Leading with kindness: Interview with international sportswoman, Rachael Lynch

Rachael Lynch delivers a keynote speech on leading with kindness in front of a crowd.

In a cruel twist of fate, Rachael Lynch was awarded World Hockey Goalkeeper of the Year in 2019 and dropped from the Australian team the next. Why? Not because of her performance, but because she saw her fellow teammates’ need for greater mental health support, and she pushed the powers at be to deliver. That’s showing leadership to us! 

What followed was a 150-day legal battle against Hockey Australia, which she won, enabling her to rejoin her team to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. We caught up with Rachael almost one year on from her victory, and just one month after her retirement from international sport, to bring you her advice on navigating dysfunctional leadership and toxic workplace culture.

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We learned that a passion for note taking helped her overhaul the organisation that once tried to quiet her, and leave a legacy that the young women on her former team can now continue. Speaking to us on the phone from her room in border quarantine, Rachael reflects on what she’s learned in her powerful roles as elite athlete, mental health ambassador, and frontline nurse, and her take on leading with kindness.

April marks one year since you won your appeal against Hockey Australia. Can you tell me more about what questions you were asking of them at the time, what you were challenging, and why they were so important to you to stand up for?

Yeah sure. I mean, we had a bit of a turbulence within the program for some time I think and it first kicked off with one of the players requesting some time off for mental health reasons, and then her scholarship was essentially removed. Then we had our three captains all step down from their positions because they didn’t agree with what was going on, and it was sort of just one thing after another.

I raised a query in a private team meeting around mental health, and how the program was managing athletes that were using external services, and it was from those queries that I guess the ‘war’ began. I was just sticking up for a teammate and trying to push for better things in the mental health space, which I’m very passionate about and a huge advocate for. It was just something that needed to be changed and yet it didn’t go down very well!

What advice can you give people for dealing with a similar situation, like sticking up for someone and advocating for mental health within a work environment?

It’s important to stay true to your values, and that’s what I said the whole way through. I’ve been honest. Also, knowing what’s right and wrong and not being willing to walk past that, whether it affects you or the people around you. I would suggest that, for anyone in that situation, it’s really important that you stay strong.

The whole way through, all I was able to do was just trust my gut with it and that paid off. And despite the damage it caused myself and Georgie, it was worth it because we created some pretty huge changes and all things that definitely needed to happen. But I guess, unfortunately, we had to go through what we did in order to make it happen.

And what were some of those big changes you were able to help bring about?

Well there was, basically, a whole clean out of the staff. So that went from the president of the board, all the way through the spine of the organisation. So there was the president, board members, the CEO and the high performance director, and now all three coaches have left and the head selector as well. So I think, essentially, it was a bit of a fresh start for the program and resulted in an independent enquiry as well, which looked into all elements of our programs, and then from that, there were changes in policies and around the way we operate.

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One of the biggest changes to come from it was that I saw courage and bravery from some of the athletes that I hadn’t seen before, and that was just wonderful to see. They would sit quietly before and now they’re willing to speak up in situations. That’s been one of those pleasing things to see, that these young girls can see that it is ok to just speak up and they don’t have to be bound by the powers that sport has – that is selection, essentially.

I’m sure that makes you feel good knowing that you’re leaving the team but the younger women on the team are going to be ok?

Yeah for sure, and that was part of my motivation to push through it all. I stayed on [the team] after the 2016 Rio Olympics when a lot of my teammates moved on because I did want to leave a legacy and help create an environment that was pretty special, and we weren’t going down that path at all.

Whereas, I remember the moment after our last game in Tokyo – I just looked at the team and felt so happy. The girls were able to be themselves and really enjoy their hockey, feel free, feel that they could contribute and that their value was actually being noticed and utilised. And that’s sort of all I ever wanted really.

How did you first embrace the natural-born leader inside you?

I’ve always had a leadership role being a goalkeeper – it just comes with the position. You communicate a lot, you have full vision of the field. And overtime, being a more senior and experienced player, I had some value that I could add to the group.

My character naturally is that I really like to help people. Taking on a leadership role can certainly do that, but I’ve never really played too many formal leadership roles in the team. I was in our leadership group for a little while in the Hockeyroos. But I feel very comfortable that, no matter the title was, I would act very much the same, and that’s just trying to contribute to the group and help the girls in any way I can, on or off the field.

At LH Agenda, we have a manifesto of leadership values. Which of these values do you think you display most in your leadership roles?

I love all of those words, but kindness is the one that resonates with me. I guess the whole way through, not just my experience of the last 18 months, but my life. That’s something I can always revert to when things are going bad, and I used it a lot when I was going through the appeal. Kindness is something that you can control. That’s an easy one, in my opinion. Just doing kind things for people and for yourself as well. That’s a good way to move through life.

What can you share with readers from your role as a mental health ambassador about how they can have meaningful conversations in the workplace?

I think everyone has really good instincts in that space. I feel it’s just that we sometimes choose to ignore them for whatever reason, whether we’re nervous or not sure what to say.

