Win the moment: Leadership lessons from the football field

Over the past two years, the Australian female sporting arena has observed an incredible influx of attention and support. From the creation of the Women’s Australian Football League, to the success of the Rugby Sevens team at the Rio Olympics, challenging opportunities for women to lead both on and off the field are increasing.

In celebration of both International Women’s Day and the recent success of women’s sport, we spoke to Clare Polkinghorne, co-captain of the Australian women’s football team, the Matlidas. The Matildas enjoyed a string of recent successes: winning the OFC Women’s Nations Cup for the third time in 2015, making the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 and they placed seventh at last year’s Rio Olympics.

Clare was awarded the Football Federation Australia Female Footballer of the year in 2010, the same year the Matildas team won the AFC Asian Women’s Cup, becoming the first Australian football team to win silverware at a major tournament.

As a leader, Clare focusses on developing a high performing team through fostering inclusivity and ensuring individuals have the courage to play to their strengths, as well as celebrating the diverse skills and attributes of each player.

Our interview with Clare revealed three key tactics that will be useful for any leader, whether on the field or in the boardroom:

  1. Celebrating diversity: cultivating the unique attributes of all team members;
  2. The Matildas ‘i’ concept: creating a balance between celebrating the success of individuals and ensuring that no single person is bigger than the team; and,
  3. Winning the moment: focusing on winning as many moments as possible, as each and every one could be crucial to achieving success.

Over the last 10 years of your professional playing career, you would have experienced a variety of differing leadership and coaching styles. What have you noticed as some of the impacts of those differing styles? What factors help sustain high performance?

We had a two-year experience with a coach who had a highly authoritative leadership style which had devastating effects on the team. There were low levels of trust in the team, and it created a highly restrictive environment. Players were afraid to be themselves and to play to their strengths on the field. As captain, the rest of the team was looking to me for help, yet I was feeling just as helpless as them.

In stark contrast, our current coach has provided an extremely positive form of leadership. The style of football we play depends on a diverse range of jobs and each player has their role to play. The coach has given the players responsibility; the players trust in the system and have taken ownership of their team. As one of the captains, it is my role to ensure players are comfortable in the environment, feel safe and have the courage to play their part for the team.

Having observed the impact of different leadership styles, what have you learnt with regard to your own style?

One of the most challenging times in my career was when I co-captained at the 2010 World Cup and was unable to play a single minute in the tournament. I had to learn, on the run, how to be a leader off the field, rather than my conventional style of leading on the field. I had to learn how to support players who were looking to me for guidance off the pitch. There is so much that happens away from the 90 minutes of game time, especially at a major tournament. I had to put my disappointment aside and realise what the team needed from me.

I realised my role within the team is constantly changing and having a diverse range of skills to deal with different roles is paramount. During one of the toughest times in my career, I was able to add to my repertoire of leadership skills and have no doubt come out a better leader, better footballer and better person.

How important is diversity & inclusion to the success of the Matildas?

The diversity within the team is a major component in our success. We have explosive players, dynamic players, physical players, technically-gifted players, players with football brains, athletics players and players with an aura of calmness about them. We have young players, older players, as well as inexperienced and experienced players.

No player is exactly the same as another, we each have our own skills, strengths and experiences. For us to be effective on the pitch, each player needs to execute their strengths. A key ingredient of our successful high performing team is for each player to know their role within the team and play their role within the system.

Are there any tactics or philosophies the team has implemented to help foster high performance?

As a group, we introduced the ‘i’ concept into our Matildas name. In this way, Matildas could be displayed in three ways: with too much i, with no i at all, or with a perfect size ‘i’.

Players who displayed too much ‘i’ were too focused on themselves and not focused on what was best for the team. Those with too little ‘i’ were not contributing what the team needed – to  ultimately, we were missing out on these players’ skills and abilities.

The ideal amount of ‘i’ in the team means players are individuals, who bring their own strengths and don’t shy away from who they are on and off the field. We want players to feel they are an important part of the team. We can’t have players who think they are bigger than the team, but the sense of belonging is also important to our success.

Our vision has always been to go out and try to win the game, not fear mistakes or losing. To embody this vision we often refer to our ‘to win the moment’ philosophy. A game of football is made up of many moments; some moments will decide a game, other moments could turn the game in our favour. We focus on winning as many moments as we can during a game.  So whether it be a 50/50 challenge, a crucial tackle in the final third, a lung busting overlapping run or a crucial goal, we want to be winning as many moments as we can.

Thanks very much to Clare for sharing her unique and valuable insights. If you want to know more about the article please contact Bridget Sester.

To learn more about the Matildas visit their official website here.

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