Athlete Futures Network Newsletter - March 2019
Manchester Athlete Futures Roadshow – A big step in the right direction
By Gail Emms, Marketing Manager, LAPS
Whenever I attend events designed with the specific intention of supporting athletes beyond their chosen sport, I find it incredibly heartening to see the growing levels of awareness and commitment out there. We know employers want to recruit athletes, and we know athletes can, with the right support, really excel in other sectors beyond sport. That’s exactly why LAPS exists, and it was great to attend an event designed specifically to connect those two groups.
The Athlete Futures Network and their events, specifically 2018’s Roadshows, play an important part in supporting athletes to find new roles and I was delighted to attend the Manchester event in October. This was just one of four Roadshows organised as part of a busy schedule designed to help educate, inform and support athletes beyond sport, and there was a lot of really positive stuff to take away from it.
As we know, sport can’t last forever and for many, the difficulties of transitioning between the intense, single-minded existence of a sports professional and a “normal” career can be devastating. Sport will have played such a massive role in their lives that sometimes it’s impossible for athletes think about life outside it. Providing that support and awareness to help athletes plan and prepare for life after sport is a huge priority for me and, fortunately, for a growing number of organisations. But there is still a long way to go.
One thing that stood out to me was the mixed atmosphere among the athletes who attended; there is definitely a lot of anxiety for many when it comes to considering leaving sport. Some couldn’t quite bring themselves to think that far ahead and therefore there was a slight reluctance from some of the sportspeople who attended to really get involved – perhaps there’s a “head-in-the-sand” mentality around it, where people know sport ends on a rational level but they can’t quite believe it will happen to them.
It was great to see UK Sport and the EIS, supported by the BOA and BPA and with the help of LAPS, come together to make the day engaging and interactive, and it really helped to draw attendees into the swing of things. Moving Ahead and the EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisors hosted two great workshops and when there were questions asked, they were well answered.
There is definitely a need for all this to become more mainstream, normalised and informal. If we can start the process early on in an athlete’s career, and empower them to think about these decisions all the way through their training and competitive careers, supporting them with training options, careers advice and work placement opportunities, I think it would be enormously beneficial. No-one wants to feel they’re being forced to attend something – making these sorts of careers events a normal part of a competitive sports career, and providing the raft of support, guidance and advice that athletes might need, is a key step towards improving the whole process for these phenomenally talented people.
There were several different sectors represented on the day and it was interesting to see the different reactions. There was, unsurprisingly, a strong attraction for the sports-related career sectors, but for many, moving away from sport is a deliberate and conscious choice, and it’s great to see so many other industries getting behind our sportspeople and recognising the fantastic qualities they have to offer in a business environment.
I’d love to see more businesses and organisations getting on board with work placement opportunities that might allow sportspeople to gain experience, and potentially make extra money to supplement their income; not all sportspeople are on big money and the costs involved with full-time sport can be pretty extreme. A programme or initiative to allow athletes and businesses to work together part-time around sport, for a day a week for example, would be a huge help in developing skills and experience, and also offers advantages to the organisation to be promoted as well.
It’s brilliant to see support growing and events like the Athlete Futures Roadshows leading the way. I passionately believe that more support and information on the businesses keen to support athletes should be readily available; platforms like LAPS are working hard to get the message and the resources out there and the Performance Lifestyle teams from all the home countries do an amazing job of supporting and encouraging athletes around transition too. It’s not necessarily just about recruiting immediately either, or finding a job here and now; it’s about building an environment that lets these extraordinary athletes know what options are available, and that help, guidance and support are there, whenever that athlete is ready. It’s never too early to plan ahead, and whatever help we can offer in easing that preparation and eventual transition, the better.
Manchester Athlete Futures Roadshow – My Experience
By James Hollis
What’s next? This is the question I found myself asking in the period between retiring from the sport that had been my life for fifteen years and moving into the ‘real world’.
Life after sport is increasingly becoming one of the most important and frequently discussed topics in the world of performance sport, with lots of initiatives being created to help our best athletes transition and be successful in their careers after retirement.
