At 46, I was lucky (some said ‘stupid’) enough to try on women’s AFL.  A friend convinced me to just ‘give it a go’.  I rocked up to the first training session.  I felt I should at least go to the second.  I had a strong urge to give the third a go.  I really wanted to get to the fourth (albeit against all logistical hope), and I did.  Then, I was there each week, sometimes twice.  Sometimes I missed a friend’s birthday dinner to get there (sorry folks).

What weird connections between brain and body, what changes to the way one sees the world, occur when a 46 year old joins the throngs of an AFL crew of seventy 20-35 year old women?

At first it seemed weird and kinda ‘culty’ – pushy… shouty even

“make sure you know everyone’s name before the lap’s done!” “I want to hear names! – if you don’t know it, ask”

The set up – the climate – was that you either spoke or looked like a dork.  Maybe you wouldn’t stand out so much if you didn’t comply, but you certainly wouldn’t feel any of what they were feeling, whatever that was.  It seemed good – they seemed joyful and satisfied.  I needed some of that.

Then there’s the contact, the physicality of it.  As an ex netball player, I’m good with the accidental brush of bodies.  But this is heavy duty.  Take that woman to the ground!  Wrap her up, and the ball, and make sure she’s immobile.  In fact, give her an almighty bump before you go in for the contest on the ball – optimally, send her flying.

Unusual.  Uncomfortable.  I knew 1 person, of a 60 person crew.  Touching them in any way seemed just odd. Again, a few training sessions and a few games in, it came quite naturally.  (At training, Ezmay shouted me down as I went in for the bump – far too close to a cement ground cap – expressly afraid of the combination of my commitment to the task and her resulting gravel rash.)

So, while bordering on weird, I started to get it. It was part of the plan.  Become strong, get your timing right, and win the ball.  Win the game. At the same time, get good with bumping your team mates – a sure fire way for quick camaraderie.  No deeper, more insightful questions needed. Connection made.

And there are more ground rules.  Requirements, perhaps.  No, expectations.  Expectations of every woman are well-defined from the first moment.  Expectations are transmitted articulately out of the mouths of coaches, from the young committed professional players, then echoed among the many.  They’re written (in case you missed it at training) into humorous weekly newsletters, emails, facebook posts, messenger messages, blogs, texts, you name it. Expectations are overtly clear. You show up when you’re given a game, you wear the right thing, you jump up when asked.  You give the coaches focused attention.  You try your hardest, you do your best, and you support everyone else to do the same.  You encourage and congratulate people continually (high fives or a pat on the back, with appropriate words of support) – after every exercise, on and off the field, in texts and messages sent throughout the week.

So, as I run from leadership consulting gig to AFL training – from an organisational cultural infusion to the footy field, with my boots not yet strapped on – I can almost tangibly feel the synapses in my brain starting to make connections.  Work to play, work to play, work to play… there’s something wildly in balance here.

It’s this.

We were all there to have fun and get fit. Collectively, we wanted to do as well as we possibly could.  To be the best.  This was always our focus.  This AFL thing brings us meaning.

Expectations were clear – voiced, written, indicated, repeated and modelled.  Coaches and top players nurtured a culture of optimism plus very high performance standards.  Everyone stretched themselves, for the benefit of all, regardless of their starting point.  We walked in and simultaneously built a climate of drive and positivity.

The keen focus was on support, encouragement, togetherness, connection – it was on building positive relationships.  We’d find ways to eat, exercise, and support other teams and events, together.  We’d help each other prepare for the physical demands on our bodies.  Emotionally, we all gained.  The coach, assistants, captains – there was incredible respect for these people.  I’d put good money on us all coming out with strengthened relationships, and an enhanced capability to build connections wherever we are, wherever we go.

Finally, passionate feedback flooded the game, from coaches and team mates.  It’s ‘in time’.  Clear.  Direct.  Outcome-focussed.  Adjusted behaviour is expected immediately – at least a sincere go at it.  The language we use is overwhelmingly and gob-smackingly positive, supportive, reassuring.  It’s like our communication has been marinating in ‘affirmative’ concentrate – hints of negative have little chance of survival.

It seems we’ve got Kim Cameron’s recipe for positive deviance* simmering to the boil.  (Nice.)  Add to that an abundance frame that unifies a ‘regular’ bunch of human beings: the belief that every moment matters, every thought, every word and every action are critical in shaping the context and driving us towards our common goal, our idea of what is exceptional. The goal itself is important, yes, but on equal par is the pathway to it.  In fact, that pathway is crucial, how it’s constructed, how it’s trod and worn, and the stories we create along it.

So, an oldie joins a team of youngsters down at the paddock. As starkly as corrective laser surgery, she witnesses the transformation of regular women into incredible, inspirational, and admirable human beings – together and alone.  Simple, effective, exhilarating positive leadership is in play.

* Cameron, K. 2012.  Positive leadership – Strategies for extraordinary performance. 2ndedition, Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco

Author: Alison West