What business leaders can learn from elite sport


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 14, we spoke to Catherine Cannuli, the Head Coach of the women’s Western Sydney Wanderers team in the A-league.

A former Matildas Australian football player, Catherine has won several championships and awards, including the Women’s National Soccer League Golden Boot: 2003–2004.

Catherine has experience in sports management and leadership, she is recognised for being an inspirational leader for embracing the power of collaboration and being a team player. Purpose-driven and passionate, she knows how to lead individuals and teams to success.

In our chat this week we spoke about how to manage a team of people effectively, the importance of respect, and the importance of resilience.

To learn more about Catherine, listen to our chat on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Catherine Cannuli, the Head Coach of the women’s Western Sydney Wanderers

Growing up in an Italian-Australian household, a love of football was ingrained in me from a young age. At eight years old, I began training with the Marconi boys soccer team, before joining their team a year later. Back then, there were no girls’ teams that I could join, but that didn’t make being part of the boys’ team an uncontroversial option. There were a lot of disgruntled parents who didn’t like seeing me out on the pitch. Now, I can look back and say that even at a young age, I was breaking down barriers.

Once I turned 13, SDSFA banned me from playing with the boys’ team and I was forced to join the Open Women’s league, which was a massive jump both mentally and physically. Afterwards, I was accepted into the NSW Institute of Sport program for football, which led me to play for the highest league in Australia, the A-league, and represent Australia, by playing for the Matildas.

Today, I am the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers women’s team. All the hardships and barriers I experienced along the way are what have made me the coach and leader I am today. They have shaped my values, mindset, and leadership style, and I believe that every small to medium-sized business owner can learn from my experiences.

The number one thing that my experiences in football have taught me, and continue to teach me, is the importance of resilience and respect. As a leader, you must have both. These are the two most important values that every leader should have. As Head Coach, I have to make tough decisions every day I’m working, and these decisions can have real consequences for my team and players. Being open, transparent, and honest is critical to ensuring the success of your team and business.

Elite sport can teach business leaders a lot. Much like business, football is infused with challenging experiences, teamwork, criticism, and consistent hard work. You don’t get to the highest level of sport without overcoming hardships, building mental fortitude, and learning how to work hard to achieve your goals. In this article, I will explain the importance of resilience, the need for respect, why your team needs to buy into your beliefs, and how these factors are sure to drive team and business growth.

Let your football do the talking
Like I mentioned before, wanting to play football wasn’t always easy for me as a young girl. Today, football is much more inclusive, but back then it was somewhat frowned upon for a girl to play football. Growing up in this environment forged my resilience and enabled me to become a strong and successful leader. It also taught me the importance of removing my ego so that negative opinions could not stand in the way of my progress.

There were always negative comments from the sidelines when I played football as a part of the boys’ team. It felt like I didn’t have to simply earn their respect through my goal scoring, but instead, I had to prove my existence to them. I wasn’t simply fighting for a spot as a player but fighting for a spot as a female player in a male league.

My dad was the one that taught me to block out this commentary as it didn’t serve me or my talent. He would always say, “let your football do the talking”. What he meant by this was that if people are talking about you, you should let them. Instead of it being a negative, it’s instead simply an indicator that you’re doing something right.

You can apply this same idea to small and medium-sized business owners. In the beginning, you’ll often be faced with a lot of disbelief and negativity from those around you. Don’t listen to this. Instead, let your business success “do the talking” and showcase your triumphs. Soon, you’ll see all these whispers and negative chatter die down as your success overcomes their doubt.

This is obviously easier said than done. Sometimes, it can be hard to filter out the negativity. This is where resilience comes in. Resilience is about pushing forward despite hardships. It’s about overcoming challenges with a good attitude and realising that you’re stronger for all of the difficulties you have had to face.

While the hardships you experience aren’t a choice, you can choose to be resilient. If you find the strength to keep fighting for your business’ success, you’ll also foster inner strength and commitment to never giving up, even when faced with adversity.

Give respect, gain respect
When I transitioned from Assistant Coach to Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I was often asked how my leadership style would change. My response was simple, it wouldn’t change. I will never change who I am or my values simply because I receive a new position. I believe authenticity, honesty, and transparency are paramount to gaining the respect of your team.

For me, my number one leadership value is respect. Respect that flows both ways – respect for each other and for me as a leader. But to gain respect, you must first give respect.

