Transcript: Values, Leadership and Football with Michael Thwaite (EP52)
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Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. I'm your host, Brendan Rogers, and this is episode 52. Today I'm talking with a fellow who needs very little introduction from myself, but I'll give a little bit of a summary of where he's at.
He's an ex-Socceroos footballer. He played in Europe, played in Asia, played for a number of A-League teams, started his career professionally in the NSL with Marconi Stallions in Sydney, and started his young footballing days. He's a boy from Cairns. He's a man after my own heart as well. He's a Broncos supporter and he's a Queenslander. I love those two. I love the Broncos and I'm a passionate Queenslander as well. Michael Thwaite, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast.
Michael: Thank you very much, Brendan.
Brendan: Mate, can you just give the audience a little bit of background? How about you share a few of your career highlights through your footballing journey so we can get started there?
Michael: As you mentioned, I grew up in Cairns, Far North Queensland. I left Cairns when I was about 18 after my first university and transferred on scholarship to Sydney University. Because of my scholarship, I ended up having to play for the university team for the first six months. An ex-coach of mine, Raul Blanco was actually looking at Daniel Schwarzer who is Mark Schwarzer's brother. Sydney University was playing in Fraser Park, and that 90 minutes changed my life really. I've got invited to trial with Marconi back in the old NSL. Within six weeks, I was in the first team there, which was a big goal of mine.
Pretty much in the space of four years, I went from being in my second school outside of Cairns to being a Socceroo a few years after that. After the NSL finished, I went to Europe, and then back in the A-League. Now, full circle pretty much back at Gold Coast United. This is my first year actually not playing. It's a little bit different. I'm still training to try and keep fit. I'm just trying to be 100% there for my family after a big journey, as you just mentioned. I'm just giving back to the community as not just a player, but as learning as a coach on doing disability work outside of football as well. I'm just trying to really get that balance back to family life.
Brendan: Well done, mate. I know that when I did some reading up on you, you made some statements about in your second life being a slave. Do you want to expand on that a little bit?
Michael: Yeah, I guess I've been away a lot. As a professional footballer for 18 years, every second weekend, you're pretty much away. It's almost like working in the mines or something like that. Particularly, in my last two years, fully professional in China and Western Sydney Wanderers in 2018, I lived two, four years away from my family. I could virtually count on my fingers the days that I saw my family.
Once, I did come back and play semi-professionally in the last two years with United, I made the statement that I'll probably be my wife's slave for the rest of my life. But I guess that's marriage in general.
Brendan: You said it, mate. I haven't got this photo to bring up, unfortunately, but I do remember seeing you dressed up in your pregame football gear—I think it's Gold Coast United—and going to Swan Lake before football. Is that right?
Michael: Yeah, it's true. It's very hard to balance. Unfortunately, I don't have any future Matildas. I've got two young daughters. One's a horse rider and one's a ballerina. That's my weekend as well.
That's one of the reasons why I'm not playing this year for Gold Coast United. Just training, helping, and announcing my retirement is because I just want to be there. Because it's a lot of running around with children and it takes its toll. It's not right for one person to have to do that to my wife. She's working, she's a scenographer as well. She's in medical and very busy as well. It's always hard to balance as a parent let alone single parents out there. That's one of the reasons why I didn't come back as well. I made that sacrifice for the family.
Brendan: Is it Portia or Madelene doing horse riding? Because that's a really expensive hobby.
Michael: Portia does horse riding and dancing. She's particularly focused on jazz, but my little nine-year-old does ballet. She's more focused on the classical type of things. They could have certainly chosen a lot less cheaper sports, but I guess you do anything. We didn't really force it on them. They came up with it and it's their passion. When I first started when I was seven as a soccer player, my dad first signed me up in Cairns. What can you do? You just go with the flow.
Brendan: Absolutely, mate. You give your kids every opportunity the best you can, don't you?
Michael: Yeah, we try.
Brendan: I just want you to take your mind back, do you remember when you were a young fella and playing at Saints Football Club up in Cairns where you were born, when you really started thinking about wanting to play for the Socceroos, playing for your national team?
Michael: It was around 12 years old. Back in the old NSL, I used to support a team who's playing in the MPL now, Brisbane Strikers, and actually won the championship in ‘97 back in the day. Frank Farina, who was one of my best friends and [...] uncle. He was an icon of Australia as you know. He was an icon of that region as well, Far North Queensland because he grew up there and left quite late as well.
He really inspired me to become a professional [...]. From that moment, from about 12 years old, that's when I started writing goals, getting involved in Queensland teams, and things like that where you're starting to use your ability. So around 12 years old.
Brendan: Let's dive into a little bit around these values and leadership because you mentioned captaining various sides and making your way through Queensland sides. What are the values that have driven you along the way in your journey as a footballer and as a person?
Michael: I'm 38 now. Obviously, I've been playing for pretty much 30 years of my life, which is every weekend. I'm really coming back to a midlife crisis or whatever. I'm really coming back to those values that I learned from a very young age. I actually call it the three C’s. I call it communication, compromise, commitment, and an element of surprise, which is the S. Those values I go by every day. I bring those values on the pitch and off the pitch.
To give an example, on the pitch, as long as I'm committed to a tackle, I know you're probably not going to get injured and you're going to most likely win the tackle. As long as I'm communicating around the field with my center-back partner, the people in front of me, or my coach, you know that you're going to have success and also compromise. If my partner makes a mistake, I'm going to cover for that person. The element of surprise, something that the coach doesn't teach like it might be a last-minute winner in 90-, 30-minute, or it might be saving a goal on the line—something that comes from within.
