with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, I speak to Natalie Cook OAM OLY on how to out-think the competition, and why it takes an ecosystem to win a gold medal.

Nat is a five-time Olympian, Gold and Bronze Medallist in beach volleyball, representing Australia in the Summer Olympics between 1996 and 2012.

A passionate athlete advocate, Nat has always been a champion of the transformational power of sport and the life lessons learnt pursuing your dreams.

Her trademark authenticity, energy and ease, combined with her success as both an elite athlete and influential business leader, make Nat a powerful motivational speaker and strategic sports and wellbeing advisor.

Serving as a Director of Brisbane 2032, Olympic and Paralympic Games Organising Committee, and holding a position on the World Olympians Association Board, Nat is a firm believer in the Games' potential to create enduring legacies for individuals, businesses, and society as a whole.

In this episode we talk about:

✅  The ecosystem of things required to go right for the eventual winning of a gold medal

✅  How, in competition, she used the metaphor of attacking the opposition from the top of the hill

✅  The mindsets and mind techniques she learnt being an elite full-time athlete, including how to make the crowd work for you

✅  Working with a former Chief Maker guest, Dr Jeff Spencer, on adjusting to life after an Olympics, and

✅  The incredible work she is doing behind the scenes to support not only Brisbane 2032 but also prospective Australian athletes striving to make the Games.

Connecting with Natalie Cook OAM OLY

You can connect with Nat via LinkedIn, her website and Aussie Athlete Fund.

Books and resources

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“Amateurs do it until they get it right; professionals do it until they can't get it wrong.”


On why she chose volleyball

  • Most people choose their sport because they're either really good at it or they love it. Volleyball was the only sport that I felt like I couldn't do and I felt like nobody could play as it hurt your arms. It would go left when you wanted it to go right. 
  • Nobody could work out how to play this game, but that's what sparked my curiosity because everything else I could play to a reasonable level. But I'd go to bed at night thinking, this game's not going to beat me, I'm going to get better at this game.

On why it takes an ecosystem to deliver gold

  • It is an ecosystem of things that have to go right and things you have to commit to, to slowly get up the ladder. 
  • When you write down your list of the things that we need, it cascades into cost. So a coach is going to cost us, you know, circa a hundred thousand dollars even way back then. And then you've got to pay for his flights, accommodation, his, his wage. Um, now all this Greg, knowing I'm not getting paid at this point, I'm winning a water bottle and a hat and a couple of thousand dollars. So then you've got to engage the whole ecosystem, Australian sport, volleyball, Australia. You've now got to convince Volleyball Australia's, um, system hierarchy, CEO of Volleyball Australia that we're the team that if you've got any money left over from your indoor volleyball, because that's another part of the challenge, um, there is no single linear line. It is absolutely a rollercoaster.
  • Kerry and I would have loved to stay in different hotel rooms. We couldn't afford it. We had to stay together. That puts pressure on things. So, you know, it's not just go and practise at the beach more.
  • You need your family support. You need sponsors to pay for it because ultimately Volleyball Australia did not pay for our performance. It was all self driven.
  • The statistics even now show that 70 percent of athletes go to one Olympic Games.

On technical, tactical, relational

  • There were times, we weren't the best technical team, but our relational and our tactical won out every time.
  • My belief is you need one eye on the outcome and the goal and the vision which drives your purpose and your legacy and your passion, and you need one eye on the process and making sure you're taking the right steps on the right path, is your ladder against the right wall, and then you've got to be physically and spiritually present in making your best decisions today that matter for both of those things.
  • The one philosophy in there, I remember is always attack from a position of height and strength and off offence. You want to be up high watching the valley. You don't want to be in the valley looking up the hill. So we would often take that intention and that point of view of how do I get myself on top of the mountain here whilst I'm on court. If we ever found at the bottom of the valley, time out, sit down, helicopter up to the top of the hill and get ourselves in the best spot.

