Playing any sport to an international level is an incredible accomplishment. Only a select few have the mental aptitude, determination and skill required to reach the world stage. Individuals who are also capable of galvanising their fellow elite athletes and leading the team to successive victories are even rarer.
Captaincy is an honour only bestowed on professionals who have earned the utmost respect from their coaches and teammates. Alex Danson and Hollie Pearne-Webb of the GB women's hockey squad are two such players.
Taking on the captaincy
Alex was named GB and England captain in 2017, while Hollie initially served as vice-captain. However, Hollie has since temporarily moved into the captain's role until Alex recovers from a serious head injury she sustained near the end of last year.
As captains, Alex and Hollie must inspire the team and ensure wins are encouraged and celebrated without complacency setting in. They are also instrumental in helping the squad learn from their losses and emerge stronger than ever before.
With such a huge responsibility on their shoulders, how did Alex and Hollie feel when they first heard they had been selected?
"We were given the opportunity to vote for a captain and a vice-captain leadership team, and it's the biggest privilege I've ever been given," Alex says. "It's not even something I ever thought I'd have the opportunity to do. It's one of the most special honours that I take very, very proudly."
On the other hand, Hollie admits she felt a mixture of emotions. While the defender was eager to take on more responsibility, she also recognised how much of a hole Alex's absence left in the squad.
"Alex is not just an incredible player to have on the pitch, she's also a fantastic captain, a fantastic leader, someone that leads by example and sets standards, so not having her around is difficult."
"But I'm happy to step in and take on her role while she's recovering and determined to do the best possible job I can do," Hollie explains.
My greatest hope is that our legacy transcends Olympic cycles. That young girls grow up knowing they can be full-time hockey players.
Propelling the team forward
Understanding each squad member's unique strengths and weaknesses and spurring them on to secure success requires intelligence, a positive mindset and excellent interpersonal skills.
What leadership style have the two captains adopted to achieve the best results? Alex is a firm believer in the collaborative approach. She cites the team's shared leadership structure as one of its key benefits.
"We have lots of brilliant characters who have many different things to offer, so we're not looking for one person, or two people, or three people to lead. It's about making sure we can drive standards together," Alex says.
"We make sure every single player feels hugely valued and able to contribute, because 33 women having a voice, understanding how important it is to hear that, and how much intent they can bring to training makes us a force to reckon with."
‘We're not looking for one person, or two people, or three people to lead. It's about making sure we can drive standards together.’
Hollie takes a lot of inspiration from Alex, leading by example on the pitch and striving to foster a supportive culture where every squad member is able to get the best out of themselves. However, she's also committed to making the role her own.
"I'm always looking for more and always wanting more out of everyone, so it's important to be myself, be genuine, keep doing what I do, but also make sure I'm pulling others along with me and others want to follow me as well," Hollie says.
"I think I have a team-first mindset and constantly think of how we can get better. A positive mental attitude for me is easy to have, purely because I have belief in this squad, and the team, and what we can achieve."
Learning from the best
Alex and Hollie may have more than 20 years of international experience between them, but they still recognise the need to constantly improve their leadership skills. This is where they look to their own role models for guidance.
Both players were members of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games gold medal-winning squad, where they were captained by hockey legend Kate Richardson-Walsh. For Alex, filling Kate's shoes was always going to be a monumental task.
"I've probably learned so much from her without even realising, and what she always did was lead by example. I see that as one of the biggest honours I have as captain," she explains.
Being relatively new to captaincy, Hollie remains humble and pragmatic about her capabilities. She hopes to rely on her natural instincts more in the future, rather than overthink problems. Fortunately, she has more than one mentor to model her career on.
"As a leader, I've got a lot to learn and I'm very lucky that I had Kate last cycle, who was an unbelievable leader, and Alex in this cycle. So, I've had two great leaders to work under," she states.
"Alex is one of the best forwards, one of the best teammates and players, always puts the team first and is just a perfect example of someone you want to follow and be like."
I'm always looking for more and always wanting more out of everyone, so it's important to be myself, be genuine, keep doing what I do, but also make sure I'm pulling others along with me.
Looking to the future
The importance of being a role model cannot be overstated in a sport where the tone at the top is crucial for establishing the team's culture now and in the future.
Indeed, Alex has a very clear vision for what path she wants the sport to follow in the coming years.
"My greatest hope for the future of women's GB hockey is that our legacy transcends Olympic cycles. That young girls grow up knowing that they can be full-time hockey players. That we're able to recreate success, and we never lose sight of how we do that, and that's because we're a team," she says.
With leaders like Kate, Alex and Hollie at the helm of the GB squad, these hopes could very soon be a reality.