Blog 5 - 27 February 2019
We're delighted to welcome back our athlete blogger, Lizzie Simmonds, after a break away during which she retired from her sport. Her blog below talks a lot about athlete identity and it is well worth a read. Thank you Lizzie!
If I’m Not An Athlete Then What Am I?
One of the most common issues for athletes transitioning out of sport is the loss of identity that inevitably accompanies the hanging up of your goggles, boots, spikes, oars or racquet for good. After retiring nine months ago, it’s something that I have struggled with too, and after a bit of reflection, it’s not too difficult to see why -after all, identifying as an athlete is pretty much all I’ve ever known.
There are, of course exceptions, but the majority of athletes are consumed by sport from a fairly young age (I swum a mile when I was 6 years old, and my hair barely dried for the next twenty years). Going through your teenage years as an elite, or semi-elite athlete, has some challenges, such as correctly managing your education and social development alongside sport, but it is usually a hugely positive commitment for a young adult. At an age when most kids are messing around with their mates, playing on their Xbox, or Snapchatting every two or three minutes, the young athlete goes on a pretty intensive course of learning how to optimally prioritise tasks, time and energy.
Whilst many teenagers have to be dragged out of bed in the morning, a young athlete will be up before sunrise, dragging their parents out of bed to take them to the pool, track or gym. Whilst their friends moan about homework, a young athlete will have a routine that allows them to complete their homework and train after school, with enough time leftover to relax and watch that latest episode of Love Island. Whilst their schoolmates are happy to grab a bag of chips for lunch, a young athlete will be learning about correctly fuelling their body, choosing their food carefully to optimise recovery from the morning’s session, or to prepare for the afternoon’s. It’s a steep learning curve, and not all those who begin the journey make it through to the end, but the skills that young athletes acquire during those developmental years - the dedication, focus, commitment to excellence, time management, communication - undoubtedly give them the foundations for being successful, not only in sport, but in their schooling, hobbies and future careers.
What young athletes also develop is a strong identity: “I am an athlete”. Four powerful words that will be the beginning of many Olympic or Paralympic dreams, Grand Slam smashes, or Tour de France wins. Of course, we had goals too - to become the best in the county, then regional champion, then national champion. To beat the older kids, to qualify for senior domestic competitions and then finally, to compete as a senior athlete for your chance to stand up and represent your country at an international event. No athlete, young or old, is immune to the intoxicating draw of high-level competition, and the drive for success and progression fuels many of those early morning training wake-up calls, the brutal training sessions, and that tormented decision between chicken nuggets or vegetable stir fry.
But what really keeps a young sportsperson driving forwards, week in, week out, without compromise, is the identity they have started to forge. Let me explain how this works. The majority of training is somewhat tired, rough around the edges and slow… that’s the point of training! Push yourself out of your comfort zone, hurt your body, and then, when it comes to rested competition, you will hopefully be able to fire faster and stronger than you’ve ever been before. But that means, by its very nature, that the majority of training does not involve fast times, fresh legs or shiny PBs. If athletes relied on always seeing tangible progress, in order to keep motivation and momentum, then many of us would have quit years ago. You don’t get feedback every day that you’re on track to reach your goals; you don’t always get times that tell you that you’re world-leading; and you don’t often get information that tells you you’re in perfect form to win medals and break records. So, we don’t rely solely on tangible progress markers. Instead, we have our identity. Being an elite athlete gives us impetus to push through those tough sessions and difficult choices. Yes, the Olympic dream gives us vision, but it is this identity that gives us our security, motivation and drive, and in turn dictates the everyday actions we take. We don’t question getting up in the morning or pushing ourselves to tears. We are merely acting in accordance with the identity we have created. We don’t always get it right - numerous mistakes will be made along the way - but we gradually evolve from a regular teenager into a dedicated, focused athletic being.
Over the years, a young sportsman or woman will continue to substantiate this identity, with our sporting successes - medals, records, personal bests and qualification standards - reconfirming ‘the athlete’ we are becoming. Other interests and pursuits will often fall at the wayside, as we begin to eat, sleep and breathe our sport. Our daily routines prioritise training and recovery; our calendar is scheduled around competition seasons. When things get tough, we will stand in the mirror and say “This is what I do. This is what it means to be an athlete. This is who I am. I can do this.” Through the inevitable ups and downs, the wins and losses, we will never lose this identity. That is, until we retire…
Elite sport is a strange vocation because, once an athlete retires, we can’t really just ‘dip’ back in to our profession at a later date. Many of the identity associations above also ring true for other industries. I imagine a musically talented youngster would also start to build a strong identification with being a musician. A young chess prodigy would begin to say “I am a Chess Player”. A youngster who shows serious promise in the acting arena would gradually start to identify as an actor. Any pursuit of excellence requires hours of dedication and focus. But most people who make a career out of music, or chess, or acting even, can usually do this for their entire life. Even if they choose other careers later on, they could still feasibly return to their previous vocation relatively easily. Sport is different. There will come a point in every athlete’s life where they cannot feasibly continue, whether this is due to injury, performance or motivation. Whereas the musician, chess player and actor can all reasonably adopt that permanent identity, once an athlete transitions out of sport, we technically cease to be athletes any more.
