different for everyone and therefore everyone moves on in different ways. For me, sharing both our journey and our team’s journey has been quite therapeutic! Lots of the lessons we learnt in our 17 year careers translate brilliantly to different work environments and across the education sector. We learnt how to build a winning team, work with difference and make that difference a strength, understand ourselves and how to build our resilience. All of the lessons I learnt as a player I will use in the rest of my life. I love the rush of nerves and boost of adrenalin I get when I’m speaking as well!

Helen – Kate and I made a very deliberate plan to have things in the diary to look forward to after the Rio Olympics. Regardless of how it went we knew it would be difficult to step away from playing having done it for the best part of two decades. So we went travelling for a couple of months! We also played a season over in Holland meaning we were kept busy, but also meant we kept a part of the life we knew before where we felt most comfortable. It also acted as a bit of a stepping-stone away from training full-time, which I think helped massively. Along side that we have also been delivering talks to a whole host of businesses and different sectors, which has been really fascinating and something I’ve enjoyed a lot. I’ve always been interested in how teams and people work, the changes we saw over our careers and finding out for ourselves what is the difference between winning and losing is something that resonates well with companies. Being able to tell our story and to talk about our team as well is something I’ll never get bored of! Mental health and well-being is thankfully now high on the agenda for many people including schools, and our experiences around our own difficulties is something we’re happy to share. I’ve enjoyed having more time to explore these opportunities and I’m even considering doing a Masters in psychology having graduated just last year, an area I’m hugely passionate about.

celebrate international women's day

Aside from the obvious – winning gold and bronze, what’s been the highlight of your careers to date?

Kate – For me, being part of the empowered and ambitious squads in the lead up to the London and Rio Olympic Games will be something I will always be eternally proud of. The groups were so ready to challenge the status quo, to be better and do more. Everyone giving all of themselves in the pursuit of the same goal, never knowing whether they themselves would benefit is just everything to me. I felt so lucky to be standing on the podium in London and Rio and I know I would not have been there alongside 15 of my teammates had it not been for the whole squad and staff effort along the way.

Helen – Winning two Olympic medals were of course highlights, however it was the processes that lead to those medals, which I look back on most fondly. In 2009, as a sport we had an opportunity because of the London Olympics. For the first time we had enough money to train full-time, and as a women’s squad we decided we weren’t going to waste this chance to do something different, to be something better than we had ever been. So, 28 strong ambitious women, along with dedicated coaching and support staff, challenged the status quo, and amid criticism embarked on a centralised programme, which also allowed us time to cultivate a culture with the aim to thrive. It wasn’t perfect, we weren’t perfect, but just months later in 2010 we truly challenged on the world stage for the first time in my career, winning a Champions Trophy and World Cup bronze medal months apart. A meeting at Bisham Abbey National Sports centre in February 2009 was where it started, and the rest is history.

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