Empowering women's sport professionals

Associate Professor Natalie Saunders has never been a great spectator. It’s little wonder, then, that she’s thrown herself wholeheartedly into so many different aspects of sport throughout both her personal life and career.

From her start as a physical education teacher to her current research, teaching and working in clinical exercise physiology, Natalie’s love for sport has always shone through. Today, she’s an Associate Professor teaching in Deakin’s postgraduate clinical exercise units, a researcher in sport science and injuries, and an accredited exercise physiologist.

She’s also been named one of 2022’s Female Leaders in Exercise and Sport Science by Exercise and Sport Science Australia.

A love for cycling

Natalie’s love for her main sport, cycling, was stoked from the sidelines as she watched family members racing.

‘I remember being around the sport from when I was six or seven years old. I liked watching sport but more so, I wanted to get out there and be a part of it all.’ she says. ‘Thank goodness dad was happy for me to have a go and eventually I was allowed to start racing when I was 11.’

‘I raced to a respectable level when I was in my late teens, early twenties and then I stepped away to experience other parts of life. But I never stopped riding my bike.’

‘I actually got a job as a bike courier up in Queensland for a few months after I stopped racing. And I think what that showed me was that first and foremost, I loved riding my bike. To this day, I still compete for fun and ride my bike as much as I can. It’s just a part of my life and I get to spend time with people who mean a lot to me.’

A career in teaching, research and clinical practice

A career in teaching, research and clinical practice

Natalie kicked off her career in sport as a physical education teacher after studying a Bachelor of Physical Education with Honours. She went on to complete a Graduate Diploma in Exercise Rehabilitation, then a PhD focusing on ACL injuries in netballers. ‘I worked clinically while I did my PhD, and because I loved teaching, I taught at the same time. So, I had all three of my passions going at once and then just stuck my head down for about 10 years and just learned as much as I could and did as much as I could. And then the opportunity came up to come and work at Deakin,’ she says.

Above all else, Natalie’s passion for her job still drives her every day. ‘I love teaching. I think it’s a privilege whereby young people are trusting you with their education. And I guess I carry that into leadership roles where I think leadership is a privilege as well. I think that approach has helped build the career I have now.’

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game

For Natalie, sport has primarily been about the journey, a reflection of life – full of soaring highs, crushing lows and opportunities for immense personal growth. ‘The result has never been the primary driver for me. It’s probably why I would never have been a really top cyclist, because it was never the result that was the most important thing.’

She’s passionate about the benefits sport can bring to not just elite athletes, but everyone – including better health and a sense of belonging and community. ‘I wholeheartedly believe that exercise is medicine. It's not the only part of medicine, but I do fundamentally believe that what exercise gives the human body, from a health and wellbeing perspective, is so important. That's a philosophy I really live by,’ she says. ‘I think if we can maximise healthy sport, then we'll maximise opportunities for healthy communities.’

We need to be a voice and role model for these young girls and these young women.

Setting up the next generation for success

Natalie’s focus now is empowering the next generation of sport professionals – especially women. ‘We ran a few women in sport events for high school students, and I remember hearing too many times, the young girls say, "I love sport, but I just don't know what to do”. Or, “I'm not an elite sports person, so I can't have a career in sport”. And I think that's a terrible misconception.’

She’s also set her sights on supporting emerging leaders within academia and research. ‘By the time the 2032 Olympics come around, I'll probably be getting to that point where I'll be looking at winding down my career. So, I've got a few years to help set things up, then I want a few years of really getting the young academics into positions where they're going into leadership roles. By 2032, it's going to be them, not me.’

When it’s all done and dusted and she rides off into retirement, Natalie would like to be remembered as someone who empowered people to see their capability – a role model unafraid to tackle the tough stuff, who left the space just that little bit better off. ‘I’d like them to think, “She really supported me on my pathway … I've gone on to have a successful career and she played a small part in that”.’

How culture drives success at Deakin

According to Natalie, Deakin’s consistently strong performance in sport world rankings – including recently topping the ShanghaiRanking Global Ranking of Sport Science Schools and Departments for the third time as #1 in the world – is in large part thanks to the culture within Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.

‘It’s a positive culture of striving for excellence, but with support,’ she says. ‘If you use a sport analogy, it's like having the coach that's assertive, pushing you to achieve excellence and be your best, but supportive of who you are within the team. The school strives for excellence, but also provides the support for staff to do that.’

‘That culture then feeds down to the students. We push our students to see what they're capable of in a way that's supportive. And that builds our students’ confidence that the degree they're getting is going to give them the best opportunities. They end up leaving the course as strong undergraduate or postgraduate students, which shines through when they go for a job.’

Interested in learning more? Find out more about Natalie’s research.

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