Spark Interview with 5-Time Olympian Natalie Cook

As a five-time beach volleyball Olympian, Sydney Olympic gold medalist and a serious contender in London, Natalie Cook is a force to be reckoned with. A passionate competitor who started playing beach volleyball in 1993, Natalie turned professional after just one year and has undoubtedly experienced numerous ‘gold medal’ moments in her career as a professional athlete. The adrenalin fuelled peaks have not been without their gutsy challenges and enduring lows. Natalie competed in the Athens Olympics with a serious shoulder injury, a battle that in reality should have ended her indomitable Olympic effort sooner, though instead, Nat fought on right up until the bronze medal match.

While she’s not slugging it out on the sand, Natalie’s incredible energy is reflected off the court in her business pursuits. As the Director of her business Sandstorm – a recent finalist in the Telstra Small Business Awards – Natalie has been able to make the often-difficult progression from professional athlete to successful businesswoman with a vigor and dynamism that would put many a ‘time-poor’ business owner to shame.

Spark Mag caught up with Natalie to discuss her winning successes on and off the court, and to get a bit of an insight into the qualities she’s honed as a professional athlete and how these have been successfully translated into her thriving business career.

Spark: Nat you’ve had an amazing caring as an elite sportsperson, with two Olympic medals, Bronze in Atlanta and your infamous Gold at the Sydney Olympics; what drew you to the sport of beach volleyball in the early days?

I was always a sporty type of girl growing up, my mum was a swimmer and my dad was a semi-professional soccer player in London. I was born in Townsville and so being a hot climate my first sport was swimming, but I knew from a very early age I wanted to go to the Olympics and represent my country. I tried my hand at everything, from taekwondo to tennis, golf to swimming, and finally settled on indoor volleyball at 14 years old. I progressed through as a junior representing Australia, and then moved onto beach volleyball when it became an Olympic sport in 1993, trained incredibly hard and made it to Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and have made to every one since!

Spark: Tell us about your business Sandstorm, when was it launched?

We launched the business brand in 2001, largely from me wanting to leave a legacy in my sport and the community. The beach sports venue opened in April 2005. It took at least 3 years for us to establish a need within the community and government for the business. Like all business owners, we had to spend a considerable amount of time establishing a core target audience before we could actually launch our business.

Spark: How did you go about establishing that need within the community?

We had a number of volleyball centres that had closed locally in Brisbane, which left a whole lot of beach volleyball players with nowhere to play, and essentially was the trigger for me to consider pursuing it as a business case. We did feasibility cases, establishing demand and putting together an extensive document to present to the government. It was a taxing process, but was a good practice at the time as a ‘to-be’ business owner. The State Government is now our landlord and we operate out of the venue.

Spark: What are the challenges you face now as a professional athlete with a grueling training schedule and a business owner at the same time?

The biggest problem most business owners have is lack of time, and running two full time professions as a business owner and a professional athlete is definitely challenging! I’ve worked hard recently to build up a business that can continue operate whether I am there or not. To do this I’ve spent a concentrated 18 month period putting in place various measures and resources that will allow things to run efficiently whilst I am in full time training and competing. 80% of my time is now spent on training as an Olympian, so I pretty much eat sleep and breathe beach volleyball!

Spark: Did that concentrated period help you to lay down the foundation within the business so that it can run efficiently without you there on a day-to-day level?

It did, but most business owners find it difficult to get their business to a point where they can effectively step out of the operation and really just oversee where it is going.

My purpose is to compete at an international level, and provide inspiration for others, which in turn feeds the business as we strive for greater community participation. The last 18 months I’ve spent getting the business ready has really put an incredible amount of pressure on me as a business owner to get things into gear! It has also put great pressure on the staff, as they know I am about to leave at any time so they need to step up to the deadlines and really learn their jobs without me.

There were many performance indicators and milestones I needed to achieve during this recent period, much like my sporting milestones, in order for me to be able to step back on an operational level.

Spark: Sandstorm hosts competitions, coaching, large events and junior programs. Do you and your team design all of the programs and structure?

