For an athlete who has captained the Diamonds, Australia’s national netball team, it may be surprising to learn that Sharni Layton never really loved netball.
As a child, her first and most important love was horse riding and she always participated a whole range of different sports, including football, cricket, and surf lifesaving. But it was netball that she kept getting selected for.
“Because I was so tall, I just kept getting selected in teams. So it wasn’t that I loved it, it just kept on choosing me,” Layton tells Kate Mills in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons.
“I got the point where I was like, I wonder how far I can go? Every time I asked myself that question, I continued to go further and further.”
Layton’s career in netball is up there with the best. She’s a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and two-time World Cup winner.
In 2017, after years at the top of her game, Layton took six months away from netball to overcome some mental health challenges. Depression was a reality that crept up on her over the years she spent at the highest level of netball, and it wasn’t something she took stock of at first.
“As an athlete, you’re always in control of your body…but I had been mentally ill for a while, and I didn’t realise because it wasn’t tangible,” she said.
“I was in a really dark, dark place, where I didn’t have any emotions, I didn’t really care if I was here or not anymore, which is hard and sad to talk about.”
It’s clear Layton prides herself on the way she has been so open about her struggles with mental health, something she believed was important to do as a high-profile athlete. It’s one of the reasons she decided to write her soon to be released memoir, No Apologies.
“When I was growing up, I always put athletes on a pedestal,” she explains.
“When I got there, I realised it was all a front and that not everyone is amazing. Everyone has issues and I was sick of there being this persona that if you achieve something, you become this invincible human.”
In 2019, Layton made the switch from netball to AFLW, playing for the Collingwood Magpies. After years of feeling like she never quite fitted, Layton says joining AFLW was like coming home.
“I took a pretty big pay cut to be honest, to go from netball to football – you can imagine – but you get to a stage in life where happiness is worth more than any kind of dollar sign,” she said.
“I like to call football, and I mean this in the politest way possible, but footy is a public school girl sport and I’m a public school girl. And netball’s a private school girl sport.”
“I never really quite fitted in to that netball environment, it’s why I stood out. I was a big, loud, burly person that netball wasn’t used to, but in footy, I’m everywhere – everyone has my type of personality. That’s my vibe and I like being in that culture.”
Looking back, Layton admits that the reason she stuck with netball for so long, despite her declining mental health, was that it satisfied her need for achievement.
“My love for achievement, or my need for achievement I should say. My need for perfectionism and striving towards goals. Netball met every single need that I had, in needing to know how good I could be as an athlete and if I could represent my country,” she said.
“Once I knew I could do that, that’s where my passion stopped. My drive stopped because I didn’t need to prove anything to myself anymore, it was done.”
Like many women in sport, Layton has spent her entire career working other jobs, often in a full-time capacity, on the side of netball and now AFLW.
“You are drained when you get to training, you don’t get the best out of your training because you’re tired, but we’re doing our best,” she said.
“To see how far the game has come in such a short amount of time, I just can’t imagine how far and how much quicker we would get if we could be a little more full-time than what we are.”
For now, Layton is loving her time at AFLW, and for the first time in her life, she doesn’t really have a plan. And although that makes her nervous, she’s also excited to see what comes her way.
“I think if you over plan, then you don’t allow for sporadic stuff to come in, like that variety that I love.”
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The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.
The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.