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Canada's coach Bev Priestman looks on prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women's final football match between Sweden and Canada at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Aug. 6, 2021.LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

At her first game as the coach for the Canadian women’s national soccer team in fall 2020, Bev Priestman, 35, was momentarily gripped by fear.

Canada was facing archrivals the U.S., and the Canadian team was missing eight of its star players because of COVID-19. Just minutes earlier, Ms. Priestman had delivered an impassioned pep talk to the players.

“I went into that game asking them to be braver than ever, but here I was standing on the sidelines fearful,” Ms. Priestman recalls. “But some moments later, I started to feel really, really proud because I saw a group of players who each had something special. They did everything right when their backs were up against the wall … that moment sticks with me more than ever.”

It was the beginning of one of the most exciting stories in Canadian Olympic history. The team would go on to “change the colour of the medal” and capture gold at the Tokyo Olympics in summer 2021.

And while the sports world may not be the first place women look to when making decisions about their working lives, Ms. Priestman says her coaching and strategy has relevance to women from all walks of life and in all stages of their careers.

Much like a CEO or a team lead in a corporate setting, the soccer coach’s meticulously charted plan for the road ahead serves as a blueprint for the team’s goal.

Setting the vision

“The first – and the most fundamental – thing I did early on was to set a vision that the team could buy in [to],” says Ms. Priestman. “I felt ‘bravery’ was the missing ingredient that would help us change the colour of the medal. That element was unique to every single player, but when you take the individual focus and put it to use collectively, you become a braver team.”

So, how did they do it? Each member of the team was asked to acknowledge a soccer-related trait or skill they needed to improve. For instance, some said they would be ‘brave’ and pass the ball forward and resist the tendency to kick it sideways. Once the players identified what needed to be done, their coach reminded them constantly to step out of their comfort zones.

Besides extolling the virtue of bravery, the British coach urges the women to work hard, develop a winning mindset and have “the time of their lives” on the field.

“Every challenge offers an opportunity, so take that first step, no matter how big or small,” Ms. Priestman advises women, whether on the field or in the boardroom.

“Second, believe in yourself and be clear about who you are.”

From canoe sprinter to entrepreneur

Julia Rivard Dexter, a current business owner and former sprint kayaker who represented Canada at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, poses at her lakeside home in Halifax, on Sept. 13, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Julia Rivard Dexter is another elite athlete who feels the lessons learned in sports competition can be just as valuable in a business setting.

A sports injury at 12 dashed Ms. Rivard Dexter’s hopes of becoming a professional swimmer but she found canoe/kayak and excelled in it. In 2000, Ms. Rivard Dexter competed in the Sydney Olympics as a sprint kayaker, with her team finishing ninth in the K-4 500-metre event.

Post-Olympics, the Nova Scotian found herself navigating some choppy waters.

At first, Ms. Rivard Dexter, 44, couldn’t find her footing in the academic world when enrolled in a graphic design program. Later, in 2003, she launched a business incubator which failed to take off.

“A lot of professional athletes really struggle with their post-sport life,” Ms. Rivard Dexter says. “I went from being one of the best in the world [in kayaking] to struggling in class. An important part of being an athlete is that you get knocked down a lot, but you can’t give up because resilience is critical.”

Ms. Rivard Dexter tested the entrepreneurial waters again and this time, she was successful. Over the past decade, she launched – and scaled – several technology ventures, and she’s currently the co-founder and CEO of Eyeread Inc., a company that delivers research-based learning via engaging video games.

In January, 2019, Eyeread launched Dreamscape, a subscription-based program, to help children between Grades 2 to 8 develop reading and comprehension skills. In just 24 months, Dreamscape has garnered some three million users.

Taking the hard road

Ms. Rivard Dexter says one of the big lessons she learned in sports was not to cut corners. She remembers training in Dartmouth, N.S., in the mid ‘90s, running a particular stretch that literally cut a corner and hugged the sidewalk. Other runners would bypass it, but Ms. Rivard Dexter says she would run right to the end of it without fail, every time.

“When I was at the Olympics on the line, waiting for the gun to go, I thought about how I had never cut that corner,” she says.

Ms. Rivard Dexter says it’s a philosophy that stuck, and it’s served her well as an entrepreneur.

“Life’s about little steps you take in between the big wins,” she says.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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