Sharni Norder: ‘I don’t get paid enough to be able to just put everything into sport’

Sharni Norder, who made her name as Sharni Layton during a stellar netball career, is approaching retirement with the same energy that she used to take into making flying intercepts on the court and later dominating the hit outs on the football field.

With her own sporting academy, a job as head of netball at a private girls’ school, commentary roles in netball and football and a tour to promote her book, there is little chance the cross-code star will be putting her feet up and relaxing any time soon.

“Honestly, the last four months have been probably the hardest of my career,” she tells Guardian Australia. “I don’t get paid enough as a sportswoman to be able to just put everything into sport. By the time you get to your late 20s and early 30s, you want to be in a career, you want to be able to set yourself up for life.”

The 33-year-old, who announced her retirement from the AFLW earlier in the week, believes that physically she could could have kept on playing for another few years. But she says foresight “twisted my arm” into calling time on her storied sporting career.

“You don’t want to retire, and then have nothing to go to and then have to start at the bottom of the food chain for whatever industry you’re moving into next. I just know it’s going to get harder to start again the older I get.”

Despite her booming voice and confident swagger on the field, Norder is known for being one of the warmest, most caring athletes in the country. As a leader across both sports she played in, it was her honesty and her ability to build relationships with her teammates that was integral to her success.

“In sport you need to be able to have those honest conversations very quickly,” she says. “You just don’t have the time to sit down and have a full-blown conversation about why something needs to be that way. I think where we go wrong in that is that some teams do have those honest conversations, but they haven’t built the rapport first.”

As a senior player, Norder was always aware getting to know the young players on her team and showing them respect.

“It’s all about our mindset around how we treat each other,” she says. “When I pulled the young girls aside and told them that they weren’t pushing themselves hard enough, they knew that I was always really respectful of them and so it was because I cared about them and wanted them to succeed that we were having that conversation.”

In contrast, Norder often felt frustrated during her netball career about the way athletes tiptoed around each other’s feelings. Rather than building rapport, players felt the need to become best friends, which meant they focused more on preserving those relationships than having honest conversations. After years of managing her mental health and dealing with the politics of netball, the transition to AFLW felt like a breath of fresh air.

“In every netball team I was ever in we always sat down and put values on a whiteboard – this is what we’re going to stand for this year,” she says. “But values are what your culture is. In football, we’ve never once sat down and written values on a whiteboard, we just live them.”

This speaks volumes about the kind of player and person Norder is – honest, direct, authentic and passionate. These qualities made her a great, if not always typical, leader and they are what continue to drive her as an advocate for the causes she is most passionate about.

“You need a purpose,” she says. “I think we all want to contribute in one way or another.” One such purpose for Norder is mental health awareness. She believes that if she had understood what it felt like to be depressed when she was younger, she would have sought help much sooner. Sharing her story in her book and through talks with young people allows her to “pay it forward” and help others ask for help when they need it.

Norder’s other great passion is the environment. She is troubled by recent reports that suggest temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne will reach temperatures of over 50C by 2040 and decided to use her platform to make change – joining other high-profile athletes including Australian cricket vice-captain Pat Cummins, former Wallabies captain David Pocock and Olympic gold medallist swimmer Bronte Campbell to call for more action on climate change, as well as becoming an ambassador for the RSPCA.

Her focus is around education – ensuring people are aware of the choices that are available to them, whether that be in seeking help for a mental illness or asking if their bank is investing in renewable energy.

“There’s so much that we can do to prevent what’s happening and I think that’s why I feel such a strong passion to help change that, she says. “I feel a responsibility because I do have a voice to contribute to those things that I’m passionate about.”