Off the pitch, I use those same values in my relationships with my wife, whether it'd be I'm talking. She says I talk too much with communication. Also listening as well, also being committed to that relationship, and compromise. For example, this afternoon, my wife is at work so she can't pick up the kids, so I have to do that. I've actually got her some flowers today because tomorrow is our 14th year anniversary. That's my element of surprise, something that she doesn't expect, or she doesn't know that until she sees that this afternoon.
Brendan: Congratulations on your wedding anniversary for tomorrow, mate.
Michael: My pleasure. In a nutshell, they're the values that I go by. In a leadership sense, I think that's what I use as a leader as well. Also, you have to believe in what you're doing as well. Because if you don't believe in those values or the company values, then the relationship’s going to suffer.
Brendan: How did you get to that point? You've articulated those really, really well—the communication, the compromise, commitment, and the surprise angle. Have you thought back about how you've got to that angle now where you can really articulate those so clearly? Because that's a real journey for leaders to know what they stand for.
Michael: First of all, it's experience. Seeing how my parents' relationship works, seeing my wife's parents, and experienced people, even my grandparents, seeing what works and what breaks down. Those things are everyday things. One day, your partner or your boss might want to communicate. I know in disability, sometimes they're not verbal and you can't communicate with them. You have to find out different ways.
There's lots of gray area with that, but it's something that I've learned over time. I find that when one of those things is missing, then the relationship suffers or is broken. That's what I found in the leadership sense. The main thing is actioning them. As a leader and building that culture, which is basically a relationship between people, you got to build those things.
I can almost be like a fulcrum for companies because obviously, the stronger the relationship between the values of the person, employee, and the leader, or the company owner, or the company itself, if those values are aligned and the relationship is strengthened, then obviously you need a fulcrum, an everyday thing that goes up and down like a scale. That's what I found in a leadership role in teams, and also what I've seen in my new employees as well. It comes to a head when those values are missing.
Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. I want to bring up a video of something you did on the field against Sydney several years ago. Mike, can we bring that up? Just going to play this. You win the ball there and you drop your [...]. What's going on there? How does that fit into your four leadership principles?
Michael: That's the element of surprise, I guess. I'll tell you one thing. My wife wasn't too happy when it was sunrise the next morning. What does it take for something like that extraordinary thing to happen like that to get on the news these days? The funny story is, the guy who makes those tights is Body Science and Greg Young. They're actually based here in Berkeley, where I live on the Gold Coast.
I actually sent it to him one day and basically, I've had free compression gear for a lifetime. He's doing really great things. I think someone also joked and said that I look like a candle. I don't know if that's positive or negative, but my wife wasn't too happy.
Brendan: That's really interesting though because I was going to say that maybe you and your agent missed a trick there because you should have had some signage or something that’s a little bit clearer, making it a bit well played.
Michael: There’s plenty of room there, isn’t there?
Brendan: Just for our listeners and those who watch on YouTube, what point were you trying to make to the referee?
Micheal: Look, I was pretty frustrated. We got counter-attacked and I sprinted back 50 meters to get to the goal side and wrap around him. I was just frustrated at the referee that I got a foul for it because I had worked so hard to get back there. But sometimes you forget that you're playing in front of 15,000 on live TV, but I'm known for those little tricks anyway.
Brendan: You're certainly a bit of a character. We'll go into a few of those other points a bit later on. I want to get back to the, you called it a fulcrum, culture, and those four pillars for yourself as a leader. How have they served you well through your football career and particularly your leading teams? How have people seen you as a leader and demonstrate these four areas that you live by?
Michael: I guess it's more of a process for myself. When you wake up, if you're accepting a job role, or accepting a team environment, I know that if I feel that I'm ticking all of those areas, I know that I'll gain success.
Back in the day, before I was professional, I know that when one of those things was off or below 50%, if you're going to evaluate yourself every day, I know that it was a short-term thing. I know that the clubs where I fell on the pitch or even the company now with Gold Coast Rec & Sport, our disability company, I know that every day that I wake up and I'm actioning those values, I know that it aligns with the company values, and I know that hopefully, that'll mean a long-term situation. I love more relationship bonds.
As I said, it's an everyday thing. It's not like one game you can have it all perfect and the next game it's going to be perfect. Those things as well I think anyone can achieve. You don't need to be Messi or Ronaldo to do those things on the pitch. Obviously, you need to have the technique and the awareness, the mentality behind it. I find that if players can do those things, you're more likely to have a better chance of winning.
Brendan: You reached a very high level obviously playing for the Socceroos. I think it was something like 13, 14 appearances. Well done there. I'm interested in the mindset, particularly the behaviors that, again, you say from about 12 years of age, you started to think about, I want to aspire to be a Socceroo. What are those behaviors, and maybe even those habits that you had to form in order to reach the pinnacle?
Michael: I think you can see just behind me, it's one of the Socceroos jerseys that I received after going to the first ever Asian Cup in 2007. That jersey there reminds me of when I was younger. I actually never bought a Socceroos jersey when I was growing up because it's something that I wanted to achieve. Just little cues like that or even goal-setting like something that you can physically see or that you want to achieve, that can help as well. When I was 18 and just moved to Sydney, I wrote a list of goals. I still have that and I do it in some of my presentations.
I had a four-year plan—maintaining a scholarship at university, cementing a sport in the university team, and getting a trial in the National Soccer League. I listed little short-term goals that I could visually see, and then obviously a long-term goal, which was actually going to the Olympics. I actually got cut before the Olympics, so I reset the goal to make the Socceroos. Within months, I was in the Socceroos.