To make things even harder, we’ve often sacrificed the ‘experimental’ stage of our lives, whilst we pursued our dreams in sport. For most people, their teenage years and twenties are basically spent finding out who they are and what they like. These are the years spent in school, in college, university, on grad schemes, internships, first jobs, second jobs, third jobs. Not everybody has their life figured out by the age of thirty, but most people have enjoyed at least a decade of experimentation, travel, socialising, working and, crucially, figuring out who they are. Every young person goes on a necessary journey of identity formation, with their experiences, interactions and environment all shaping the future person they become.
Young athletes are equally malleable, but this identity ‘forging’ often happens in a more focused, single-minded way. We travel with our sport, we socialise with our teammates, we experiment with our training programmes and we work bloody hard to reach the top of the game. But not many spend a whole lot of time trying new things and experiencing different environments. Being a sportsperson defined almost my entire existence, so, as an athlete retiring from sport at the age of 27, I inevitably felt more of an identity loss than a non-sporting peer would if they had left their career path.
And loss is exactly how it felt.
Identity is a hugely important part of the human psyche, and when it’s taken away, or abruptly changed, the resulting emotion is grief. For years, sport defined me. In school there were two Lizzies in our class, so I was known to some ‘hilarious’ teachers as “Damp Lizzie” because my hair was always wet (not very flattering, I know!). Later on, I would retain sports-related nicknames from my non-sporting peers, with “Swimmo” still being a firm favourite for many of my social group. Our identity is one of the most important parts of us - it’s defines me as me, and you as you. It’s what separates individuals, and our ability to self-identify is one of the things that makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom. So it’s unsurprising that I still stumble when people ask me what I do for a living, because my automated response is to tell them about my preparations for the next major competition. And it makes sense of why I feel slightly weird about people calling me “Swimmo”, when the most swimming I do these days is the occasional half hour splash in the public lane…
So, how can us athletes manage this abrupt change in direction and identity?
Well, that depends on where an athlete might find themselves in their particular sporting journey…
For athletes still competing
You are an athlete. That identity will define many of the decisions you make on a daily basis, and your purpose will be driven by acting in accordance with this. There is a good chance that it will be the strongest driving force you will feel each day. You’ll have goals, targets and objectives that give you vision, but you will also rely on your identity to help you push through when things get tough. This is a huge part of sport, and adopting this all-encompassing identity is part of what makes you great at what you do.
But it isn’t everything.
Although you may not recognise it at the time, you are much more than you think, beyond your performance on the pitch, field, track etc. Even though sport may occupy most of your waking thoughts and actions, you don’t have to limit yourself to a singular existence. So, ask yourself what are the other components that make you, well, you? To begin with you are a son, or a daughter. You may be a sibling. You may be a partner. You may be a parent or a carer. You will undoubtedly be a teammate and a friend. You may be a coach to others, or a captain. You will be an influencer and a leader. You will be a role model. You will be an ambassador for sponsors, a representative for your sport. You will be a speaker, a tweeter, a blogger, a vlogger. You may be a mentor to other athletes, or a voice campaigning for change. You may be a travel enthusiast, a photographer, an artist. You may be a student, or a teacher. You may be a cook, a chef or a baker. You may be an academic, a director, an employee, or a contractor. Yes, you are an athlete. But you are so much more as well. Recognise that, whilst sport plays a hugely significantly part in defining you, it doesn’t define your entirety.
So, start to consider your interests outside sport. This doesn’t mean missing training sessions or getting distracted from your goals, but begin to use your down time to explore the other things that make you tick. It doesn’t have to be a traditional academic studying route, but experiment with your hobbies and with your ideas. Find an online course, or an evening class, or just begin by watching YouTube videos about things that interest you. Photography, web design, business, clay modelling, chess, guitar, chemical engineering, journalism, coaching, charcoal drawing, architecture, pastry, yoga instructing, opera singing, calligraphy. Pick one, pick ten, pick all of them. Sometimes, when we’re excelling at sport, it can be hard to pursue other interests as an ‘amateur’; to be average at something, and to be ordinary at other skills. Whilst the likelihood is that, given practice, in many of these other activities you will also start to excel, the goal here isn’t to be the best in the world at guitar or calligraphy - the objective is to extend your identity to more than just your sporting performance. Continue doing this alongside your sporting career, and you will begin to forge an identity that is centred around you as a human being, and not just you as an athlete.