The Athletes Futures Network is one of these initiatives and in 2018, their four Roadshows allowed attendees an opportunity to listen to transitional stories of past athletes, learn how best to utilise our skills and create an environment where networking and sharing of ideas is encouraged and facilitated.
The day started with a gathering of athletes from multiple sports and at many stages of their careers, from some who were freshly inducted onto the World Class Programme to those who had recently retired, and all with many Olympic/Paralympic experiences and medals to their name. The first session was a Q&A with a panel of retired and current athletes who each had different experiences of transition, whether it was into another sport, a job or having their own family. The panel told us their stories and gave us an insight into their own experiences, and many told us things they wished they’d known when the time had come for them to make big decisions.
This was followed by a networking workshop run by Kate Howlett from Moving Ahead. The session’s aim was to show us that we actually already network with lots of different people on a daily basis and as it went on, we were able to learn about the other athletes in the room. You could tell that everyone started to grow in confidence the more we talked to one another and we learnt how important networking can be. The second workshop was run by the EIS Performance Lifestyle Team, who got us to start thinking about our journey and plan for what we might want to do after sport, but even more importantly, got us to listen and learn from each other and talk across sports.
The day ended with a careers fair, attended by employers who were particularly interested in employing athletes. Organisations from Adidas to Bruntwood to the Army came to talk to us about what they do and provide us with different opportunities. They all know that, as athletes, we have transferable skills that will enable us to be successful in the world of business.
Attendees were invited to stay after the day ended to take part in an informal networking dinner, an opportunity I jumped on. Around a dozen of us sat down to a delicious buffet meal which was hosted by UK Sport’s Chair, Damn Katherine Grainger, along with some EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisors. Not only did we get the opportunity to provide constructive feedback on the day, but conversation quickly broadened into the world of sport in general. It provided us with a line of communication and feedback I had never experienced before and allowed athletes from a variety of sports to discover that we were often experiencing the same issues. Sharing these experiences allowed us to suggest solutions that had worked for us to athletes from other sports.
The Athlete Futures Roadshow went above and beyond my expectations. Not only did it give me the confidence to trust in my skills and network outside of my sport, but it allowed me to be in an environment with people who are experiencing the same feelings and emotions about transition as me.
Preparation is Key - Planning for Life After Sport
Interview with Sarah Stevenson, conducted and edited by Jess Pether
I started taekwondo when I was about seven years old. My brother was already involved so it seemed natural to follow in his footsteps. I’m from Doncaster, which is quite a hub for taekwondo and I feel lucky to have been born there, to have found a sport that really suited me. I joined a club called Doncaster All Stars, which still exists today, and I’m still very close to my club coach. We did so much together; he was the person who helped me be the first to do many things.
When I was 15, I won the Junior World Championships, which no GB athlete had ever done. I then qualified to compete at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, when I was only 16. At the time, taekwondo wasn’t a funded sport, so I had help from my club. Not having things easy really helped build my character. Sydney was the first time I didn’t pay for a trip, so it was a massive eye opener into what professional sport should be like. I didn’t have things like a physio or a psychologist, I just had to get on with things, so the Olympics was a huge learning curve. I came fourth, which was pretty good for a young girl from Doncaster!
A year later, I won the Senior World Championships and again, was the first GB athlete to do so. Receiving no funding at the time, this was a big thing. However, after that, everything changed and I started to receive Lottery funding from UK Sport. From then on, things got better and I really began to grow.
I decided to retire in 2013, aged 30, after competing in four Olympics. I sadly lost both my parents in 2010, so had decided before London 2012 that it would be my last Games. After a tough few years, I knew I wanted to retire, so started to get a plan in place.
As an athlete, it’s amazing to be able to make your retirement decision yourself. So many have it forced upon them, for various reasons, before they’re ready and I can’t imagine how difficult that is. Even for me it’s not been easy. However, when I did retire, I was excited to move on. When you’ve done something since the age of seven, you wonder what else you might be able to do with your life. I wanted to have kids, but even silly things like being able to go on holiday and not worry about being sensible because you’ve got to train when you get home were amazing.