On what makes great athletes different

  • Amateurs do it until they get it right. Professionals do it until they can't get it wrong.
  • As an amateur, you're like, Oh, I've got that shot. I'm going to move to a next one. We would train that shot until missing it is not in our realm.
  • We're never perfect, but perfect practice or most intense pressure practice all the time. Not Oh, wait till I get to the Olympics, which happens once every four years to see if it's good enough. It's like, how do you train under scrutiny? How do you perform under pressure? And our coach's job, which he did amazing was how does he reduce pressure moments when it's not, you can't actually recreate the Olympics. You can't, that moment happens once every four years, the crowd, the pressure, the opposition. So he had to create pressure environments, even off the court that would have us feel that kind of adrenaline rush to have us play produce a performance.

On managing the crowd

  • Imagine 10, 000 people when you hit a ball really well, they cheer, so it's like lifts you to the next point of height. But then when you hit it out, they all go uurrgh. So now, now that burying, burying you into the sand another 10 feet and you’ve got to dig yourself back out. So after our first match, we had to go to a sports psychologist that was in the village. We had to sort of work out how do we manage not only our emotions because we've worked really hard on our relationship, but now we had to manage the crowd's emotions or block them out.
  • Even when we didn't win the point, I would get the crowd going for us. I tried to change the energy of the game so that we felt like every time we played a point, we won it, even if it didn't reflect on the scoreboard. I'm a big believer in winning as a mindset, not a score or a result. And, and we hold it between our ears, um, as the most important real estate and landscape we have.

On her work with Jeff Spencer

  • Jeff came in further down my career when I needed real expert understanding of more relational, not only to my volleyball partner, but more to the ecosystem. I was struggling within the ecosystem. He helped me understand stakeholders. How to manage stakeholders, how to, uh, let go of stresses and pressures that were out of my control.
  • It's a problem with Everest. You've got to come down. Managing the expectations of myself with others, myself with myself, and the doubts of, could I go to my third Olympics? Could I go to a fourth? Is it like, who am I to think I can go to five? The young ones are coming. All of this other stuff is going on.
  • He really helped me unpack and get out of the weeds and helicopter up and understand my position now as an Olympic gold medallist. When the Chiefs are at the top of the hill, everyone's looking at the Chief. Everyone's going, Chief, what are we doing? And sometimes I'm there going, I don't know.

On the gold medal excellence framework

  • How do we create a gold medal framework for our life? And if I'm going to be a gold medallist, I can't just be a gold medallist on the volleyball court. It has to be in everything I do, my business, my family relationships. Um, my spiritual relationship, my financial relationships, like that whole circle of life balance, which we're never in balance.
  • So gold medal excellence was a way for Kerri and I and the team, the other three, the five of us to commit to, um, Being excellent at a gold standard in everything we do so, and having the other team members be able to hold us accountable, we've given them permission in that framework to hold us accountable to our standard. So we had the five Olympic rings and inside each Olympic ring we would have a topic. One was our code of conduct. One was our purpose. One was our way of working, some of that was technical, so our winning ways, our winning ways was technical, parts of the game, what we were going to do. And then the most interesting one was in the middle. And that was what we called our guiding principle question. So didn't matter in what was going on in our life, on the court, off the court, with each other. It was the guiding principle question we chose was how do we make it better? And the key words are how. Which obviously needs a plan. We, because it's all of us together, so my actions can actually help everyone. But also together, our actions can lift the boat. And then, um, better. What is bettering, we used to call it better the ball. So my job was to put the ball in a better spot for Kerri. Kerri then had to put the ball in a better spot for me and I had to try and win the point. 

On her involvement with Brisbane 2032

  • I represent not only the athlete voice, which I'm very passionate about, but also Queensland's voice and the whole of, as you've heard, one of the things that I do is elevate up and get the helicopter view of the whole ecosystem. From the International Olympic Committee to the Australian Olympic Committee and Paralympics Australia, um, all of the sports, how they feed in, how the athletes feed in, which I believe they always get left to last when they should be put up at the top. 