Yes, the setup of the business and the structure is all our IP. The programs we design are largely by demand and trial and error, which is a constant work in progress! Sometimes I might suggest programs that do or don’t succeed, as a professional player I often have a different slant on things than my staff do. Our target audience is males 18 – 35, which is our biggest take up group for the sport.

Spark: Clearly you have an immense passion for the sport and what your business does. Do you believe that this is required in every business owner? 

Yeah, I definitely think it’s required when times are tough, if you are not passionate about what you do and you don’t love the process and the product, whether it’s HR, doing the financial reports or the marketing, it makes it much easier to not feel as emotionally involved, or eventually shut up shop and walk away.

Spark: Passion is often derived from others that inspire us, in business, in sport or in life in general. Who do you draw inspiration from and driven you to such a high level in both your sporting and business careers?

I’ve definitely had mentors or role models, especially whilst I was growing up. Michael Jordan and Greg Norman were, and still are, my sporting heroes. I followed Greg Norman through his business model as well, as a designer of golf courses and other business interests, and in a smaller fashion hope to model Sandstorm off a similar philosophy. In business Richard Branson’s philosophy of ‘no limits’ and ‘screw it, let’s do it’ is one I continually try to adopt, and I often ask myself in difficult situations ‘what would Richard Branson do?’, which is a really good technique for my own ability to think outside the box! It’s amazing what ideas come from simply trying to think like someone else, and I really enjoy the creative process of doing that.

Spark: Was that in the back of your mind as an athlete, to pursue your business interests alongside your sport?

Yes that’s why I started building beach volleyball courts. No only did I want to engage in the business operation, I wanted to leave a legacy. After winning the gold medal it was a lot easier to open doors and have the ability to influence others around my sport, and at that point I knew I wanted to pursue Sandstorm.

Spark: So it was a great opportunity for you to engage others in beach volleyball?

Yes it was, and my business allows many kids the opportunity to play our sport, which is part of the vision. We have 350 kids a week coming through to play and learn about the sport, so it’s also about providing a pathway and opportunity for others which is really important to me.

Spark: What are the similarities you find are needed between a professional sportsperson and business owner?

The commitment level and the determination are extremely important, as are the people that you have around you. The way to leverage business is via your resourcing, so you need the right people and the right business plan, which is really the same as the game plan in sport. I talk about the five P’s; purpose (why you are doing it), plan (your strategy), people (your staff or coach that you need around you), passion (your enthusiasm for what you do!) and perseverance (never, ever giving up). Clearly these apply to both professions and keep me going in both business and sport.

Spark: How does your ‘No Limits’ philosophy apply to various areas of your life as a professional athlete, businesswoman or in your key relationships?

It’s really a mindset. At Olympic level everyone has done the hard work and put the effort in, so it’s really about controlling that inner voice and your mental chatter. So often our success is determined by what we think, and our success is limited to what we think we can achieve. You have to be able to set your bar high, and after going through your business plan or your game plan, one day you realize you have actually realized those goals. It’s really about no boundaries, don’t put yourself in a box, allow abundance and freedom for your hard work to pay off.

Spark: How does a sportsperson’s relationships with their playing partners, coaches and family/friends relate to that of a businessperson’s? 

Well a coach and a mentor play a similar role in both business and sport. Your staff are similar to your teammates, who drive you to a common goal. Family and friends play a huge support role in both areas, and are critical to your overall wellbeing. Success in sport and business mean different things to different people, and it’s a varied scale. For me, my business success is about having as many people enjoy and participate in our sport as possible.

Spark: How important is it for you and others to have a business mentor or coach?

I completely stand by the fact that you can’t achieve you goals without a coach. It wouldn’t even enter my mind to try and go to the Olympics without a coach, and in business it’s the same for me. Who’s going to guide me on the journey’s through business? You need someone frequently to keep you accountable and on your purpose, remind you of why you do it. That outside influence is really important to keep you on track with your goals, meet your timelines, keeping your focus on the goal. The tragedy in life is doing all the hard work and giving up when we are so close to the end goal. Often people’s businesses fail when really success is just around the corner, and a coach will help you see through the fog during these tough times.

By Brianna Power

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