For athletes who have retired
First of all, understand that your sporting results were only an outcome. It was you and your dedication, focus and commitment that created those results. Even though it’s difficult to leave behind the fast-paced world of elite sport, those attributes and skills are not lost. You still have the ability to do extraordinary things, and all the attributes that led to your success in sport are still a part of you. If you can see retirement with this perspective, then you can begin to understand that your athletic identity isn’t lost completely when you ‘hang up’ your team kit. Yes, you’ve transitioned out of the environment in which you can win medals and titles, but you can still identify as an athlete, because all the qualities, skills and idiosyncrasies that you honed during sport are still absolutely a part of who you are. Being an athlete may no longer drive your everyday direction and motivation, but it will always be a part of you.
Secondly, after sport, it can be unnerving not to be exceptional at one thing, especially if that’s all you’ve ever really done. It can feel overwhelming to even think of replacing the strength of that single, unyielding identity that you had as an athlete. But trying to replace it completely isn’t realistic, or constructive. Now it’s your turn to do what most kids did in their teenage years, or early twenties. It’s time to experiment. It’s time to give yourself a break, to stop demanding excellence, and to accept being a newcomer to many different pursuits. It’s time to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, to experience new industries, to develop new skills, to hang around outside of your comfort zone. And it’s time to do all of this with objective perspective, making notes and keeping records of what gives you motivation and purpose.
Not everything you do will give you fulfillment, and not all of the ideas you have will materialise. But to expect that the first thing you dive into will fully replace the purpose and satisfaction that sport gave you is just unrealistic. As an athlete, you are familiar with setting yourself challenging goals. So, do exactly the same here - continually track your progress in new endeavours, re-assessing the next target as you go. In this instance, however, the goal isn’t to be immediately world-leading at your new pursuits, it’s to take the pressure off yourself, and to go on a journey of self-discovery in which you stop assuming your identity has been lost to sport, and start allowing yourself to get excited by the opportunity of creating a whole host of new identities. Being an elite athlete is super cool, but project forward 60 years and look back on your life. If elite sport was the only thing you had accomplished, I guarantee you’d feel a bit wasted. Your journey in sport has helped shape the person you are, but it is not because you were an athlete that you achieved results. It is because of the person you are, and that is something you won’t ever leave behind, even when you close the door to sport.
Blog 4 - 16 July 2018
After a break away from blogging, and recently announcing her retirement, we welcome back Lizzie Simmonds and hear about her experience at the recent Athlete Futures Roadshow in Bath.
On 4 June 2018, 32 sports men and women, from a range of summer and winter Olympic and Paralympic sports, gathered at the University of Bath for an Athlete Futures Roadshow. Run by the UK Sport Athlete Futures Network team, which comprises both UK Sport and EIS staff members, these Roadshows feature workshops, keynote speakers and panel discussions, as well as a ‘careers fair’ style exhibition, where a range of companies present unique work opportunities to British athletes.
I had previously attended one Athlete Futures event in 2016, which was on slightly larger scale, and held at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. The model has changed slightly since then to a series of smaller roadshow events across the country, which is a more practical way of attracting a wider reach of the nation’s current (and ex) athletes. June’s event was held in a lecture theatre at Bath University, and the slightly smaller scale worked well as it encouraged an easy-going, informal atmosphere, where athletes felt at ease to ask questions. Any athlete who is, or has ever been, on the World Class Programme was eligible to attend, free of charge. These events are a great way to meet other sportspeople, to discuss transition and career development, and to get ideas about a future, post sport.
The day began with a welcome from UK Sport’s chair Dame Katherine Grainger, followed by an incredibly powerful talk from ex-swimmer Michael Jamieson. Michael is known within sporting circles for his 2012 Olympic silver medal in the 200m breaststroke, as well as his honesty around his own battles with mental health. With Bath being a hub for elite swimming, many of us in the audience knew Michael well, but his story still captured the attention of the entire room. He spoke of the highs and lows of sport, of the emotions that come with winning and losing by the smallest of margins. He relived a period of his career when an unremitting drive to win caused him to push himself beyond the limit - to the point of physical damage - in the single-minded pursuit of success. He talked eloquently about athletes taking responsibility for their journey, of acknowledging their privilege within sport, and always being grateful for the opportunities that they’re given. He then spoke openly about periods of his career when he thought darkness would consume him, and about his journey towards finding acceptance and content. Michael retired from swimming in 2016, but now coaches young athletes at a club in London, running a programme that centres around well-being and mindfulness.
His advice to athletes leaving sport was to make sure you take some time to reflect, to process the journey, to find some closure and to come to terms with your achievements and disappointments. In his case, it took the best part of a year (including a yoga retreat to Nicaragua) to settle into retired life with renewed ambition and drive. He also talked about making mistakes along the way; about not being fearful of trying new pursuits, even if they don’t work out in the long term. It’s OK for athletes to not know exactly what your future will hold.
Following MJ’s talk, he was joined on stage by Keri-anne Payne, Jenny Jones and Sarah Barrow. A lively discussion ensued, in which Katherine asked each athlete (all now retired) about their experiences leaving behind a career in sport. It was super interesting for us guys in the audience to hear the different stories from the panel. Keri-anne started a business before she had actually retired, meaning she could step into a directorship role almost immediately - she’d prepared fully, and establishing a future occupation pre-transition gave her the security to push on for the last period of her swimming career. Keri-anne is a true testament to the notion that sport and a career can co-exist successfully.
