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Multi-talented MacLeod moves from on-pitch to pitch-side

December 18, 2018

Transition has been a key word throughout Dr Hannah MacLeod’s career. As a scientist and logician by training, when she entered the Great Britain Olympic programme under Head Coach Danny Kerry, she had to learn how to adapt to a mindset that put culture at the heart of all she did.

“People talk about the team that we built for London and Rio, but it was a long process. We didn’t start with it. I learnt so much about myself and what was important for individuals and teams both from a mindset and a cultural perspective. But we didn’t always have that unique team culture, so you saw the transition. I am a scientist by trade and my mindset was very black and white. ‘Culture - what is that? Mindset, what a load of rubbish’.”

The next transition for MacLeod was the move from elite performance athlete – with accompanying Olympic gold medal around her neck – into a new life and new career. 

It is a huge change. As an athlete just about every minute of every day is mapped out and planned. MacLeod was now someone with a ‘portfolio career’ comprising motivational speaking, sports consultancy and high performance coaching. When we spoke, she had just received her honorary degree from Loughborough University, an honour she shared with three other members of the Great Britain Olympic team.

The past two years have seen the quietly spoken MacLeod join the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and embark on a hugely successful motivational speaking career. The dry humour and intelligence that shines through her public speaking delivery makes her a hit among the largely high-flying business people she talks to.

But the place MacLeod is still most at home is in the hockey environment. She currently works part-time for England Hockey as the Great Britain Elite Development Programme assistant coach and the England U21 assistant coach. She has also taken charge of the U21 side from time to time – when the current Head Coach Paul Revington is working with the senior side. It is a role she thoroughly enjoys, even though she says she is “still learning something new everyday.”

There is a new focus on the U21 squad and the Elite Development squad, which makes MacLeod’s role even more rewarding. She explains: “We have had an increase in funding post-Rio to close the gap between U21s and seniors.”

And, as MacLeod says, the gap is more complex than people might realise. “It is as much about getting the culture right as anything. We are a long way off matching some of the other teams in terms of highly skilful players but we compete by being a very tactically smart team. There is a massive requirement for players to really understand the game in tactical terms. How each other works. There is a cognitive requirement for everyone to invest in the whole game. You need to ask your teammates what they need from you and be prepared to have difficult conversations. The players have good skills but their understanding of what is actually required is sometimes way off mark.”

As she has transitioned into coaching MacLeod says she has changed as a person. “I am much calmer and much more reflective. As a player, everything was a matter of life and death. I sometimes chuckle to myself when I see young players and I think ‘I was just like that’. 

“I think as a coach you really appreciate how much experience counts. Bringing Karen Brown into the programme when she retired was a stroke of genius. [Brown is MacLeod’s mentor]. We look at world class coaches who are tactically or strategically smart but it is about far more than that. It will become more obvious with the FIH Pro League because there will be a lot of new demands – travelling etc – and someone with Karen’s experience knows how to handle that in the best way.”

The biggest difficulty MacLeod has encountered since transitioning from player to coach has been how she has been perceived or received by others. “I still sometimes get seen as a player and with coaches and players you almost have a parent/child relationship. That can make it difficult to gain trust from players and other coaching staff. ‘What do you know?’, is the attitude I sometimes face.

“The other side of that is that you are seen as a threat by other coaches because you have played the game recently and often they haven’t. In those cases, you just keep your head down and choose your moment to support and be involved. It is a case of winning respect all over again.”

To develop her coaching career, MacLeod was invited onto the year-long UK Sport-sponsored Athlete to Coach programme, which, she says, has given her the time and experience to really develop her coaching skills. She is the only coach from a team sport background and, she says, the opportunity to work with fellow coaches from the world of individual sports has been tremendous.

“In my own playing career I have experienced real extremes in coaching styles. My first coach, Chris Meyer, was like marmite. He was loathed by much of the hockey community but loved by his team. He was a genius at bringing people together and instilling huge confidence in them.

“Then there was Danny Kerry who is so tactically minded and so diligent. The attention he pays to every detail is amazing. And then there is Paul Revington, he has a desire to create a real family atmosphere within the team. He can reach out to everyone. And his technical knowledge is amazing. What he has done so far at the Elite Development Programme is incredible. To work with these coaches has been an ongoing education.”

So where does the future lead MacLeod? Despite the many strands to her career, a high performance coaching role looks the favoured option. Her own coaching style is developing although she says she is more of a Kerry-style coach, not a ‘shout from the sidelines’ character.

As she ponders what it takes to be a top coach, MacLeod talks about putting the individual at the heart of her coaching. “There are stresses on today’s players that wasn’t so intense when I was starting out. The number of conversations I have that are about skills and tactics compared to chats about lifestyle and coping with life’s pressures - well that is about 30-70 at the moment.”

The amiable Olympian has all the ingredients to transition from high performance athlete to high performance coach. Just like Brown before her, she brings years of experience. Just like Revington, she is approachable and keen to get the basic skills to a high level and just like Kerry, she pays enormous attention to detail. She is also quietly reflective, not easily phased and has a keen sense of humour, which, in the ups and downs of a coaching career are essential qualities.

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