Those little things about not buying a jersey or just giving you those little mental cues, that's something that I was very passionate about when I was younger about goal setting. Again, not buying a Socceroos jersey, and then that sticks in your mind to try and believe that you want to achieve that result.
Brendan: Such a fantastic story. I had read that somewhere too before that you hadn't bought a Socceroos jersey as a kid or anything that you really wanted to earn it. Can you tell us a bit about how achieving that goal, actually being presented with the Socceroos jersey? What was the feeling around that for you for achieving that?
Michael: For me, it really started at school. I was at my second school, which goes to show that anyone can achieve. I was actually a [...] up in Mission Beach in Cairns. My friends were getting up to mischief and I was watching one of the Socceroos qualifiers against Uruguay. We didn't qualify for a long time. It was at that moment where I started visualizing on the TV and about my future and reflecting on that. I've got all this potential that I wanted to achieve, and I hadn't really achieved it. It was from that moment where I said, well, the next time we qualify, I'm going to be on that stage.
Within four years, I was on the stage where we qualified against Uruguay. I didn't play that game, but I was in the squad. We've qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. It goes to show anyone can do it. Obviously, it's a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and moving from Cairns and moving to Sydney, which was a rat race in itself. If you set yourself that process, I think anything can be achieved.
Brendan: One of the topics we also want to cover today is learning from failure, that's a big thing for you. Do you want to share maybe what you consider as a failure in your life, then how it turned out, and what did you learn from that?
Michael: It's funny when you're reflecting on your career, the media portray all these things that you achieved. Whether it'd be 200 games in the A-League or representing the Socceroos on those occasions, I almost show a curve of all those achievements. In the next slide, I'll show just all the failures that I had.
When I was in year 12, I got an OP12 and I needed to get an OP10 to get into what I want. That was a big failure of mine, therefore, I had to stay in Cairns for another year because I wanted to go to a bigger university than James Cook in Cairns. Little failures like that. Obviously, in terms of soccer, 12, 13, and 14 I was in the state teams, and then 15, 16 I didn't get selected because I matured very late and maintained my life's psychology to the game and technique.
When I grew into my body and started believing in myself a lot more, then obviously, that technique and belief took over. But I'll show that curve of how many times I didn't get picked. For example, I qualified. I was part of a qualifying campaign of three different World Cups. I didn't go to one World Cup, which is a big failure of mine. To play for the Socceroos for over eight years, getting back into the team after those failures is something that I wanted to achieve.
I was part of a salary cap crisis at Perth Glory. At Gold Coast United, the club folded under Clive Palmer after three years. It takes a lot of motivation to get through those times. There was one time during that World Cup in 2006 where I had just qualified for that World Cup. I had [...] a month FIFA case because I was transferring from Romania to Poland. I'm missing that World Cup because I hadn't played in such a long time and I was just rusty and not game fit. To go through that as a 22-year-old stems a lot of failures.
Brendan: Just touching on the failure of Gold Coast United and a young professional footballer. I guess in essence, even though you might not have the title of captain in the team, but you're an Australian player, that brings with it some form of leadership. How did you perceive yourself in a situation like that? How did you help maybe some of the other players and support them in a process like that?
Michael: I was actually a captain in that third year because, in the first two years, we were doing really well. We had a good team and then after the second year, Clive obviously is losing a lot of money as the A-League clubs do. He was pushing for what's happening now, the separation between the APO and the FFA with Frank Lowy. He had an argument with him, a business argument. We're all basically the pawns suffering on TV.
It was very hard because basically, within three weeks, we were told to sign over the FFA. We did that and I had to lead that whole process with the PFA. We had a crisis meeting where basically we knew that within weeks, the club would fold.
After that, the FFA announced that the club would fold. We all had to look for different clubs where I signed for Perth Glory. It was very frustrating for me, but I had a very young team because most in that third year at Gold Coast United, a lot of the senior players had chosen to leave to other clubs. Basically, we knew in close that the club wasn't going to continue in that third year because the money was going to get pulled out and the crowds were down. There were constant arguments. It's something that was very hard to achieve.
I think all of us—apart from Kristian Rees who ended up working for Clive Palmer—signed across, and most of the guys that opened up other doors. They had action and a great reaction after such failure. I think that's very important.
Brendan: I want to go into the mental health aspect as well. You have mentioned this in an interview. Mental health is close to your heart. You've had your own struggles, particularly with anxiety. I guess a situation like that, maybe you've just explained with Gold Coast United and things, how has the mental health side of things impacted you either good or bad or indifferent in your football journey?
Michael: It's not just in that moment that it's highlighted. It's probably since I was a child. I'm openly stating that I have suffered from anxiety for as far as I could know, and it probably started as worries as a child. Things like that don't help, that's for sure. If you look at the statistics, probably one in four people in Australia suffer from the same effect, and then one in seven suffer from depression in their lifetime. They're saying eight or nine people now committing suicide in Australia every day. I guess if I compare that to what's going on with COVID, it should be alarm bells.
For me, it really highlighted not just those points in other clubs but living away and creating a toxic environment where I was away in China and Sydney (particularly in China), where it was a different climate, different food, different time zone. I was so far away from my family, well, I'm used to it. I just put myself into that environment. That was really the first time where anxiety slipped into depression. I can't really describe what depression is, but it was almost like a cloudiness every day if I can say so. It was the first time where I was having suicidal thoughts.