Jenny Jones, a snowboarder by trade, had a very unique experience, as winter extreme sports are structured slightly differently to their summer counterparts. Competing in a sport that is relatively new to Lottery funding, Jenny has always operated independently and was able to establish a ‘professional’ career, sponsored externally, allowing her to continue beyond her Olympic aspirations. She and Sarah Barrow also spoke about embracing new challenges and recognising that sometimes the direction you think you want to go in won’t end up being what you actually love doing. In Sarah’s case, she was adamant that a career in journalism was her dream, but then hated the journalism course she’d chosen. She abandoned the course and has now found her passion coaching diving in Ireland.
I think the most important thing to come out of the panel discussion was that everyone’s experiences will be different - there is no one way to go about retirement. It’s about finding your feet, committing to new pursuits, but not being afraid to change tack if things aren’t working out.
After a short break (multiple snacks may or may not have been consumed), we attended a networking workshop, run by Kate Howlett, who is a consultant and transition coach at a company called Moving Ahead. She talked about maximising the network that athletes build through years on the elite circuit and about how opportunities will often come from your network’s network. Kate gave a lot of advice on how to approach networking; preparing for a conversation or meeting by being clear about your own objectives, and also how to proactively secure referrals and references.
We then had a discussion about using LinkedIn and optimising your profile, both as a current athlete, and as a retired athlete seeking new opportunities. As well as encouraging some key changes to our privacy settings, Kate explained the scope of LinkedIn, and how we can help the algorithms that run the platform to maximise our exposure within industries that are of interest to us. It was an engaging learning experience, and I think that everyone gained some practical and useful knowledge from the seminar. I noted a few people updating their settings as she spoke, and I embarrassed myself by surreptitiously adding Kate as a contact through LinkedIn mid-session, only to have my request pop up on the big screen for everyone to see!
From finding your ideal job to creating your ideal job, becoming self-employed and starting a business. The next session was with Chris Smith, a chartered accountant, business coach, and founder and owner of a number of companies. Chris talked about the necessity of having a great (and unique) business idea, and about how it’s paramount to be passionate about your idea (and not just doing it for the money). He spoke about what makes a great entrepreneur, why many start-ups fail, and how to avoid some of the pitfalls that new business owners can be tripped up by. We looked at the importance of creating a business plan, both to convey your proposal to potential investors, and also to help you work through the logistics and challenges of your own ideas. He took us through the necessary practicalities of starting a business: registering with HMRC (for tax purposes), Companies House (to be officially recognised and permitted to trade), trade bodies, insurance, and the legal documentation required before you can seek to employ others. We finished up by looking at some of the ways of raising capital, through loans, bursaries and external funds, including the classic ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’! All in all, it was a very interesting seminar, and there was a lot of hasty scribbling from those athletes in the room who have a budding idea that could evolve into a future career.
Lessons and lectures concluded, we finished the official proceedings in another room where 13 companies and educational institutions from across the country were offering opportunities, academic advancement and graduate schemes to us guys. Each company had a couple of representatives present, with information, brochures and videos, explaining what their business did, and how we could get involved. All of the representatives recognised that, despite many of the athletes in the room not having followed a traditional academic path, we have a unique set of skills to offer to their industry, and so there was a mutual understanding that networking could present opportunities to all parties. I spent an hour or so chatting to different people in the room and came away with a number of ideas for my own transition.
To finish off the afternoon, myself and a small group of athletes joined Katherine and some UK Sport representatives for dinner and a lively discussion about the progression of UK Sport. Post Tokyo, the funding structure could possibly change, so it’s important for UK Sport to hear from athletes to ensure that funding is allocated in the most efficient and beneficial way possible. Athletes from swimming, triathlon, pentathlon and skeleton were around the table, and it was interesting to hear about how other sports prioritise funding. For example, in swimming, being funded for technical equipment is not that important - a race suit costs about £300, but British Swimming is sponsored and supported by swimming equipment companies, and therefore sufficient racing equipment is provided to most elite swimmers for major competitions. On the other hand, a skeleton sled costs tens of thousands of pounds, and therefore UK Sport funding that prioritises technical equipment is absolutely vital for skeleton, to ensure their athletes can train and compete optimally.
The main conclusion from the dinner was that differences between sports really do necessitate an individualised approach to the prioritisations of funding. We also collectively highlighted some consistent areas where funding could be streamlined more effectively, and certain sectors where funding allocations required heightened accountability from individual sports. It was great to be part of the conversation about making funding work for athletes, and I’m grateful to have been offered the opportunity to contribute to the progression of UK Sport’s funding schemes. It’s important for decisions to remain athlete-driven, and I hope our ideas can be used constructively in the coming years. UK Sport are currently running a Public Consultation on the future funding of elite sport which they are encouraging everyone to complete, especially athletes, so if you’d like to have your say, please click here to complete it.