I started to think about my career post-sport about five years earlier. At the time, all GB Taekwondo had was the high performance programme in terms of funding; we didn’t have support for junior athletes. So I saw a space that needed filling and thought I could help. I started running camps for younger athletes, where they could come together to learn about the sport, hear from physios, do some strength and conditioning and take part in workshops. With the help of my Performance Lifestyle Advisor, Natalie Vickers, I put a business plan together and approached KPMG, who already had a relationship with GB Taekwondo, for some funding. Thankfully I was successful, so set up my business, Sarah Stevenson Inspires. It was great to have the support of people who believed in what I was trying to do and felt like it was a good investment to make. The EIS PLs are amazing; they get you to think outside the box and help you tap into all the skills you believe you haven’t got because “you’re just an athlete”. Natalie showed me I had so much to offer and also put me in touch with financial advisor Chris Smith, who still works with the EIS today, and also helped with my business plan.
I was still training and competing whilst running the business, which wasn’t too difficult. I worked on things during the weekends I wasn’t competing and only did three or four camps a year. For me, I needed to do something outside of training for my sanity. I think that’s a common thing among athletes; you sometimes feel like all you do is your sport, and it’s possible to get to a place where you think “I either need to stop or get something else in my life that’s going to be meaningful.” If I hadn’t started the camps, I think I might even have retired earlier. Having another focus didn’t hinder my training or performance. In fact, it probably helped because it brought something else into my life that was meaningful. The business really helped me get through those last few years, and luckily my sport and coaches were extremely supportive of that.
Now, taekwondo has funding and support available for juniors and cadets, but it was amazing to think I offered support at a time when it was needed. It’s great to see that some of the kids from my first ever camp are still involved in the sport, like Jordyn Smith who won the Junior Worlds last year. It’s good to see that there was a lasting legacy.
After retirement I did some travelling then went into coaching, and then I had kids, which really did change my whole life. I personally felt like I couldn’t be a coach and mum at the same time. I know people do both but for me, coaching would have been all or nothing and I needed more flexibility as a mum. Now, almost without realising, I’ve ended up going down more of a political route in sport. I’m on the Board for British Taekwondo and we work closely with GB Taekwondo. I’ve done that for three years now. I was then recently voted in as President of British Taekwondo, which is amazing… and a little crazy! My first trip as President was to the Para-Taekwondo World Championships, which was an amazing experience. It was so inspiring, but I had to remember I was there as the President and try to understand how the role works. I had to work out what I wanted to get out of the trip and present myself in a certain way. Our CEO has recently put me forward for the UK Sport International Leadership Programme, and if I’m successful, it will really help me within this role. It will help me understand how to approach events and people in this 95% male-dominated sport. I’m ready and willing to learn as much as I can.
In my spare time, I support the 11-14 cadet programme, and the fun part of my life is the personal training I do. It’s a complete release for me, to go to the gym, make people happy and inspire them. I don’t have to talk about taekwondo or politics, it’s just nice to make people feel good about themselves.
My advice to current athletes is simple. If you don’t think about retirement early on in your career, you may end up having very few choices, or choices but no clue about which way to go. You then risk opening yourself up to a real struggle and possible mental health problems. Even if you put plans in place, transition isn’t easy; you have to grieve for the career you’ve left and step into the “real world”. There’s so much support out there now, through the Performance Lifestyle Team or the Athlete Futures Network. Even something as simple as having a discussion with your PL can help you figure out what your strengths are and start you on the right path.
It may seem like things have come easily for me post-sport, and I am lucky that opportunities have arisen, but I helped put myself at the forefront of people’s minds by being proactive whilst I was competing. Even now, I still have doubts about myself. At the Manchester Athlete Futures Roadshow, I was a panel speaker and before the day, I seriously questioned whether I was qualified to do it! I still don’t really know where my life’s going to end up and for me, I’ll never stop looking back at my time as an athlete and how amazing it was. But you learn to live with it, move on and look to what excitement the future can bring.
"What happens after all this finishes?"