For me, I'm openly able to discuss it because I know it's going to help someone else. As I said, anxiety doesn't just change like that. It's a day-by-day thing. You're a product of your environment. I put myself into that environment. That's why I came back to Australia in the A-League. I tried to get into the Brisbane Roar, they didn't want a defender. The closest was Western Sydney Wanderers, which was an hour’s flight away. Even that came too as well because you're still in the same environment where you're away from your family. Financially, it was an absolute disaster.
I'm very passionate about talking about these things and hopefully, we can make some changes.
Brendan: What helped you get through those dark moments, those cloudy moments?
Michael: It was definitely my wife and my family around me. When I first came back from China because I'd been on and off medications since my last year at Perth Glory where I started to see a psychologist about it. That was broken within my year in China. When I came back, I was very sick mentally. Physically I was fine. I've seen a psychiatrist, who is a doctor of psychology. In that meeting, it was quite funny because I was doing an analysis. Basically, she laughed at me and I reflected on myself. I laughed at myself, well, I'm not hospitalized. I'm physically able.
It was from that moment, something clicked in like, well, maybe I don't need to be at this level because I know how many people are suffering out there and are far worse than me. Obviously, it's an everyday thing. I'm not on medication. I'm trying to come up with resilience patterns that I can use every day to get you over those things. I think everybody has those anxious moments. It's almost like putting it on a scale where you wake up. Sometimes, you're 5 out of 10, sometimes you're 9 out of 10. Different things might trigger those things, but it's about self-regulation.
I'm continuously seeing psychologists. The information that they're giving me was very simple. I guess something just clicked when you're seeing those professionals. There's only one person that's going to resolve it. It's not a textbook, it's not a podcast, it's not what you're looking at, it's yourself. You got to resolve it, and just like I have in any of the photos that I've had or the problems that have occurred. That's why resilience, not giving up and working out a way, finding out a way to win.
Brendan: You mentioned resilience and resilience patterns, what are those resilience patterns for you?
Michael: For me, it actually comes down to what I first talked about and that's your values. Whenever I wake up and I'm assessing myself, how do I feel, how did I sleep, did I eat correctly? You're trying to self-regulate how you're feeling.
I find that as long as I'm achieving all my values each day—whether that be with my work outside of football, whether it'd be training, whether it'd be in a relationship—I find then that I have that purpose in life. I think a lot of people can learn from that regardless of what happens, the chaos that happens at work, sport, or in your relationship if you have that belief in yourself and you find out what your value (it doesn't have to be the three C’s, you can make up your own), you find out what works and you can wake up every morning.
Whether that be your wants and needs, your activity, or your nutrition, if you can come back to your own values and your self-belief, I think that is the most important part of resilience. It doesn't matter about the environment around you, what other people say to you, or whatever it may be, you have that belief in yourself that what you're doing is the right way. I think that's the key to get over things like anxiety or a problem that may occur in your own life.
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I find it often also working with various leaders, it's really easy to talk with leaders and they share experiences around where they've aligned with their values and stuff like that. I always like to unpack, where have you been challenged to live your values? Have you got anything that comes to mind where it's been a real challenge for you?
Michael: The hardest thing for me was in transition because I'm very passionate about how athletes and people transition into it. As you know, with COVID, a lot of people have lost their jobs. When athletes retire or they don't make the cut, all of a sudden, you don't have this purpose, you don't have this fulfillment about what to do. It's a real grey area, a real empty feeling. I think the challenge in the last two years is to find something that you're aligned with and that your values along with it. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. That's something that I've learned as a leader.
While I was still playing, I worked for an elevator company. It was called Orbitz Elevators, and it was in HR. Basically, I was behind a computer in an office, totally outside of my comfort zone. My alarm bells were ringing like, quit, quit, quit. Every day—quit, quit, quit. I was probably getting paid $50 an hour or whatever. I went to my boss and said, how can you pay me this money? I'm not really doing anything, I'm not connecting with people. I'm answering emails, I'm doing presentations, but I'm a people person.
Basically, I'm doing my white card in construction so that I could go into the field because I obviously service and build elevators, and this is way out of my realm. So I went and did that. Then I started connecting the people and seeing the problems that were occurring in the field so then I could bring that back into a report into the office.
In business, there's always that psychology between the on-pitch and off-pitch people. There's always bickering. These guys aren't working, these guys are working too much. As you know, there's always that. That was a real challenge of mine, but I got out of my comfort zone. Because of COVID, a third of the company got made redundant, which was my role as well. I actually thank the boss because I know him through football and he was one of our sponsors within Gold Coast United. I just thanked him. I was probably one of the only people in the room thanking him for that experience.
Once COVID occurred, then I started applying for different roles like everyone else. That's when I got involved in Gold Coast Recreation Sports, which is basically helping disabled adults in the community with sport and recreation. It's opened a whole new can of worms with my own mindset and having that purpose within work. I'm also doing a free disability program within Gold Coast United as well.
Brendan: I've seen all that, and we're certainly going to go into some of that. Michael, I just want to bring something up on the screen. I just want Thwaite to confirm, is this the after redundancy dance?
Michael: As you can see, they look after the people of the companies. I've got a company car. I was ticking all these boxes. My values, it was probably more commitment because I didn't understand about elevators, but that was something that I wanted to do. Communication was always okay. Compromise, I knew it was flexible for my family. The surprise, I was always going to give something extra to that company.
As I got into the field and did those extra things, that's something that I probably didn't expect within human resources. It was probably that commitment that was below what I should be as an athlete or as a soccer player. For me, it gave me so much experience but it was very challenging. Now I'm into a very difficult role, but a very valued role within sports disability.
