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“It’s an interesting one, because people still do a lot of things with leadership groups, but I went away from that based on females and how they work,” she says down the line on Zoom.
Ludlow, the former Manager of Wales Women, has spoken to the Leaders Performance Institute of the link between learning and confidence when instilling a gameplan, her work developing the next generation of talent, as well as contributing to our Performance Special Report on the topic of psychological safety.
In the latest instalment of our interview, Ludlow, who currently works as a technical consultant for Fifa, switches her focus to the role of a team’s senior leaders, with particular reference to her tenure with Wales Women, which came to an end in January after seven successful years.
The role of senior leaders
The Leaders Performance Institute asks Ludlow to explain her reasons for discarding player leadership groups.
“I wanted all of the group to feel responsible for different things and wanted them to work together without having a hierarchical approach,” she says. “My experience of working with female teams is that a hierarchical approach doesn’t work; it creates bad feeling amongst the group. If you have a leader or captain who is very direct, very high profile in comparison to everyone else and basically has the limelight, it’s never worked well, whether I was a player in a group or a coach in a group, and observing those things. With my female groups it’s never worked.”
Of course, Ludlow maintained the captaincy and vice-captaincy – she is always ready to heap praise on Chelsea midfielder Sophie Ingle, who was her captain for much of her time as Wales Manager – but that was the extent of the team’s formalised hierarchy. “The way we approached creating the environment was to say we all have a voice in it,” she adds. “We’d say ‘some of you will feel more comfortable right now expressing those thoughts and opinions, but you all have to get to a point where you will express those thoughts and opinions because all of your thoughts and opinions count.’ There would be older players that I asked certain things of, but I never termed it a ‘leadership group’.
“The choice of captain was very much based around those things as well. The captain of the national team, Sophie Ingle, you wouldn’t find anyone who said a bad word about her, you wouldn’t find her wanting to be at the front of a photoshoot, she’s very much…” Ludlow tails off as she contemplates her next words. “Not transformational but she doesn’t have to be the centre of attention. She’s a guide; our captain’s a guide. Partly with her personality and what she’s comfortable with, but how we worked as a group.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were times, when I made that decision early on, I wanted a leader on the pitch to be far more vocal, far more aggressive at times, but I learnt early on that that’s not what the playing group wanted and it doesn’t necessarily give you more success.”
Do Ludlow’s views set her apart from her peers? “I don’t actually know,” she says after a moment of quiet consideration. “I don’t know if I’m a coach right now who thinks differently to others who work with female groups in this sense, or whether this is the norm. But when people talk about leadership groups I always feel for the rest of the team because I know females inside out and they will feel they don’t have a voice unless it’s managed very well in the sense of the specific roles the leadership group has.”
She pauses again. “I’m thinking as I’m saying it. No, I still wouldn’t go for it, I’ve never liked it. I think the situations I was in in the club environments at the time, the captaincy and leadership group put people in bad form, so I avoid it and favour shared responsibility. If you’re a member of the team and our groups, you’re just as important as the person who wears the armband at kick-off.”
Creating a sense of belonging
In lieu of leadership groups, how did Ludlow ensure her players felt a sense of belonging and were pulling in the same direction. “We’d try to challenge them in other ways,” she says. “They’d have responsibility to talk; we’d mix up groups a lot, that was the main way. When we do our collaborative bits, there’d be times where we use one of our more experienced players within a group of younger players so that even though there wasn’t a coach giving them direction, they would see that the more experienced player knows just as much as we do. They were there to encourage the others to speak, have a voice and share in the learning.
“At times within those groups, we’d make sure that we kept the more experienced ones together because we really needed to challenge their thought process and we also wanted to make the younger, newer ones really comfortable to share, so we’d keep them together and monitor them slightly differently.
“It’s a case of what you want to get out of it every time and being really mobile and adapting. The one thing I always say is you need to understand who that youngster is in terms of confidence levels, personality, what is their natural way of behaving; are they loud etc? Are they wanting to share all the time? It’s a case of monitoring and managing that. In general, players were really quiet and not wanting to raise their voice too early.
“At times we put the more motherly players around the individual to make sure that when they’re not doing specific things with us they’re being looked after, that they’re being brought into group environments more so off the pitch. Lots of things go into it and the support system is key, whether that’s from teammates or staff. But the big thing for me was making sure when they came into the environment they felt part of the group immediately, they know they had responsibility to do certain things; it wasn’t the case that you were going to get an easy ride, they had to understand that they had to do what everybody else had to do and perform certain things; but at times it was giving them that extra support that they needed.
“Some coaches may not favour an individual approach but, for me, it was always about who that individual is, regardless of if it was a youngster or an older player. Our environment was very much ‘who are you? What are the things you do as a personality that makes you who you are?’ Ninety-nine percent of the time I want those things to happen for you; so it’s a case of how we adapt to you that enables you to conform to specific things that always need to happen in a team environment.”
For example, Ludlow would allow players to wear their own clothes most of the time during national camps and they could certainly style their hair however they chose. “That’s their identity. Does it mean we have different approaches on a match day for individuals so that they get to a game and feel at their optimum? Yes. There were big chunks of the programme that every single player has to conform to and there’s a certain way to do it; but there’s also just as many big parts of the programme where they could bring who they are to the environment.
“That was key to me. From past experience, where coaches have done the strangest things: how we need to dress or wear our hair. It’s a militaristic approach. Everybody has to be the same. I didn’t appreciate that as a player so, coming into my coaching environment, I made sure that I didn’t expect that of anyone either.”
Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.