Overall, the Athlete Futures Roadshow was greatly beneficial, both for those who have retired from elite sport and for those who are still competing but starting to think proactively about transition and their future. UK Sport are making significant inroads into supporting this area more comprehensively, and days like these really do offer athletes a unique opportunity to be proactive about their future development.
There is one more Athlete Futures Roadshow still to come this year taking place at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester on 24 October between 1 and 6pm. If you would like to attend, please email email@example.com.
Blog 3 - 04 December 2017
This month, our resident athlete blogger Lizzie Simmonds talk about the many transferable skills athletes have that they can take with them into a career beyond sport.
If you’ve spent the majority of your life swimming up and down a pool, sprinting around a running track, or pursuing any other athletic endeavour, then you’ve probably not had very much time to indulge in traditional work experience. Whilst on paper this may be detrimental to your future career prospects, experience in elite sport will have undoubtedly left you with an abundance of life skills that make you exceptionally valuable to a hiring employer.
Of course, for some jobs, specific qualifications and requirements are non-negotiable. You’re not going to get very far into a career in medicine based on soft skills and personal qualities alone (or I wouldn’t want you as my GP if you have). Likewise, it’s difficult to get a foot through the door in scientific fields, law and engineering without having the necessary certification that accounts for years of learning and training. There is huge value in being able to tick the box that says you have a degree, diploma or qualification and, for many jobs, ticking that box will be a prerequisite for successful applicants.
But university is not right for everyone, so if you’re mid-way through an athletic career and have not achieved the traditional academic certifications, don’t panic! For some, dropping out of education prematurely is the only option as they try to balance studying with a 30-hour training week. For others, a 6-week training camp that clashes with an exam period during Olympic year may mean it’s a no-brainer to postpone their degree. For some, academic study is a welcome distraction; for others it’s an unwelcome intrusion on their focused lives and routines. There are some athletes who manage to acquire financial support through sponsorship and bursaries, but others don’t fancy starting adult life with a crippling student debt. Every athlete is individual, so although I’m a huge advocate for pursuing education if able to, there are various reasons why balancing academia and sport can be challenging. And whilst you will certainly need a degree for some specific jobs, the academic world doesn’t always mimic real life, and there is a great deal of additional value to be placed on the experiences you will have had through a career in elite sport.
Below are just some examples of skills that most athletes will have developed through sport and, more importantly, how and why these can be applied to other pursuits.
Leadership Skills and Team Work
This is an obvious one, especially if you’re involved with a team sport, have competed in a relay event or have experience captaining a squad. Part of the discipline of being a high performer includes taking the initiative and guiding and motivating the people around you to get the best result out of everyone. Even if you compete in an individual sport, athletes are never really working alone – most continually interact with a support network of coaches, physios, nutritionists, psychologists, sports scientists and performance lifestyle advisors. The natural ability for athletes to inspire and guide others extends beyond sport. When the time comes to co-ordinate with colleagues and team members in a working environment, athletes find it second nature to take the lead. Part of being an elite sporting performer also means understanding and supporting the needs of other athletes around you. Recognising that people operate differently (in both sport and other fields), and being able to develop an environment where individualism thrives, is another reason why sportsmen and women progress quickly in the workplace.
Goal Setting & Application
Many people in many different walks of life set goals for themselves. A lot of people aspire to be academically successful, dream of being rich, or want to change the world in some capacity. The majority of the general population fall short of these ambitions. The difference between athletes and others is that athletes usually have an innate ability to apply themselves to goals, and the tenacity to persevere when things get tough. We’re also very familiar with the process of breaking goals down into achievable short-term objectives, continually monitoring and adjusting progress, and single-mindedly pursuing a target until it is achieved. Even if you never attained the accolades of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Mo Farah, the practice of repeatedly challenging yourself to become better – to achieve what may seem impossible – is a habit for life. When given a task by your boss in the future, or set an assignment in a new industry, athletes find it straightforward to analyse tasks, identify methods for solving problems, and commit themselves to succeeding at the challenge. Additionally, athletes are good at taking responsibility for the outcome of tasks. In sport, we’re accountable for our interactions, our training and, ultimately, the end result on competition day. This transfers seamlessly to other pursuits, where we’re more likely to accept responsibility and less likely to blame others if things don’t go well.
Performing Under Pressure
Stress is a part of adult life, and how we manage it often defines not only how successful we are, but how happy we are too. Representing your country on an international level brings a unique pressure, and experiencing this intense and competitive environment teaches athletes a lot about the way they personally handle stress. Even if you freaked out and panicked as a youngster, the likelihood is that, over time, experimentation and psychological training have equipped you with individualised skills and tools to cope with demanding situations. Admittedly, when you enter the ‘real world’ there may not be many occasions to equal an Olympic Games final, but the body doesn’t necessarily distinguish between stressful scenarios; to our brains, stress is stress. This means that whether you need meditation, motivation, family chat, distractions (or any other form of stress busting tactic), you’re probably already in a position to not only manage future career pressure, but thrive in challenging circumstances.