Brendan: Let's go into that. Tell us a bit more about that role and how that does along with the values and the impact you're having. I also want to talk about that football because I've been sitting here for 30–40 minutes, whether that's football head-on for those on Youtube watching this.
Michael: Those are pretty new. I don’t think [...] worn that there many times.
Brendan: I'm trying to wear my Central Coast Mariners hat out so that I can put this one on after that.
Michael: You have to stay loyal.
Brendan: Well, I am actually a Roar supporter, first and foremost, but living on the Central Coast, you can't help but not support the Mariners. It's fantastic that they're in the finals for this season as well. Good luck to them on Saturday night.
Michael: He's done very well. Stajic has done very well to change that culture around.
Brendan: Absolutely, mate. Many, many moons ago in our first episode of The Culture of Things, I actually spoke to Rosie, Josh Rose about his experience with Mariners' Culture, when he was there—I guess, what we termed the glory days—and then later on. It was very much chalk and cheese. Stajic obviously has done a fantastic job. Tell us a bit about the disability role, again, the impact you're having there, and why you're valuing it so much.
Michael: I think it's very aligned with what I do. Since I've been back in Gold Coast, I'm basically a family Uber driver because you're picking up, dropping off, going left, right, and center ballet, horse riding, trying to fit in football training. Basically, I applied for this role as a disability support worker. Sports is what I've done my whole life. For me, it's not rocket science. On a couple of days a week, you'd pick up a certain number of clients. It might be three or four. If you've got a volunteer, it might be five.
I'm only driving a little Honda Jazz, so I can only fit so many adults in. If you have a lot more clients, I'll give you a disability van. Basically, you'll take them to different sporting events and recreation events within Gold Coast. There's so much to do here. There's golf, netball, baseball, cricket. Of course, they've got me running a soccer program. I basically facilitate a program midweek where everyone comes to me and it's just organized chaos. You've got music, you've got cooking. Everything that you're passionate about, they bring to the company.
Obviously, you have to be trained up and qualified as well, which I'm getting there and using my experience because I finished the Sports Science degree as well while I'm also still playing. Obviously, I’ve got qualifications with coaching and things like that. Everything you can bring, they'll put you into that program within the Gold Coast. It's flexible hours. They're very understanding, which football wasn't really understanding with family life and that stuff. If you need to structure hours or even work after hours and they have Sunday off as well. I'm working part-time.
Basically, you're running these clients around, facilitating programs, just caring for them, and getting them into the community. A lot of these guys have been through special schools and socially, they're afraid. They haven't had the experience that we have had the joy to accomplish. Whether it'd be catching trains, going to cafes, achieving what they wanted to do in their own goals.
For me, it's what I'm doing every day with my family anyway, with my kids. Obviously, you're trying to learn something new as well, which is very important for me because I need that drive to learn something new. Again, the spectrum is so wide. You've got non-verbal, you've got cerebral palsy, you've got so many different disabilities mentally not just physically. It just gives you a perspective on how good we actually have it in society. It's a real eye-opener.
Brendan: Another mate of mine who used to own a cafe, he's gone into disability work and he just loves it. He's that sort of guy. I haven't known you for very long, but trawling through your social media and stuff like that and other conversations, I reckon you would be a super fun disability worker. You must bring so much fun to this role.
Michael: Yeah, and my wife's in medical as well. We come home with all these stories. When I had my interview and I was doing my volunteer process, which I had to go through and it was around COVID time, I just said, I treat these guys like my brother or sister, or like my daughter or son. You get really attached to them. They've got so many characters. I don't know if it's politically incorrect to say this, but I feel like I'm the one with the disability because I've always been known as that crazy person on the pitch and off the pitch and having that character.
That's all they are. They just want to be recognized and have accessibility like we do in society. It aligned to what I was doing as well at Gold Coast United where we were doing that accessible program as well. With the funding with the NDIS and the new announcement with the government, I think there's so much that we can do extra. As I said, with my values, I'll never let those slip every day that I'm working at that company or in football in my next chapter.
Brendan: I want to bring up another video, and this is the sort of fun guy that you are.
Michael: We need to do a topic on social media.
Brendan: I think that's part two, Thwaite. Have a look at this. He has got the dance moves. This is his daughter there. I think his daughter's the lead.
Michael: That's my dog, Coffee.
Brendan: What was going on there, mate?
Michael: Every now and then, in those team environments, I get dared to do stuff. I'll never hold back. I think that was a WAP Dance. I don't want to tell you what it stands for but I learned them right from my children. I'd say every six months, I get dared to do stuff, either on live TV or [...].
To be honest, the social media aspect is really bothering me because that was one of the things that put me into that toxic environment when I was away. I never used to post about my career, to be honest, until I signed up for Instagram because one of my teammates told me to sign up when I was in China.
I was nonstop on Instagram, just in that wormhole. I'm sure we've all been there. It's something that I'm looking to mold out on. But as a business, I'm on Instagram with That's Football. It's just something that I'm stuck between because as a business, you can really suffer if you're not out there and not giving the right messages. In the same breath, for my anxious mind, it doesn't really work for me.
It's like a double-edged sword. I'm thinking about going old school and going cold turkey with the whole thing because it doesn't do me any justice. There's a lot of validation there that I don't need because I know what I’ve achieved, what I say is what I've actually done. I'm so content with what I've achieved, which is the main reason why I did finish playing as well because I couldn't see myself achieving anything more.
