Helen Richardson-Walsh: my reflections on an empowering WSLA 2023

Being involved in WSLA 2023 last month as a co-facilitator was amazing, an opportunity I grabbed with both hands. When I heard Sarah Wright (co-facilitator on behalf of Leading Edge Performance in 2022) give a sense of what it was like last year, I remember thinking how much I’d love to be involved next time.

But why?

Reflecting on the incredible week now, there’s so much I could say. What stands out strongly (as well as the phenomenal storytelling session by Katrice Horsley, which I’ll come on to…) is just how unique it is. Thirty-two quite incredible women from 15 countries doing amazing things as leaders in sport – all in a room together. It was both inspiring and a privilege to spend time in their company.

Strength in community  

Most of them had never met before, and went from being strangers to building a supportive network – a real community – in just five days; five very busy, fun, emotional, inspirational and reflective days.

For me, it was how prepared they were to show vulnerability that made this week what it was. Growth as people rarely happens without being vulnerable and these women had the courage to openly share their stories and experiences as leaders in sport, to trust in the process when they were being taken out of their comfort zones, to be curious learners and to unite the group; in doing so, they helped everyone to get the most out of their time together and build connections that could well last a lifetime.

Going on such a journey together in such a short time is incredible!

Bringing vulnerability to a team resonates with me as someone who played hockey for England and Team GB for 18 years. Being vulnerable as a group helped us create trust and have respect for one another. We built a sense of togetherness and belonging that became an integral part of who we were, and success soon followed; feeling comfortable to show our true selves made us more confident and effective players and teammates.

I loved co-facilitating WSLA 2023 with Sarah Wright and Tina Dullaghan (from Leading Edge Performance) and three women from previous cohorts, and I was proud to lead on two sessions: Creating Belonging and Being At My Best.

A sense of belonging

My session on belonging, which took place on the Monday and helped to set up the week, explored what it feels like to belong and what it feels like to not belong, both generally and specifically as part of the residential.

Before getting them to think about moments from their past when they felt like they hadn’t belonged, I shared some of my own experiences from hockey as a way to demonstrate the impact a sense of belonging can have on a team. I still vividly remember one of the hardest training sessions I have ever done; it was 3 weeks out from the start of the London 2012 Olympics and I was in awe of 10 of my teammates in particular that hadn’t been selected for the Games, because here they all were, with broken hearts, and still giving everything and pushing and encouraging everyone in the process. A true sense of togetherness supported and guided us in every moment we faced.

Translating this into a group activity, participants drew up what ‘belonging’ to WSLA 2023 would look and feel like, and displayed behaviours that would help to achieve this around the room to guide us throughout the week.

Being at our best

For the Tuesday session, we explored how we could produce our ‘A’ game on a more consistent basis and some of the things that get in our way. To bring this to life, I shared one of my failures this time, from a crucial moment in a match against the Dutch; the umpire awarded us a penalty stroke and instantaneously my body said “no”! I hid, I looked to others to take it – essentially, I was struck down by fear. Annoyingly, fear has a tendency to do that, but once you start to notice when and why it happens, you can put in place systems or processes to take back control.

Later, I reflected on that moment, and made my pre-game routines even more robust so it didn’t happen again. From then on, whenever we got a penalty, I was always prepared and felt confident, even in the Rio 2016 Olympic final.

To support the WSLA 2023 participants as they explored their own fears, we asked them to get creative and draw them, to name them, to start to get to know them, make friends with them, and learn what to say to themselves in moments when they were held back. Taking time to understand yourself with compassion is crucial and one of the most important things I ever did.

The power of our own story

Doing the work that I do often gives me the opportunity to work alongside or simply be in the company of other amazingly talented specialists. Powerful storyteller Katrice Horsley is one of these people, and she blew me away with how she introduced and set up her leadership skills session.

Katrice opened with the most poignant yet hopeful performance, a story, beautifully told, that demonstrated the power of our internal narrative, and my reaction was as visceral as it was emotional. Our experiences and what we’ve been told over years and years leave imprints in our minds and on our hearts, sometimes without us even knowing. They shape who we are and our sense of value within this world, for better or for worse. As Katrice said, as leaders our stories and voices are our strongest tool and so she guided the participants through sharing their personal stories, identifying common themes, and using these to create new, more productive, and effective narratives – these are particularly helpful when faced with some of the barriers these women have been up against throughout their lives and will continue to be going forward.

One highlight of the week was the performances of these new narratives, told in small groups during the celebration event on the Thursday evening – the courage it took was inspirational and the power of their collective voice was palpable, a real privilege to witness.

Five inspirational days

That brings us back to where we started: “True belonging never asks us to change who we are, it demands that we be who we are.” (Brené Brown). At the end of an amazing week-long programme, where leaders came together from countries worldwide, my hope is they left empowered to use their uniqueness through the new tools and approaches they learned from these five inspirational days, to honour all that they are as they strive forward, and to use their voices to lead within their organisations and beyond.



Share this article:

Helen Richardson-Walsh

Contact Helen now to find out how. we can help your business

Book a call


Related articles