By Charlotte Henshaw
I, like most athletes, enjoy routine and planning. We thrive on knowing what our training schedule will look like for the upcoming season; we meticulously plan how to prepare for and deliver a race or game; and we can quite easily map out the next four years of our lives when living from one Olympic or Paralympic Games to the next. During the years in which I was combining education and full time training, I was entirely committed to making both my education and my swimming career a success. I was resolute in the fact that I was going to go to university and make my first Paralympic team during my final year. I prepared, I rushed to lectures with wet hair and goggle marks to sit through a day of learning, I sat exams all over the world to make sure I could still compete and finish my degree to a high standard. But when I graduated, I threw myself fully into the world of being a full-time athlete. I became an expert in watching boxsets during my down time. But, despite my love of structure and planning for my sport, when it came to planning for retirement and the day I decided to hang up my goggles, I was way behind. I had never been someone who had a burning desire to pursue one particular career - my focus had always been on being the best I could be in the pool. My dream was to become the best athlete I could. I always knew I wanted to stay involved in sport after my time as an athlete came to an end but beyond that, I was floundering.
Whenever the idea of ‘What happens after this all finishes?’ crossed my mind, it scared me. As did the idea of having something which could potentially split my focus. Would it decrease my likelihood of performing well? Would people say I wasn’t committed to my sport? During the years I was swimming, I never really took the time to sit down and plan for my future as I would have planned for the next training block or the next competition. I had the odd meeting with some EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisors but because I was so undecided about what my future career might look like, even that caused me some anxiety.
The turning point came when I retired from swimming after the Rio Paralympics. I took a few months out to mull over my future and it struck me at just how unprepared I felt I was for a life away from sport. I decided that this was the time to really start exploring options. Once I made the decision to make the move to canoeing, I made it one of my goals to make sure I didn’t fall into the same trap as before. This time, I wasn’t going to put planning for my future at the bottom of the list. After coming home really energised and excited from the Manchester Athlete Futures Roadshow, I started thinking about the incredible support system I had access to, the amazing networks I’d developed over the years and the transferable skills I’d gained over ten years in performance sport. I also realised that I had the luxury of time; I was hoping to be competing for another Paralympic cycle at least, which meant I could afford to try new things and explore areas of work which I hadn’t even considered before. Fortunately, British Canoeing were completely supportive of this and actively encourage us to engage with our Performance Lifestyle support.
Over the last two seasons, and especially over the last nine months or so, I have undertaken more future planning than I ever did before. I took on the role as Athlete Rep within British Canoeing and was fortunate enough to be elected onto the British Paralympic Association Athletes’ Commission. Both roles have given me an invaluable insight into the wider world of sport and have provided further opportunities to extend my network and build my CV. I’ve also done a few days’ work experience at a local PR agency - something which was completely out of my comfort zone but was an amazing learning curve - and most recently, I was lucky enough to shadow the Communications Team at UK Sport. Throughout all these experiences, I’ve been able to ask questions, work on skills I already have, discover skills I didn’t even know I had and gain insight into different areas of work. It’s allowed me to start to sift out careers I could be as passionate about as I have been about being an athlete. It’s also reminded me that I am more than my sport, and this perspective has actually allowed me to be more present in body and mind when I’m at training.
I’d wholeheartedly recommend any athlete start thinking about life beyond the pool, track, lake or pitch as soon as they can. We are so lucky to have incredible support at our disposal and people who want to help. I may not know exactly what my career path will look like when the inevitable retirement day comes and I still have plenty of learning left to do but now, the question of ‘What happens after this all finishes?’ no longer scares me.
Take the Highs With the Lows
Interview with Jenny Meadows, conducted and edited by Jess Pether
I started at Wigan Harriers athletics club when I was 7¾, in 1989, although you had to be 8 to officially join. I was very dedicated from the beginning; I only trained on Friday evenings and my 8th birthday happen to fall on a Friday. I remember mum asking me: “Do you want to go to athletics or have a party?”, and there was no way I was missing training! So I officially joined that day. It shows I had resilience and mental application from an early age.