Brendan: I think you certainly do come across as a pretty content guy and a guy that's always willing to have a bit of a laugh at yourself, which is fantastic. That's what I've seen through your social media. It's just having a bit of a laugh. I'm really enjoying that second life of yours as a slave with your family and being the family Uber driver and stuff like that, mate. You're so right. Social media is one of those things that can grab you strongly and you can get sucked into that vortex, in that cesspit if you let it.
Michael: I'm worried about my next generation, my kids because we were lucky, we had the balance between both. Maybe we're a little bit better with self-regulating and that self-control of not being on it. From what I see in schools and the next generation of players, everything's promoted, and it's all about likes, loves, and whatnot. It's all about just self-validation. Do you really need that?
The way they communicate, I don't think they know how to communicate with people these days. If you're going for a job interview or you're looking to get into a new team, that will come to a head. A quick [...] if you can't communicate. People are hiding behind their devices.
Brendan: Mate, tell us a bit about That's Football because that's another passion of yours and something you created, a mentorship business and program. Even just what we spoke about there on social media, how are you looking to create That's Football into something that's really valuable for young people in this transition from whatever they’re in into something else?
Michael: It's a mentoring company helping people transition into a profession that they valued. I'm more exposed to it now in the real world, but so many people out there are in jobs that they just do not like. They're hating life, and I never really understood that. I had a privileged job at Orbitz Elevators where you're getting paid well and you get a little [...] or whatever. But something was missing there. I think people just go their whole lives like that.
For 18 years, I was paid to play and do what I love since I've known. As much as my wife probably won't know, but I'm going to be doing something within soccer until I'm dead, 88 years old. I just don't understand why people are in roles or they're studying in degrees that they don't want to do or their parents [...] them. That's a big passion of mine. I want to resolve that transition where you do feel the emptiness. I can just say, it's that empty feeling of transition.
When you're losing jobs or you're looking to go from year 12 it’s a real empty feeling, that transition. It's that cycle that we've just spoken about during the session where you're having to introduce yourself, you're learning about your values, and then obviously, you're setting goals to what you want to achieve. When you're achieving those goals and you tend to be in more of a leadership role, obviously, as leaders, we fail so much.
What do you do with that failure? It snowballs into some mental health where there might be anxious moments, there might lead to depression, or even worse than that we've spoken about. And then that final cycle of resilience, getting through the thing. I've created that with my topics as well, that transition cycle that we go through, whether you're going to get into something that you actually value or you don't.
That's my little side passion because I'm doing a lot of different things plus trying to commit to the family. I was very consumed by football and that's one thing that I would never let myself do. If That's Football takes off, it's not going to be my sole focus. That's why we'll always have something else. I think that balance is important. Because as you know, if you focus on one thing—whether it'd be becoming a vegan or whatever—it can be very dangerous. I think it's good to have that balance, which we've been talking about.
Brendan: Your wife, Chantelle, was she into football when she met you? You guys met when you were quite young, didn't you?
Michael: Not at all. We actually went to high school together. I don't know if it's unfortunately or fortunately. I actually broke up with her after two or three weeks because I was so scared, I was so immature.
Brendan: I did see that somewhere. You'd written about it somewhere or somebody had written it about you.
Michael: Yeah. I actually broke up with her because I was just scared. I thought it would affect my football and I just had all these things that I wanted to achieve. But in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have had. We had a five-year break. She went off to Brisbane, I went to Sydney. Five years later, she ended up being single. She moved back to Cairns and I was on a winter break from Romania. We went to the same nightclub and I saw her there.
From that moment, we weren't really committed. From about the end of 2005 and the start of 2006, I was still contracted in Romania. That's when we committed as boyfriend and girlfriend. Ever since then, we've been together. It's been a long journey because obviously, I’m in Europe and she's in Cairns, and football brings so much politics and movement. It's hard. It's so much compromise.
This time in Gold Coast has been really good for us. It's the first time we've actually been settled because I think that's what she wanted. She just wanted to settle, and that's probably the longest period that we've had in a city, which is I think it's five years. It's been a long journey. There's so much more. The girls want to achieve things as well.
That's one thing about Chantelle because a lot of football players’ partners, they don't work and they're having to follow the player all around. She was a nurse before becoming a sonographer. It's outstanding that she even maintained those degrees and maintained hours with work, otherwise she would have lost. That's one thing actually she does resent me for is she actually lost her nursing because she transitioned into a sonographer. She needed one month during heavy A-League scheduling when I was in Perth to get her hours off for nursing.
She ended up losing her nursing qualification because I couldn't commit to that because it was in January in the A-League so it was hard to balance. She's got a good job now. Those arguments do come up because she made such a great nurse before. Maybe it's something that she could go back to, but it means she has to study a few more years to get it back, which is unbelievable they even need to do that.
Brendan: Like any good partner, mate, I'm sure that you will live with that memory for the rest of your life and they’ll make sure that you don't forget that.
Michael: Yeah, don't worry about that. As I said, it's an everyday thing with those values.
Brendan: It's three v one, you've got three females in your house. How do you cope with that?
Michael: Well, I've got my dog, Coffee, who's in the room.
Brendan: Coffee is male?
Michael: Yeah, so my dog coffee, if [...] hits the fan, we normally go out for a walk or go for a bike ride, remove myself from the environment. Normally, I'm the problem, to be honest. Because I'm a male, I can only do one thing at a time.
Brendan: Yes, mate. At least you and I, we can admit to that and that’s fine. A lot of males can't admit to that. Still living in false hope, I think.
You've mentioned a number of things during this interview. If you could pick one thing that was the biggest challenge for you in the journey, whether that be the challenge for the family. As a professional footballer, what is the single biggest challenge that you've had throughout your career?