As Head Coach, I have to make tough decisions each week about which 17 players will be playing. This means that there will be around five to eight players that don’t get to join. As you can imagine, this process can be difficult for both me and the players. Not getting picked can be disappointing. This is why I always ensure that I communicate my reasoning to these players individually before I make the announcement. I am honest about why they didn’t make the team list that week and always ensure I am transparent and open with them. This is how I show that I respect them and treat them with kindness.

This authentic and open process means that, just like I respect everyone on my team, they also respect me and my decisions. At the end of the day, the players are my backbone and I need their trust and commitment at every stage of the coaching and playing journey. You never know when you’ll need a player to give 150% effort on game day. This is my way of ensuring that my team are always hungry to play well and are committed to the goals of the team.

This idea of giving respect to gain respect should be a part of every business owner’s leadership strategy. Your business is only as strong as your team. You need your team to be committed to you and your goals and to achieve this, you need them to respect you, trust your vision, and place their belief in the idea that you will lead them to success.

In many ways, the workplace is just like a football pitch. When a team member makes a mistake, instead of sitting back and giving up, you want to ensure they put all their effort into fixing their error. Whether they do right their wrong isn’t important. The effort that they place in fixing their mistake is an indicator of whether your team respects you and whether they will go the hard yards to help your business succeed. Gaining people’s respect equates to gaining their effort when your business faces hardships and challenges.

Hard work beats talent every time
In my time as a football coach, from grassroots to the A-league, I’ve noticed that while talented players may begin better than most, often they get overtaken by the players who work hard. This is the same in business. While some businesses may gain quick and immediate success, they don’t last unless they continue to work hard to improve.

Talent can only get you so far. People who find the easy way in business or on the football pitch will only get so far before they plateau, whereas people who are hungry to learn will continue to improve. This is why business leaders should always focus on gaining staff members that are passionate and driven to develop their skills, not just the ones that are initially talented.

You’ll find that those who are hard workers will naturally be more motivated to achieve the goals you set before them. However, even though motivation is important for business success, it’s not the most important aspect. Maintaining your performance, even when you realise you may fall short of your goal, is what counts.

In football, it can be easy to get discouraged when you realise that you may lose a match. Something you have worked so hard for is now unattainable. But does that mean you start reducing your intensity and work rate? No. Whether you’re winning or losing, you should always be playing with effort. Don’t allow bad habits to creep in when you’re feeling disappointed. You keep playing your style of football, or maintaining your business practices, no matter what. Stick to your game plan and your ambitions, and eventually, you will start winning again. Don’t ever accept losing and the habits that can come with it.

No matter your talents, whether you’re an athlete or a coach or a business leader, learning never stops. Everybody must keep practising to further develop their trade and skills. This is why instilling a growth mindset as part of your company culture is so important.

Pushing people but not crushing them
Driving your team to success is all about striking a careful balance between critical feedback and rewards. Both are necessary to forge a strong team, develop your team’s talents and expand their skillsets.

Build authentic relationships with each team member individually. Then, you can understand the best way to approach them and offer feedback. When you understand a person, you can then adapt the way you provide criticisms to ensure that they get the most out of it. Some players in my team are okay if I give feedback with others around, while other players best receive feedback in a one-on-one session. Neither type of player is wrong for the way they want feedback, I just need to adapt my approach to every unique team member. Understanding what your employees need and want is how you’ll be able to nurture them and get the best results.

The same goes for rewarding your team. In a football setting, it can often be a challenge to acknowledge everybody’s efforts as only a few people can be goal scorers. The same goes in a business setting. While some people may be easy to recognise for their efforts, like sales staff, for example, a whole team was working behind the scenes to get the achievement. Recognising people for their efforts, at all stages of the business, is paramount to building trusting and loyal employees.

Ensuring your team feels valued and rewarded is a key part of creating strong and authentic relationships. Sometimes, all you can do is talk to them or give them a pat on the back – it doesn’t always have to be something major. By recognising effort within your team, you’ll see your employees buy into your business’s values, ambitions, and aims. This is how you ensure that you always have the full support of your team. Nobody wants to work hard for a business that never acknowledges their efforts, the same way that no midfielder or defender will continue to put in the hard yards if only the main goal scorers receive your gratitude.

Being a strong business leader is much like being a head coach of an elite football team. You are constantly having to make tough decisions, earn the respect of your team, and ensure that your team are committed to your goals.

As the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I understand what it takes to be a strong and effective leader. Each week I lead my team to perform to the best of their ability. Being resilient, forging strong relationships, gaining respect, driving growth, and enabling individuals to work hard are what make a great leader.

So, how will you show up for your team?