The last few years have been epic for GOATs bowing out of their sporting professions. From tennis legends, Roger Federer and Serena Williams to local heroes Steve Smith and Ash Barty, these sports superstars have retired at the top of their games after winning countless titles.
Amid their legacies lie valuable lessons on how to lead from the top - and by example. Their stories of success serve as the best kind of wisdom for managers, leaders and CEOs that want to raise their A-game themselves.
Take inspiration from these sports retirees and you will knock it out of the park professionally.
1 Roger Federer
“Sometimes you have to accept that a guy played better on the day than you.”
Lesson: Show humility
Winner of a record eight Wimbledon titles and the first player to claim 20 Grand Slam men's singles titles, Roger Federer is one of the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen. Unlike other tennis stars in history whose ego took centre court at times, Roger was known for his unwavering humility and reverence for his competitors.
Through his remarks like, “you have to have respect for your opponent because your opponent might be your friend,” Roger teaches that good leadership and success come from a place of mutual appreciation. We saw this after Federer’s final match at the 2022 Laver Cup. Federer teamed up for an incredible doubles match with his “greatest rival and friend”, Rafael Nadal for his final match. This emotional end to Federer's career highlighted his admiration for his rival and friend, Nadal.
Roger also reminds us that it’s OK to lose and important to be graceful in defeat. Just because your opponent was better than you on that day, it was not because of your faults and should not deter you from trying. As a leader, humility is a priceless trait that will make you a better listener and more forgiving of mistakes.
2 Serena Williams
“Everything comes at a cost. Just what are you willing to pay for it?”
Lesson: Make sacrifices
Ranked the world’s number one in women's tennis singles when she was just 21 years old, Serena Williams won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era. Along with her sister, Venus, Serena was responsible for transforming the face of women’s tennis thanks to her strong timing, rhythm and power.
Her success story is one of sacrifice and dedication. "There's always something you have to give up for success," Serena spoke. When you want to make it to the top, it costs the things that often mean the most; free time, home life, diet and much more. For Serena, this meant putting everything on hold to overcome injuries and train relentlessly. Coached by her father from age four, Serena effectively sacrificed her childhood for her love of tennis.
And Serena’s greatest sacrifice of all? Her profession for her family. "The fact is that nothing is a sacrifice for me when it comes to Olympia,” she told as she retired from tennis to spend more time with her daughter.
Serena teaches us that if you want to accomplish your dreams and lead in your profession, achievement requires sacrifice, and you need to make meaningful changes to get what you want.
3 Ashleigh Barty
“One of the best sayings in tennis and sport is that pressure is a privilege.”
Lesson: Express gratitude
Reigning champion at the Australian Open and three-time Grand Slam singles champion, Ash Barty made headlines when she announced she was stepping away from her titles to publish a series of children’s books.
Being a sporting polymath, triumphing in tennis, cricket and golf, Ash was no stranger to testing her limits and taking on pressure. For our homegrown heroine, Ash, it was an experience she thrived on and was grateful for, indeed, a privilege.
By evoking the sentiments of fellow tennis player Billy Jean King who once stated, "pressure is a privilege. It only comes to those who earn it," Ash teaches us to be thankful for opportunities that test us. Pressure gives us the chance to try harder, move forward and become a better version of ourselves.
By reframing pressure as something to express gratitude for (rather than resentment) you will become a stronger, happier and more resilient leader.
4 Sebastian Vettel
“I don't care too much what happened in the past. I prefer to focus on what is coming next and I am really looking forward to it.”
Lesson: Live optimistically and authentically
German racing driver Sebastian Vettel is one of the most successful drivers in Formula One history, having won four World Drivers' Championship titles. The youngest World Champion in Formula One, he also boasts the third-most race victories and podium finishes.
Sebastian announced he was retiring from motorsport at the end of the 2022 F1 season to the sadness and surprise of his fans. Ever since he made his debut as a 19-year-old driver, Sebastian became known for both his optimism and activism.
Sebastian believes in creating positive change. He used his public platform to vocalise his commitment to making a difference on social and environmental issues. His attitude is one of not dwelling on past mistakes and what you cannot change, but focusing on the future with optimism and excitement.
Sebastian reminds us that being one of the best in your field comes from channelling energy into what you can influence. And that using your power positively for what you believe in can be a force for good – both for your personal advancement and for those around you.
5 Steve Smith
“For me it's about being adaptable wherever we play.”
Lesson: Be adaptable
Testament to his adaptability, over the course of Steve Smith’s illustrious career, the cricketer went from a leg-spinner to an award-winning batsman – not to mention the number one test batter in the world.
As the former Australian cricket captain, Steve knew that his skill for being adaptable was vital to good leadership. When on tour in Bangladesh, he spoke of adapting his signature attacking style to a more defensive approach on the sub-continent.
“The word I used when I addressed the boys first was 'adapting'," Steve told The Cricket Monthly. "I said, the boys are going to hear me saying that a lot - making sure we're adapting to everything we're faced with.”
Adaptability is an essential quality for any great leader. With ever-changing waters to navigate, being able to reorient your course is vital. Adopt a flexible mindset and be open to new fluid strategies, all the while being ready to anticipate potential roadblocks.
Avoid getting stuck on one solution or way forward and you’ll enable growth and expansion for yourself and team.
6 Daniel Carter
“Nerves are natural, it means you're ready to face a challenge and perform.”
Lesson: Leverage nerves to your advantage
One of rugby’s brightest stars ever, Dan Carter won three Super Rugby titles during his time with the Crusaders, and nine Tri-Nations and Rugby Championships with the All Blacks. When he retired, he was dubbed the best fly-half of all time.
Dan’s success was a perfect storm of speed, strength and killer goal-kicking ability, and his fearless attitude helped propel him to world-class heights. Dan spoke about rather than overcoming or masking nerves, you can acknowledge them and harness them for good.
It’s normal to feel anxious or stressed, it shows you’re human. Anxiety is energising and, like Dan knew, signals that you’re ready for action. When you’re feeling the squeeze, don’t fight, flight or freeze. Instead, make that pressure work for you.
Embrace nerves rather than resist them. Use that burst of energy for something constructive, be it inside or outside the workplace. If you have a big presentation coming up, create calming rituals and empowering affirmations to get you boardroom ready.
1 Show humility like Roger Federer. By being a humble leader and respecting your opponents, you will be less prone to giving up and more forgiving of others’ mistakes — and your own.
2 Making sacrifices was part of Serena Williams’ success. When on your leadership journey you may have to make meaningful changes and sacrifices in your life to get what you want.
3 Reframing pressure as an opportunity to express gratitude will help make you stronger, happier and more resilient, like Ash Barty.
4 Sebastian Vettel was an advocate for optimism and activism. Not dwelling on the past, focusing on the future and speaking your truth as he does are strong leadership qualities.
5 Steve Smith was successful because he prioritised adaptability in his role, and encouraged his team to be adaptable, too. Being adaptable will help you grow and expand professionally.
6 Rather than mask or run from nerves, channel your nervous energy into positive action as Dan Carter did.
If you are open to new opportunities, contact a recruitment agency like Trojan Recruitment Group and receive advice from the experts in labour-hire, permanent and contract staff.