My journey continued until I officially retired on 7 July 2016, aged 35. Like most athletes, I experienced many highs and lows, but I’ve always thought the highs make the lows worth it. As a junior, I competed primarily over 400m and at the World Junior Championships in Chile in 2000, won a gold medal in the 4x400m. Having some success around the age of 18 was an important point in my life, as it made me think: “Maybe I could make a career out of this.”
A few years later, I decided to switch to running the 800m. I looked at myself and the world’s best 400m athletes and knew there was something different about me. After that, I didn’t look back I went on to represent Team GB in Beijing in 2008. 20 years in the making, and I was actually going to a Games; it was a fantastic feeling. After that, I wondered what was next – could I start making finals and winning medals? Over the next few years, I did just that. I medalled at World and European Championships and broke Dame Kelly Holmes’ British record indoors twice in 2010, so this really was the purple patch of my career. I was ranked second in the world in 2011 and going into London 2012, thought my career could go to the next level. But nothing lasts forever and unfortunately, I got the first major injury of my career. So instead of being inside the Olympic Stadium, I sat at home watching the Games on TV.
I didn’t take it too badly and almost downplayed how important it was for me. I think everybody around me took it worse! I worked hard to come back from injury but because of the first one, I ended up with a second in 2013. It meant that year was actually worse for me, as the second year I was missing from the sport. I became quite down and turned to my family for support. I remember having a conversation with my brother, where I said: “For 24 years I’ve been an athlete. If I’m not an athlete, what am I?” I wasn’t in a team so I didn’t have a squad around me. My brother was amazing. He said: “You’re a daughter, a sister and a wife.” And he was right. I’d totally consumed myself with being an athlete, but this opened my eyes. In that way, getting injured started to prepare me for life after sport.
When I did start competing again, I loved it. But I knew from the end of 2014 that I would retire in 2016. Before my injuries, I thought I’d retire after the 2014 Commonwealth Games. It seemed perfect; to retire in Great Britain, presumably with a medal from London 2012, like a fairy tale ending. But when the time came, I felt I had a lot more to give. In 2014, I started running well, and in 2015 I ran 4 of the 5 fastest times in the world indoors.
When the systematic doping in Russia came out in the press, some of my previous results were upgraded but some remained unchanged. This really affected my mental health. 2015 and 2016 were two hard years for me because I was counting down to retirement instead of being focussed on Rio. I was actually looking forward to retiring; I’d given so much to the sport but it had also taken so much out of me.
When I retired in July 2016, it was at the European Championships in Amsterdam. I crossed the line in my GB vest, but I knew my body had started to let me down. I looked into the crowd, saw all these Union Flags, and knew that was it. I went through the media zone telling everyone I was hanging up my spikes for good. My husband, who was also my coach, advised me not to make any rash decisions but I was really happy!
The morning after, I woke up and was so excited. I’d led my whole life according to a training programme and there was now no script. I had a vague idea of what I might want to do; the year before, I’d started an MSc in Sports Marketing and Business Management, so I was halfway through and a year away from being qualified. On top of that, when I was injured, I’d started running some occasional workshops for young athletes from local clubs, to try and upskill them. Some of the workshops were around mental skills, which I struggled with when I was younger; it was sometimes difficult to believe I was good enough. Confidence is a word that’s fickle, so I was trying to help athletes understand that things aren’t always as they seem. I’d play them a video of a race where I won a medal and we’d listen to the commentary. According to the commentators, I had everything under control. Then I’d play it again with no sound and tell everyone how I actually felt, which wasn’t always positive! I wanted them to know that everyone is human; just because you’re on TV and successful doesn’t mean you’re different to anyone else.
When I first began the workshops, I couldn’t believe the uptake. At one point, and I had athletes from 11 different clubs. It showed there was a desire for information and knowledge gathering. I also opened up the workshops to coaches and parents, because they’re an athlete’s support network and need information too. Before I knew it, I was going around the country, even to other NGBs like Pentathlon GB. It started to evolve quite naturally and made me appreciate the journey I’d been on.
Since then, it’s developed into school talks as well. They want a role model for students, but there is a danger that you can talk about all your achievements and isolate people. Some of them will be feeling completely different to you, thinking they’ll never be successful, which is why I’m very honest about sharing the low points of my career.
