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  • Writer's pictureFiona Deehan

Sarah Rowe: Leading self and others, lessons from sport and life

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of interviewing Sarah Rowe, an Irish triple code sportswoman, now playing AFLW in Australia with Collingwood, to mark St Brigid’s Day, a celebration of Irish women and girls. Sarah toured Aotearoa New Zealand and met with many Irish community members around the country. I had the opportunity to interview her twice in that time, once at Christchurch Irish Society and once at the Embassy of Ireland New Zealand. 

I’ve combined Sarah’s wisdom from her experiences with some of my own thoughts to bring out some of the learnings from sport and how they crossover into workplaces and life. You can watch the live stream of our conversation at the Embassy here.

  1. Notice differences in your environment and adapt your approach as needed, but retain your authenticity

  2. Building strong relationships build trust and enables accountability

  3. Take ownership for your own performance by leveraging all the resources you can access

  4. When things aren’t going well, look in the mirror first

  5. Know your ‘recipe for success’, plan for the week ahead

Notice differences in your environment and adapt your approach as needed, but retain your authenticity

Playing multiple elite sports at a young age, Sarah learned about differences in workplace cultures and environments; essentially, just like each workplace or sector, each sport has different accepted ‘norms’ - what’s ok in a soccer setting differs to what’s acceptable in a gaelic football setting. That’s what culture is - accepted behaviourial ‘norms’, ‘how we treat each other around here’. Having that awareness early on in Sarah’s career meant that she has become incredibly good at reading people, noticing what makes them tick and adjusting her communication and leadership style according to the setting she is in and helping to get the best out of the people she words with. With the move into a third sporting environment (and the added complexity of being a foreigner, being Irish in Australia), the move into AFLW has meant that Sarah has continued to build on this awareness and skill. What’s important about this ability to adapt though, is to retain ‘being yourself’, your authenticity, as you do adapt because trying or pretending to be something you’re not is not sustainable for yourself, it’s draining, and people notice the integrity ‘gap’, which negatively impacts on relationships.

It’s fair to say that we’ve all experienced the need to adapt in new workplaces and new teams. We all have the capacity to adapt, grow, learn and evolve. Research has found that development of self-awareness and learning agility are two of the fundamental skills successful leaders cultivate so if we are to grow in our leadership capacity, this matters. And how can you retain your authenticity as you adapt? Being clear on your values, becoming comfortable asking for help and saying ‘I don’t know’ and having people around you who can keep you grounded as you navigate change can help. Sarah shared a great story about her Mam taking her aside when she noticed she was being a bit less herself, a bit less fun, and how that reminded her that she was adapting a little too much herself.

Building strong relationships build trust and enables accountability

Players, just like colleagues in a workplace, range in age and experience and therefore, in their mindset and approach to training and performance, the ‘work’. Being able to hold each other accountable to standards comes from trust and that trust will only come with conversations and the ongoing building and strengthening of relationships. Whether it’s in the ALFW dressing room or your office-based workplace, we need to have open conversations about shared and expected values and behaviours and how we might communicate with each other if anyone observes these not being upheld. Without clarity and shared understanding of our accepted ‘norms’, what our culture means, how can we hold each other accountable to them? We can’t! As Brene Brown says, ‘clear is kind, unclear is unkind’’

Take ownership for your own performance by leveraging all the resources you can access

Transitioning from elite performance expectations playing an amateur sport in Ireland, ladies gaelic football, to elite performance expectations playing ALFW in Australia, which is now trying to shift from semi-professional professional, Sarah noticed a stark difference in the access to resources, facilities and support. In ladies gaelic football, you are working a full-time job and the resources and professional support are thin on the ground…but you just get on with it because it’s about community and pride of place. On the other hand, the AFLW environment gives you immediate access to amazing facilities, resources and people to help with every need you might have. The reality is that if you move from an environment that has access to much less resources to one with much more, you are incredibly grateful, will take every opportunity and leverage every resource to enable you to perform at your best. On top of that, the responsibility is on you to take ownership for your own performance by leveraging the resources that are available to you, asking for feedback, asking for help and continuing to learn about the environment you are in. 

Of course, this is relevant in any workplace. For example, are you waiting for your manager to shoulder-tap you for any development or promotional opportunities? Or do you take time to see what course might be available to you and bring them to your manager outlining how they will impact your performance, and therefore add value to your team? And if you’re a manager, what resources can you provide your team or what barriers can you remove that can help them grow, develop and perform at their best?

When things aren’t going well, look in the mirror first

Whether you’re not performing on the pitch or you’re not feeling it in your job anymore, it’s important to be able to step back and reflect on your role in that and how you might affect change. Doing this doesn’t mean that there aren’t external factors or people contributing to this, it simply shifts thinking from finding blame to taking personal responsibility for affecting change and getting a different outcome to ourselves. We can’t control the behaviour of others but we can take ownership for our own decisions, actions, emotions and thoughts. One of the greatest things we can control in our lives is where we place our attention and how we choose to see and be curious about the experiences we have.

Know your ‘recipe for success’, plan for the week ahead

Sarah talks about her ‘recipe for success’ and taking time to write down what’s included in her ‘recipe for success’, her plan for the week ahead as she thinks about a game the following week, her training, her nutrition, her rest, the things that help her feel good and function well outside of her work, the people she surrounds herself with. Her ‘recipe for success’ is all about identifying the ingredients she can add to get the best possible outcomes from her week, culminating in her game at the weekend.

For you and me, this can be pretty powerful too. Taking time to consider all the moving parts of our lives, work scheduling, family needs, personal health and wellbeing and how they might all fit together help us feel prepared, control the controllables, challenge expectations and set ourselves up for success. We can do the same in our work by considering all the tasks and projects on our plate, defining what success for that week would look like, prioritising our work and noticing any risks so we can address them. By reflecting on our previous week’s ‘recipe for success’, we can notice any areas for improvement and consider when we look to the next week.

There were many more gems so I urge you to watch the recording here if you want to hear a few more. Thank you to The Tara Trust, Jane Quinn and all those who made Sarah’s tour possible. Thank you to the Embassy of Ireland NZ for hosting a wonderful evening in Wellington.

Congratulations to Sarah on recently being announced as a keynote speaker with Performance by Design as a keynote speaker. More information here. Best of luck to Sarah and her Collingwood teammates for the upcoming AFLW season, kicking off in August.

You can connect with Sarah on LinkedIn here.

Photo credit: Paul Hodgson, Paulo Pics NZ (

Facebook live video credit: Mark Tantrum, Home for Mark Tantrum Photography LTD



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