Handling Disappointment & Failure
Not every athlete reaches their ultimate goal. In fact, a very small percentage of sportsmen and women will achieve absolutely everything that they dreamt of doing. And even if you’re one of the lucky few, it’s almost unheard of to complete a career without any disappointments, dips in performance, injuries or setbacks. If you’re put off by one substandard performance then you won’t make it very far as an elite athlete, so sportsmen and women develop formidable resilience when dealing with undesirable outcomes. Although it can feel rubbish at the time, we grow familiar with the process of reflecting on what when wrong, analysing how we could have achieved a different result, and learning from each experience so that we have a better chance of succeeding in the future. This process is true of any pursuit that takes you out of your comfort zone, and there will be times in a person’s career where mistakes are made and objectives are not met. How people deal with negative situations, by establishing techniques to manage disappointment and learn from mistakes, can be a defining factor in how successful you will ultimately be.
Communication is key in pretty much every area of life. In sport, interacting efficiently and proactively with your support team of coaches and staff is paramount to success. The same is true in the workplace; you will need similar skills to communicate effectively with your line manager, operations director, CEO etc. Your interpersonal skills can and will influence your progression through a career, and luckily you’re likely to have honed these skills over the course of your athletic journey. Even if you become your own boss in the future, the way in which you’re able to communicate with the people around you – clients, customers, or colleagues – will determine the extent to which they commit to your cause. This links back to leadership – if you’re willing to invest in people development (and communication is key to this), then your employees will become your most valuable asset; increasing their capacity will naturally increase your company’s output.
As an athlete, you will be equally proficient at interacting with your peers (fellow athletes), regardless of age, nationality, ethnicity or gender. You know that everyone’s journey is different and you have complete respect for your contemporaries. Again, this links seamlessly to the workplace, where understanding individual traits, and ignoring unfounded biases, will allow proactive communication, even with those who have differing goals or views.
Discipline, Motivation, Focus & Commitment to Excellence
Nobody would question the dedication that elite athletes have to their cause. The media will always pounce upon the more glamorous moments of success, but it’s widely appreciated how much time and energy goes into a successful sporting career. The ability to persevere for years, despite injuries or setbacks, is often nothing short of superhuman. Experience in committing yourself so purely to the pursuit of excellence is a trait that gives you a much higher chance of succeeding in other areas of life. It makes sense for companies to invest time and money into employees that are likely to ‘stick it out’. It’s one of the reasons why a (wise) employer may bypass the fact that you’re lacking the ‘required’ qualifications when hiring for a job, because character traits and innate ambition give you the upper hand in other areas. It’s easy to teach someone new, job-specific, technical skills. It’s much harder (if not impossible) to teach natural motivation and self-discipline. In terms of learning, athletes are constantly doing just that; receiving feedback, adjusting technique, acquiring new skills in order to improve. In the workplace, the same will be true – athletes will be unhappy to settle for stagnant positions, but will always push to learn, improve and progress.
It may difficult right now to see exactly how your sporting journey will contribute to your future life but rest assured, you will be acquiring an armoury of personal skills that can put you ahead of the game. The key is recognising these transferable skills and understanding how they can not only translate to a new discipline, but, in fact, give you a very real advantage in a future career.
Blog 2 - 25 October 2017
Lizzie Simmonds continues her exploration into the ways in which current athletes can actively prepare for a life after sport. This week, she shares her experiences of Moving Ahead’s Athlete2Business Mentoring Programme. For more information on the initiative, and to sign up for the next programme, click here. The deadline for the next sign-up is 10 November and if you have any questions about the programme, you can contact Monica@moving-ahead.org.
Last year, when I signed up to Moving Ahead’s Athlete2Business Mentoring Programme, I have to admit I had mixed expectations. Although the premise of matching World Class athletes with renowned business leaders seemed like a great idea, I was pretty nervous about being mentored by someone who had nothing to do with sport, might scoff at my lack of business experience, and be unable to relate to the training lifestyle I lead.
I had, however, made a promise to myself that I would start saying yes to more opportunities outside the sporting sphere in a bid to expand my network and find some direction for the future. So I dutifully entered some contact details into Moving Ahead’s online form and crossed my fingers and toes, desperately hoping I’d be matched with a mentor with whom I had some shared career interests.
