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.