On supporting athletes

  • With The Aussie Athlete Fund, I've taken on for the next eight years to be a mentor, fundraiser, supporter, and, and what we're working on for this year, we haven't launched yet. So it's a bit getting close, Greg is a fundraising challenge that all athletes with the dream and the aspiration to wear the green and gold for Australia can enter the fundraising challenge. They'll be matched with businesses and individuals that want to help their journey and mentor and help their fundraising. And the goal is to get all of our athletes to raise their first tour of duty money, which is $10,000.
  • I've taken on for the next eight years to be a mentor, fundraiser, supporter, and, and what we're working on for this year, we haven't launched yet. So it's a bit getting close, Greg is a fundraising challenge that all athletes with the dream and the aspiration to wear the green and gold for Australia can enter the fundraising challenge. They'll be matched with businesses and individuals that want to help their journey and mentor and help their fundraising. And the goal is to get all of our athletes to raise their first tour of duty money, which is $10,000.
  • We're a not for profit with tax deductibility status through, through the Australian Sports Foundation. So I'm going to, I'm going to issue the challenge. We're going to go with their first hundred athletes with a hundred businesses to raise 10, 000 each to raise a million dollars in the athlete economy and the athlete ecosystem. And so we kind of, I've got plenty of athletes, I've got a thousand athletes ready. We need businesses that are prepared to say, Oh, help. I'll run a morning tea, I'll run a lunch, I'll run raffles, I'll run a golf day, I'll help mentor and set up that financial roadmap, I'll donate some money. We're trying to spread the burden and ease the financial pain for the next generation in the green and gold.
  • I've also found, there's a lot of chiefs out there that wanted to be athletes, almost made it, showed promise and then couldn't afford it. So they decided they had to choose to go and get a career.

On why winning is a mindset not an outcome

  • I always ask my daughter, when our head hits a pillow at night, I say to her, what did you, what did you win at today? Hmm. Now most of us as humans can find a thing we didn't. It's really easy to tell you what's going wrong or the challenge. But when you sift and sort through all of the challenges and get to the one thing that went right in the day or that you feel like you won at, and you go to bed at night sleeping on that, you wake up the next day ready to go again, right? Rather than, rather than waking up and going, I've got to fix that, I've got to fix that, I've got to fix that.
  • For us in volleyball, we've done two hours of, of training when. 90 minutes of it might have been a hard slog. How do you finish your last five on top as a winner?
  • We talk about creating that pressure, one of the interesting things our coach used to do at the end of practice, he's like, right, it's gold medal match point. Go back there and serve. Yeah. And so you get one ball, you can't serve it out and go, Oh, can I have another one?
  • You want to be thinking, “I'm going to take this. This is mine. I'm going to win this.”

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • It is really great at the top. The view is amazing. It is worth it, but I've learned to take as many with you. Gets narrower, right? Gets thinner. Take as many with you as you can to ease the burden for us all. Uh, um, and there is only one chief, the one CEO, but the two ics, the COOs, the as many c-suite as the trusted team. Uh, so get to the top, keep going to the top, it's worth it. And take as many with you as you can.
  • And enjoy it. You have to find time for yourself. On a Sunday night, I sit and map my recovery time. Still used to be massage physio acupuncture movie lunch with my mum while I was competing. It's now golf, yoga, uh, pickleball’s my new sport. Oh, pickleball. Pickleball. You've got to have a crack at pickleball. And then, um, massage once a month, you've got a beach, whatever it is for you. Surfing. You’ve got to put that in for yourself. That's exactly what needs to happen. Even the young athletes coming through, pick a different sport, pick a different activity, make sure you do that weekly, monthly, and never give up on yourself on that. Don't go, “That's later.” It's got to be for you.

Deal hope,