My advice to current athletes can be broken down into some top tips, all of which have really helped me.
- Think about your skillset and what’s important to you. Athletes by nature can be very self-critical and it’s easy to forget the skills we have. Some of them may seem very basic, but more often than not, what you know is like gold dust to people outside of sport.
- In this digital age, we all find it easy to email or text, but sometimes it’s important to pick up the phone. Having a conversation with someone helps convey your personality and build a relationship that you wouldn’t get via email. Remember that everyone is human. Like my brother pointed out, everyone is a brother or sister, or daughter or son to someone, not just a job title.
- If there are certain skills you don’t have, ask yourself how you can improve. To help upskill myself, I sit on a couple of Boards. One is called Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles, a social enterprise in my local area. They look after leisure facilities and when I joined, they asked me to sit on the Health and Wellbeing Committee, but I knew this wouldn’t challenge me, so I asked to be on the Finance and Performance Committee instead. Although I sat in the first meeting feeling totally overwhelmed, over time I gained confidence and realised I understood more than I expected. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions!
- Be prepared to go that extra mile. As well as paid work, you’ve got to be prepared to give up your time for free. Investing your time in this way, and doing a good job, will often give you payback because follow-up work will come.
- Your character as an athlete is about challenging yourself and just because you’re not an athlete anymore, your personality doesn’t change. So try to find things that give you a similar challenge, buzz and adrenaline.
- There are opportunities out there, so take them! I completed my Master’s degree over two years rather than one, so you have options. Things like the Athlete Futures Network haven’t always been around, so now they are, grab them with both hands.
You never know how long your career in sport will last, so having a B Plan is very important. As an athletes, it’s easy to consume ourselves with our sport, but it will help your mental health and even your performance if you can see beyond it. I was more committed to my training when studying because I’d done many hours of university work, so training became “me time”. Instead of training being work, it was a relief from studying and something I looked forward to.
Sport has given me so many life skills that have helped me since retirement, so I’m a huge advocate for sport being a worthwhile career. But it would be amazing if every athlete could wake up on the first day of their retirement with the same excitement I did.
PwC Leadership Programme
Introduction by Chloë Dudding (PwC Senior Manager), Henry Weir interviewed by Jess Pether
We know that many athletes struggle adapting to life away from professional sport, and it’s an issue that the PwC Leadership Programme seeks to address.
Based at our Reading office, due to its proximity to the Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, the programme came about after Partner Sam Taylor’s involvement in an external mentoring programme for professional sports people.
Sam said: “I’d been mentoring elite hockey player, Joie Leigh, for 18 months, and we both really felt the benefit of the experience. Back at the office, we began to discuss how we could address this with a wider audience, given the huge amount of leadership and development expertise and resources we have within the firm. After a lot of hard work and a huge team effort, we launched the #PwCWorldClass Leadership Programme in May 2018.”
The three-pronged aim of the course is to support self-development, enhance leadership and help athletes identify their transferable skills. The programme is a mix of skill-based and learning sessions which have involved a number of external speakers, as well as including insight from the inner workings of PwC.
Hockey player Henry Weir is currently benefitting from the programme, and he tells us his story below.
When I was a child, my dad played hockey for a local club, so I was knocking around on the side of the pitch from the age of 5. I then joined a club team and enjoyed it, eventually progressing to county and regional level, then got an England trial and went into the Under 18s squad. I decided to go to university, so headed to Loughborough to study sport science whilst still training. During that time, I progressed quickly and made it into the Under 21s squad. After graduation, I was invited to join the GB senior programme, post-London 2012, and that was when my full-time career as a hockey player began. I started training at Bisham Abbey and am currently in my sixth year on the programme. I train five days a week and am often away at tournaments, which includes travelling abroad, so even though I technically have a lot of “spare time”, it can be quite bitty, which doesn’t give you a lot of chance to explore other opportunities. I’ve found this to be the main difficulty when trying to find things to broaden my horizons and prepare for a career after sport.