“Your mentor, Simon, has thirty four years experience as a Chartered Accountant with PwC, and has been a partner for nearly 23 years within the Audit Division…”
OK, interesting start. Along with some other very accomplished titles and accolades (which I had to Google to find out what they meant), Simon has had an incredibly successful career in the finance industry. Sitting on boards and chairing committees, he sounded like a bit of a superstar in the world of accounts. I was very impressed but, given that I’d rather be poked in the eye with a fork than work in audit, I wasn’t exactly sure how well we’d connect…
Fast-forward a couple of weeks and we’d both missed the Moving Ahead intro event (me because of training commitments, Simon because he’d misplaced his abacus), so we arranged a phone conversation to kick things off. My initial concerns about potential awkwardness quickly melted away as we spent an hour chatting informally about our lives and our expectations for the mentoring programme. Luckily Simon was more prepared than me (I think he’d done this before), and easily guided the conversation towards my goals, both as a current athlete and for life after sport.
His job in the mentoring role, he explained, was to help me tease through my mental processes, giving me advice, guidance and feedback along the way. He was also there to challenge me to identify and develop personal strengths and weaknesses. His responsibility extended to always listening (without judgement) to my ideas and aspirations, whilst helping facilitate the progression of those ideas. Thumbs up from me so far!
I was going through a difficult time in my swimming career – after competing in Beijing and London I’d missed out on Rio, and I felt incredibly disillusioned with the sporting world. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure whether training for another cycle was what I wanted, but was terrified of hanging up my goggles for good. I was asking a lot of questions of myself and of the people around me, in an unsuccessful attempt to find some direction. I quickly realised, through chatting to Simon, that virtually my entire support network was also caught up in the world that I was trying to get clarity on. Even my family, who had been alongside me for the whole journey and ultimately just wanted me to be happy, didn’t quite know how to disentangle me from the last decade’s web of sporting successes and failures.
Talking to someone completely external to the sporting world really helped bring me some perspective on what I’d already achieved, and what my options were going forward. Over a series of phone calls and meetings, Simon helped me to consolidate my jumbled thoughts, extricate which were useful and proactive, and discard the ones that were just emotional uncertainties. My confidence had been knocked but I realised I wasn’t done with the sport yet – I just needed the courage to make some changes and then throw myself fearlessly back into becoming the best athlete I could be.
A new coach and training programme had my sporting focus quickly back on track, and so our conversations moved to some more generalised questions directed at my aspirations for life after sport. I, like a lot of athletes who’ve been focused on sport for a very long time, didn’t (and still don’t have) a completely clear idea of what I want to be "when I grow up". But whether you know you want a very specific job in a niche industry, or you just have whimsical dream be your own boss one day, it can be useful to have some additional guidance to help you develop ideas and establish processes that enable you to prepare for your future career.
As an example, a goal of mine is to start my own business over the next year or so. Although I have a load of good ideas (I think!), I was finding it difficult to translate ideas into action, having never started a business before. As well as extensive help from Performance Lifestyle Advisors (the EIS gurus who help athletes balance sport and life), Simon has helped me sculpt my ideas into a vaguely cohesive business plan, allowing me to lay the foundations for setting up by myself. He'll often play devil's advocate and challenge how a concept will work in reality, or make suggestions that I hadn't even considered. Regular check-ins add to my personal accountability - nobody wants to say they'll do something and then a month later have to admit that they didn't do it because Facebook distracted them with videos of babies eating slices of lemon... (seriously, Google it).
Even if you have absolutely no idea which direction your life will take you after sport, it’s an opportunity to learn from the experience of someone who has been very successful in their chosen career. We talk a lot about transferable skills and how the habits that help athletes succeed at an elite level can be applied to corporate situations (which is good news for us guys who accidentally forgot to get a degree). Think of skills such as mental resilience, application to daily goals, motivation, team work and leadership. All traits that you, as an elite athlete, will find it easy to excel at, and all traits that would make you incredibly valuable to a company. Chatting to Simon has helped me identify how I could bring value to a future employer, and also highlighted some areas in which I probably need to focus more attention, or gain more experience.
In terms of requirements for the mentoring programme, all you need to do is be prepared to set the agenda – this is about you and your progress after all. You need to be open-minded and honest, and be motivated enough to listen to the advice and guidance of whoever you’re working with. Moving Ahead provide a useful handbook prior to the first meeting, which lays out the expectations you should have before you begin. There are also some specific questions which you can start to think about - helpful for kick-starting conversations if you're not a natural chatterbox like me!
In most sports, there usually exists a hierarchy of mentoring to some extent; coaches, support staff, lifestyle advisors (and often other athletes) are continually offering guidance and direction to less experienced sportsmen and women. But what Moving Ahead are offering here is a unique opportunity to learn from the expertise and perspective of someone who has been incredibly successful outside the sporting sphere. The programme is nine months long, but I hope to continue working with Simon into the future as the experience has been invaluable in helping me plan for a life after sport. Needless to say he hasn't yet persuaded me that a career in accountancy is the right path for me...
We would like to welcome our first ever Athlete Futures Network blogger, Olympic swimmer Lizzie Simmonds. Although still currently competing, Lizzie has already started to think about her future, a career after sport and that all important transition period. Over the next year or so, we'll hear from Lizzie as she thinks about what's coming next. We hope her blogs will provide advice and guidance to anyone in a similar position.