“Most people spend more time at work than they do with their families, so you’ve got to treat those people like your family… The better the relationships and the more effort you put into building those and being kind to those people, the more likely you are to be able to help them in a difficult time.”

Did you have strong role models as you were coming onto the hockey scene, starting out as a nurse, and getting into the mental health space yourself?

I’ve had some fantastic role models along the way. People that have helped my journey. But the main one coming through was the Australian goalkeeper at the time, Rachel [Imison]. She was a fair bit older than me but she was in the Aussie team when I first started and I got to play alongside her and for Victoria. And just as a person, you know, she was incredible. A really good leader, really open and willing to share her knowledge with anyone, including me, who was essentially trying to take her spot!

Outside of hockey she worked in the health space, working in prosthetics and orthotics at the children’s hospital and gave a lot to the community, did volunteer work. She set up volunteer gigs for the Hockeyroos when I first came into the team, and essentially created a legacy that I wanted to continue. And also make my own around giving back and not just being an athlete, and she showed me that you can do that. She was a really big influence, and I’m still friends with her today, which is awesome.

How do you like to plan and stay organised, and what tools do you use?

I usually run with four different calendars or diaries. I like to have a big one that I can see and write things down on. I have one on my phone, I have my work one and then I have a portable one that I take around.

“I have four different calendars or diaries… I try to squeeze as much into my life as I can, but you can’t do that without being organised.”

I’ve always liked to have handwritten notes. Not just journaling, but writing stuff down as it happens. I always kept notes from all my hockey games. I probably have eight to 10 notebooks. The irony was when I was kicked off the team, those books are what saved my spot, because in a legal battle you need evidence and I had probably 10 years worth of notes. I had full, proper, written dated notes on everything that happened and different things they had said happened or accused me of doing. And now looking back, I’m trying to put them all into a bit of a book.

When you are writing things down it doesn’t have to be in every single detail, just a few little notes. That’s how I live my life, and in so many ways it’s provided a level of therapy.

“I’ve always liked to have handwritten notes… I always kept notes from all my hockey games. I probably have eight to 10 notebooks. The irony was when I was kicked off the team, those books are what saved my spot, because in a legal battle you need evidence and I had probably 10 years worth of notes.”

I’m so glad to hear you’re thinking about writing a book!

I think the point of it would be for me to tell my story, not to try and sell books. The whole way through my appeal and even afterwards, I didn’t get the opportunity to. Not once did I speak to media or anything and, the whole way through, and the organisation was speaking.

I guess that was, again, me trying to really stay true to my values. Even though all I wanted to do was defend myself and actually tell the truth, I didn’t. And hopefully now I’ll get an opportunity to do that.

Now, post-retirement, what’s coming up for you? What’s on your (LH) Agenda?

This is the exciting, but also scary, thing about going through a big transition. I’m trying to not change too many things at once, but it looks like I might be having a bit of a career change. I do have some cool opportunities, and I feel pretty spoiled for choice, but sometimes choice makes it even more overwhelming. So again, I’ve tried to come back to the things that matter to me, and helping and giving back.

I definitely want to keep doing my nursing but I also feel like I’ve got a lot more to do in the high performance space. I just don’t know what capacity yet. Maybe around mental health. There’s heaps of opportunity there – all sports can be better. They need to educate and train people so that no more damage is done because there’s so many environments where we just overlook that. We train so hard as athletes and all the physical stuff, but the mental stuff can just be left behind. That’s the real game-changer I think.

And what do you like to do in your downtime?

Riding my bike. That’s probably what I like doing most. I’ve set it up here in quarantine, and I sat on it for three hours today. So my bike, and spending time with my nephew. I’ve got a two and a half year old nephew and he’s fabulous for keeping me really present and in the moment.

I love reading. Just trying to fill my brain with different things like biographies and watching documentaries. As I said earlier, you’ve got to plan those things out, and that’s probably why I actually really love quarantine, because I get the whole day to spend exactly as I want to spend it. I’m more than happy to stay in here. I’ve got so many lists and my diary is full!

“In whatever job you might have, it’s not always about progressing and kicking goals, it’s about really embracing the people around you, having an impact on them, and being kind to them.”

What’s one thing you’ve learned on your journey that you wish for everyone reading?

This is a quote that my friend, coach and ex-teammate shared with me: ‘People don’t remember you for what you achieve, they remember how you made them feel’. That’s something that you really find applicable in sport obviously, but also just in life and in your work journey. In whatever job you might have, it’s not always about progressing and kicking goals, it’s about really embracing the people around you, having an impact on them, and being kind to them.

About Rachael Lynch

Rachael Lynch is a Veteran Hockeyroo, dual Olympian, Nurse and RUOK? Day & Lifeline Ambassador. Off the field Rachael works as a registered nurse, runs STOMP Goalkeeping and is very active in the mental health space as an ambassador for RUOK? Day. In 2021 she was recognised by the World Olympians Association, where she was one of only five past and present athletes from around the world inducted into the 2020 Olympians For Life program. Rachael was also elected as member of the Australian Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission in 2021 and will serve a minimum 4 years with the objective of advising the AOC Executive on all matters relating to the Olympic Movement from an athlete’s perspective.