Although I studied sport science, I knew it wasn’t really a field I ever wanted to work in. However, I know that a degree can unlock a lot of doors and to compliment that, the PwC programme has given me the confidence to know I’ve got skills for jobs outside my degree subject.
By going to university, I wanted to prove I had the ability to study and work hard. I also knew that, at the time, there could be a sizeable wage gap between those who had a degree and those who didn’t. I wanted to give myself a high level of opportunity when I was ready to enter the world of work. To be honest, back then, the idea of being a full-time hockey player wasn’t on my radar. I always assumed I’d have to work and play hockey as a hobby, but when our funding was increased post-2012, I was suddenly given the opportunity to train full-time. Of course, now there are a great number of alternatives to studying at university and employers know that, so there are options out there to suit everyone.
I heard about the PwC Leadership Programme from my EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisor Emma Mitchell shortly before the Bisham Abbey Athlete Futures Roadshow in 2018. The time commitment sounded achievable, so I was looking forward to finding out more.
Hearing about the programme, it sounded like it was focused on developing skills that we as athletes already have, that are transferable into different environments. That was appealing to me because it can feel like you have useful skills but in a different language, and you need to learn how to translate them in the business world. I didn’t feel like PwC were simply trying to tick a box and give me a qualification, but they were going to develop and test me.
I was a little out of my comfort zone at the start of the programme but as the sessions have progressed, it’s become a comfortable learning environment. Everyone is non-judgmental and supportive.
Each session on the programme revolves around an area that PwC think is important for any career within business and each session has a target or goal. For example, one of the last sessions was run by someone in a senior sales role who spoke to us about the art of negotiation. Then PwC had arranged for three high achieving CEOs from different companies that they work with to come in. We had ten minutes to interview them, work out what they wanted from us, then we had five minutes to come up with a pitch to get support or money from them. It was high pressured but they’re not afraid of that, which I really like. That was a particularly fast-paced session, but they also run slower, more evaluative ones too. We always evaluate our performance and they allow us time to reflect on everything.
I think the programme prepares you to go into any line of work, not just the very corporate side of things. Although a lot of what we do has a corporate slant, all the athletes involved have individual aspirations. For example, there’s an athlete who wants to set up her own ski brand and one who wants to open her own bakery. The main thing is to help us unlock the skills we already have and to give us the confidence to take them forwards.
At the end of every session, we’re given 15 minute to feed back about what we liked and didn’t like, which helps PwC as much as us. Everyone who runs the programme has an intense, high-pressure job, and they don’t get paid extra to do it, so you feel very fortunate.
As part of the programme, you also have a buddy who you can choose to contact as much as you like. They’re there to help if you have problems or want to ask business-related questions. Maybe you have an idea, or something’s brought up in one of the sessions that lights a fire for you; it’s useful to then have someone to bounce ideas around with. My buddy is an IT consultant, which is very different to anything I’d want to go into, but this really doesn’t matter.
We also get given homework! We had to research a company that interested us and do a SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis on them, then present it to our buddy. They fed back on our strengths and weaknesses and talked to us about our delivery, which was really was helpful. They often give feedback from a perspective that we wouldn’t get elsewhere.
I’m really positive about the programme. They’re not scared to put you under pressure, which is where the real learning happens. They make no apologies for that, which is what really appeals to athletes, because we’re competitive and like to be tested! When you come away from a session, you feel like you’ve taken a lot from it. They push me in a way that allows me to see where I can make improvements, which is a good feeling.
I’ve found the programme fairly easy to fit in around hockey and this is because PwC have gone out of their way to make the schedule fit. My sport works hard in this area too, to make sure we’re preparing and it’s even part of our three-monthly review. They ask us what we’re doing outside of sport and how we’re growing outside of hockey. The amount of support and opportunities that my PL Emma makes available to me is also invaluable.
I’d strongly recommend that fellow athletes join a similar programme if they get the opportunity, whatever their interests. I think it helps you with life skills, not just business skills, and one of the main objectives is to give you more confidence, which is important for everyone.