Michael: The hardest phase in my career was missing that 2006 World Cup. I was mentally ready to go because I was 22 years old. I was the youngest in that team in 2005. I'm negotiating because I just made my debut in October. We won [...] against Jamaica, and then you're part of the November qualifiers. You're in this successful team and you're going to the World Cup. When I returned to Romania, the president saw so much value in me. I was still contracted until mid-2006 and they saw that value.
I think they said, €1 or €2 million is going to take to transfer. I was over in Romania on a two-year contract. I actually signed in January a pre-contract with this for Krakow in Poland with Dan Petrescu who used to play for Chelsea. He was Romanian. Ever since I saw that pre-agreement, which was probably not a wise thing to do, they stopped me playing and then they made it really hard. As I said, I had to take the whole case to FIFA.
I was just so young and very narrow-minded. In hindsight, maybe I should have just extended or just been patient, kept playing, and maybe had a better chance to go for that 2006 World Cup. But in the same breath, we qualified for the 2014 World Cup and [...] lost his job and [...] came in and he wanted to bring in the youth and the players that he wanted. Sometimes, it's not meant to be. As I said, growing up to represent Australia even one time and play one game for Marconi in the NSL, I probably could have died a happy person.
Brendan: What's the greatest highlight in your career, mate?
Michael: Greatest highlight would definitely be one of those two. We're representing Australia because that jersey meant so much, that first jersey for Australia. Just seeing the signatures on it, like Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer—there's too many to name. Just to get that first Socceroos jersey, that yellow jersey, and to put it on, just look at yourself, and just freaking out just for it all to go well, to plan, and to get a win was an amazing feeling. No one can take it away from you.
I had the same feeling getting my first professional contract and my first professional game from Marconi as well.
Brendan: So many highlights, mate. You've played in so many teams, and you've also now been part of organizational teams as well. For you, what makes a great team player?
Michael: For me, it has to be about commitment. I've seen a lot of players that are not committed for one reason or the other. It's like in anything, if you don't believe in that team or that coach, it's going to be very short-term. I've played football in 35 different countries, all for free and an amazing experience. So many cultures, so many people, so many different languages. For me, it comes down to really believing, and whether it'd be you as a coach or you as a player, believing in yourself because if you don't believe in yourself, people will smell it from the start and they will take advantage of it. That's the main message is to believe in yourself.
Obviously, the resilience part is just not giving up. Even with my company now, I can't say that it's a fantastic mentoring company and earning so much money. I'm losing a lot of money and there are so many times where I just want to give up and just stop the business completely, but something always keeps me going. That's a belief in what I want to say and talk to people about because it's important in their lives, in my own life, in my everyday life. Believe in yourself and never give up. That's very important in any culture.
Brendan: What does that future look like for you, mate? What's the next 5, 10 years? What impact are you hoping to have?
Michael: I'm probably doing it. I think I want both to remain part-time. I don't want it to be a full-time thing. I want to be flexible for my family in the next five years because they're 12 and 9. The next five years are very important for them for their own transition. We're looking to build things, disability wise at the club. I'm still training a couple of nights, even though the coach still wants me to play at United. But the weekends are just so hectic with my family. Definitely, in the next five years, I want to go to as many schools as possible. I want to start talking to clubs here in the Gold Coast.
My first rule, That's Football talk was at Sydney University because I still got a great relationship with them being one of the Blues Foundation there. I was away from my family overnight. I had a couple of drinks. I didn't have the best sleep. I didn't eat well. I woke up very early to catch a flight back to Gold Coast. I'm thinking, do I really want to put myself in the same position as I was as a player traveling here and there, being away from the family? I think in the next five years, it's got to be local and everything is structured around my family because it hasn't been like that for a long time.
Brendan: I also want to ask you around, sort of taking a few sideways steps, but you’re the captain of the Queensland Football Team back in 2020 recently or 12 months or so ago. What does it mean to captain your stateside? Queensland, they're really passionate.
Michael: For me, that was that fulfillment that I got where, this could potentially be my last game because I made the announcement to my own team at the start of 2020 before COVID, and we had that big break in COVID. Everyone was saying, well, you're going to play next year, you're definitely going to be playing. This season was muddled. Because I collect jerseys as well, not just Socceroos jersey. I’ve got maybe 60 jerseys in my back room. That's another argument for [...] as well.
Every jersey has a story, but this jersey, this Queensland jersey means so much to me because I had so many failings when I was 15, 16, and 17 where I wasn't getting picked for that Queensland team and I was getting shadow. For me, that jersey, it means everything because I played at one junior club for 10 years, the Saint Soccer Club, a Queensland team. I live in Queensland. When people ask me, what football team do you support? I passionately support the Broncos and I've done since the start. I love watching the Origin. I'm going to the Origin II with my brother-in-law.
It doesn't have to be football, but that jersey meant so much to me. I remember just walking out and leading a team. Talking about failure, we ended up copying a goal in the last minute of normal time and then went to extra time. It was 2-2 and we went to penalties. I actually stepped up and I missed my penalty. In my last kick of our semi-professional football, I missed my penalty. There's the key. Life goes on. To wear that Queensland jersey was amazing. It brought me a lot back to my childhood.
Brendan: Mate, do you remember the first penalty you ever missed?
Michael: I don't think I've missed one before that. I scored one in the A-League and then I don't think I've missed a penalty. If I had it again, I'll definitely miss it again that's for sure because no one else is putting their hand up.
Brendan: I only asked because [...] was back when I was under 10s and it still scars me today. I don't think I've taken a penalty since.