Blog 1 - 4 October 2017
The other day, whilst in the middle of a 6km swim session, I worked out that I’ve swum, on average, 2.2 million metres per year for the last 14 years. So, in my lifetime I’ve swum approximately the circumference of the globe. Ever since I can remember, swimming has been my number one priority, from winning that first trophy at club champs, to being a double European champion and racing in the final at a home Olympic Games.
After doing something you love for so long, something that you've committed yourself entirely to, it’s difficult to start thinking about what comes next. Leaving a career in elite sport can range from vaguely daunting to outright terrifying, and I’m experienced (old) enough now to have seen many of my contemporaries make the transition out of sport and into the ‘real’ world. Some have fared better than others, using the intrinsic motivation that made them so successful at sport to immediately thrive in their new roles. Others have found the metamorphosis from superstar to ‘normal person’ unbearably challenging.
It makes sense. After all, it's a huge life adjustment. In some respects, parallels can be drawn between being an elite athlete and serving in the military. The stakes are obviously very different, and I don’t mean to imply that spinning my arms backwards matches risking life and limb for your country. But the regimented lifestyle is very similar; instructions on when we will and won’t be training, what time we must get up, when we can and can’t take time off, what we should and shouldn’t eat; weekly, monthly, yearly. Every day, our focus is undivided; the motivation for the task is clear, the application is absolute and indisputable; practice is institutionalised. We expect only the best from ourselves and those around us. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see in athletes nearing the end of their careers some of the same issues you do with soldiers leaving the forces, such as loss of personal identity and career direction.
So when 'us' athletes stop, and give up this regimented discipline, what does happen next? Sometimes it depends on the relationship an athlete has with their sport at the time of retirement. Those who have set a date for the transition are understandably more often prepared for what happens next. Those who are ‘forced out’ unexpectedly, through injury, illness, or disappointing performance, can easily lose a sense of control over their destiny. Having their ambitions halted so abruptly, and often prematurely, can be incredibly difficult to process.
No matter what the terms are at the end of a career in elite sport, and no matter how successful the athlete was over that career, one thing is clear: every sporting journey will inevitably come to a close, and the next phase is bound to include significant lifestyle adjustments that may well take some getting used to.
So what can athletes who are still competing and thriving on the high performance landscape do to prepare for this transition? I’ve been competing on British teams for the past 12 years and know that my time left in the sport isn’t infinite. I’ve just qualified for the Commonwealth Games next year on the Gold Coast in Australia, so my number one priority is still, without question, my weekly training schedule, pushing my body to new limits, and preparing to perform better than I have ever done before. But in my downtime, I’ve started to actively look at my options for the next phase of my life, whenever that comes.
In the past I, like many athletes I know, side-lined education on the back of being a very talented sporting youngster. I did my GCSEs at the same time as I prepared for my first World Champs, muddled through a couple of A Levels and sweet talked my way into university, only to abandon my degree halfway through to focus on qualifying for my third Olympics (I ended up not making the team and in hindsight, maybe should have finished my studies!).
I never gave much thought to what comes next, because I was too busy living 'in the moment’, and it felt like a weakness to be looking at CV writing or interview practice when training required so much effort and dedication. Why would I waste time on other pursuits when my goals were so clear and I was applying myself to them so completely? Whilst this is the view of many athletes, and indeed even more coaches, it is, in my current mindset, a misguided one.
The elite sporting system in this country is geared entirely to performance – athletes who perform are rewarded, funded, and supported. Athletes who can no longer perform are soon replaced by those who can. This is the way of sport. It's how it’s always been, and how it always will be, but it’s a fragile arrangement, and your security as an athlete can often be only a sustained injury or a poor race season away from disappearing. No matter how noble an athlete's intentions might be, this is usually in the back of our minds and can be an added pressure come competition season. Developing future life options and ideas, a fall back plan, Plan B, or whatever you want to call it can, I believe, help with this pressure because it puts the sporting world back into perspective and reduces the gravitas associated with under-performance.
If you’ve got a good degree, experience in a specific industry, or a network of people who you know will assist your future career plans, then you can apply yourself absolutely to the day-to-day business of training and the sporting challenges that come your way, secure in the knowledge that whatever the performance outcome, you are prepared for what comes next. Athletes who get into trouble, mentally, are usually those whose identity is built entirely around their sporting achievements, who then struggle enormously when underperformance results in the deconstruction of that identity.
With that in mind, even though I’m still ‘in the game’, I’ve started saying ‘yes’ to more opportunities outside the sporting realm; started signing up to networking events and careers fairs, transition programmes and personal development schemes. Over the coming months I will be continuing to share experiences from my transition preparation, recommending ways in which current athletes can not only lay the groundwork for the future, but can enhance their sporting careers by doing so. I hope my blogs will not only entertain but also inform and give you something to think about, whatever stage you’re at in your career.