Michael: It's a hard thing like a lot of people. For me, it was time. I could easily just played again this year, but it means taking away from my family like not seeing my daughters perform in ballet or jazz. On Sunday, I'm just doing a disability program and then I roll into going horse riding all day. We're collecting poo. I was working in the canteen cooking sausages and deep frying, but you do it for your daughters to be part of their community. Our parents did it for us. I'll sacrifice that rather than going to [...] this weekend with the team. It's that compromise.
Brendan: Absolutely, mate. I want to pull up one last video. Mike, we're going to show this one through. It's only 15 seconds or so, but I'm really interested in this celebration at the end. This is the goal you've—great hair there, by the way. Have a look at this. What's that celebration about, Thwaite?
Michael: You're very passionate about the culture of things. That's from my region in Cairns. I don't have any Aboriginal blood in myself. We used to have a dance company that came to our primary schools and high schools called Tjapukai. It's actually going under now I think after COVID, which is very disappointing. It means the region of the mountains surrounding Cairns and it's very much a passion of mine. They used to do that Aboriginal and Torres Strait dance as well. I know I don't have any in my blood, but it's definitely in my body.
The funny story is, as I said, I scored three times in China for Liaoning, and against some big teams there. I did that celebration. The whole stadium was booing me because they thought it was obviously a threat to them. They didn't really understand it, but then I explained that I did that Djabugay dance. It's a big passion. As I said, you never forget where you grew up. It always reminds me of Cairns. I love when I see those dances and all the tribalism that comes from it in NRL and things like that. It's great.
Brendan: Fantastic, mate. Thank you for sharing that with us. Mate, do you want to just share some final thoughts around? Particularly, we are a leadership, teamwork, culture podcast, and we've touched on all of those factors today in your own experience. What would you say to people leading organizations or leading teams out there based on your own experience that can help them become better leaders and have a greater impact?
Michael: I think there was a good quote on leadership. I don't know, term by term, but it was from Nelson Mandela about just putting the team before yourself. Obviously, if trouble happens, bad things happen, or negative things happen within a company, then the leader steps forward and takes responsibility. I think that's the best form of leadership for me.
The main thing with leaders is action and obviously believe in what you're saying because if your work is underneath you, above you, or however your business is structured, if they get a sense of that lack of belief, then it will definitely come to a head. I've always been a leader that tries to take action. We talk a lot but it's difficult to take action. I think that's probably a great part of leadership. Mainly the team before yourself. That's how I've always tried to operate.
Brendan: So true, mate. Thank you for sharing with me. Mate, how can people get hold of you?
Michael: Again on social media, @thatsfootballmt at Instagram. I'm out of heads with Facebook. For me, it doesn't work too well and it wastes a lot of my time. I do try to promote different things and different ways of thinking and just see what I'm doing during the day at schools and clubs. At Instagram for now, to be confirmed.
Brendan: Awesome, mate. Thanks very much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I remember watching various games of yours over your career and I always had this vision in my head of the smiling assassin. That's a really tough defender at the end, but you always had a smile on your face. I've seen that as I've got to know a little bit more of you. You're just a great, fun, loving guy who's really in touch with himself as an individual, has some great family values, and some general values that guide your life. I really appreciate the conversation and the time you've taken today. Thanks for being a guest on the Culture Things podcast.
Michael: Thank you very much, Brendan. I really appreciate the time. I think Andy Hoppy used to call me that, the smiling assassin. I've got a lot of yellow cards. In my last full professional game (another failure), I got my first ever red card for Western Sydney Wanderers. That was my last A-League game. It's something that I pride myself on because I had copped a lot of yellow cards from that smile. Every time you smile, a good thought comes into your head. It's a positive way to talk to people as well with laughter and smiling. It's good to be positive, isn't it?
Brendan: Absolutely, mate. Great smiles brighten up lots of people's days. Absolutely. Thank you, buddy.
Michael: Thanks a lot. I appreciate your time.
Brendan: Pleasure, mate. Talking with Michael, it's easy to get a feel for his outwardly carefree nature—his easy-talking with people, and his propensity for a laugh. What's harder to know and what he shared today is his inner thoughts and struggles with mental health, particularly anxiety. True leaders share their vulnerabilities. Thwaite has achieved much in his career, and I'm sure he will achieve just as much in life after football once he can take a rest from being the family Uber driver.
These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Michael. My first key takeaway, leaders know what they stand for. The majority of leaders I've worked with find it very difficult to articulate what they stand for. If you don't know what you stand for, how can anyone you lead know? Michael is very clear on his values. He calls them the three C’s, communication, compromise and commitment with an element of surprise. Having this level of clarity drives your everyday decisions and makes it clear to all what you stand for.
My second key takeaway, leaders believe in themselves. They have a quiet inner confidence and know that if they take the right actions every day, it isn't a matter of if, it's a matter of when. This belief never comes across as arrogance. It's simply a humble belief in their own ability.
My third key takeaway, leaders earn their stripes. I love the story of how Michael never bought a Socceroos jersey, he wanted to earn it and he did. In leadership, respect is earned. It should never be something that is just handed to you based on a title.
In summary, my three key takeaways were, leaders know what they stand for, leaders believe in themselves, and leaders earn their stripes.
Thanks to Lucinda for leaving us a five star review on Apple Podcasts. I appreciate you as I appreciate all of our listeners. If you have any questions or feedback about this episode, please feel free to leave a comment on the socials or send me a message at brendanrogers.com.au Thanks for listening. Stay safe. Until next time.
Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.