Everyone’s sporting career will end at some point, so it’s important to try and find something that will fulfil you in the same way sport does, if possible. Whilst we’re athletes, we’re fortunate to have a bit of time to explore and experience different things, so we should take advantage of that. The more we do now, the more likely it is that we’ll find that fulfilling career when the time comes.
Moving Ahead's Athlete to Business programme
We asked Moving Ahead to give us an insight into their Athlete to Business mentoring programme, so they spoke to mentor Henry Odogwu and his mentee, Tom Quinn.
When Henry Odogwu landed in the finance industry as a mechanical engineering graduate, he decided he wouldn’t let anything hold him back. Nearly two decades later, he’s a Managing Director at London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG), providing help and advice to European institutional investors around benchmarking. He’s also passionate about mentoring.
Henry’s involvement in mentoring started in 2006. It was an informal arrangement but the person he mentored then is now one of his best friends. During his career, he’s mentored many people, but it was only recently that Henry had what he described as a mentoring epiphany. “I realised I’m in a position of responsibility and even though I’m time poor, it’s my duty to help others and give back.” It may sound selfless, but Henry’s the first to admit it’s not. “Mentoring is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced. When someone tells you you’ve helped them, the impact is very profound.”
He’s currently mentoring someone on LSEG’s internal programme as well as elite canoe slalom athlete Tom Quinn, who’s looking to transition from sport to the business world. Henry really is a ‘walk the talk’ mentoring ambassador, making himself available whenever he can. But what drives him to dedicate the time and energy to mentoring?
“I didn’t enter the finance industry from a very privileged background. I wasn’t joining with an Oxbridge education, which is common in this industry. I wasn’t even joining with a finance-related degree; mine’s in mechanical engineering. When I joined the graduate scheme with 176 others, I was the only black person. Right from the outset, it was very clear to me that there weren’t many people like me in this industry.” Henry had to navigate all that alongside an industry he knew nothing about. “A mentor would’ve been so helpful to me then, but it just wasn’t available. I still remember those challenges today, and I really relate to those who are new to the industry and how they might be feeling. Now that I’ve got nearly two decades of industry experience, one of the things I can do is pass some of it on.”
Henry did get a mentor early on in his career, albeit unofficially. A department head, with a very similar background to his, wanted to see him do well and took him under his wing.
“He actually gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received,” says Henry. “If you are the most junior person in a room, always volunteer. It’s one of the quickest ways to stand out. People who put their hands up to do more are always memorable. I took that advice and it certainly seemed to work well for me. As I progressed, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the most junior person anymore; if I had an opportunity to do something outside of my remit, to shine by doing extra, I always volunteered. That’s something I now pass on to all my mentees. That, and the value of having a network, internally AND externally. People from all different areas. You just never know when your career path may change or when the people in your network will be helpful to you.”
Everyone in the finance industry knows how quickly things can change. Following the financial crash in 2008, Henry was made redundant. “At the time, I thought it was the end of the world. I was very worried about my future because there weren’t many jobs in financial services.” He’s since realised that being made redundant at that point was probably the best thing that could have happened to his career. “Adversity is often the best thing that can happen to you. I wouldn’t be where I am today without having gone through that experience.” The finance company he joined following his redundancy gave him his first job in sales. The rest, as they say, is history. He’s still in sales today, albeit at a very senior level and now with the prestigious London Stock Exchange Group.
Given all his mentoring experience, can he identify a mentoring highlight? Henry doesn’t hesitate. “Mentoring Tom on the Athlete to Business programme really stands out. When I entered the programme, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to help or if it would work out. We’re from different worlds and we’re very different people. But I definitely have been able to help and seeing the transformation in him has been incredible – very rewarding. The experience has taught me two things. Firstly, you don’t need to mentor people who are like you, as long as you can form a connection with them and, secondly, that elite athletes are great in the business world because they are so results orientated and driven.”
From Tom’s perspective, there are similar positives. “Transitioning out of sport is really tough. However, the mentoring scheme has given me the confidence to keep driving forwards. Despite coming from different backgrounds, Henry and I quickly found common ground and we realised that there are many similarities between sport and business. The process has taught me to use the skillset I have from my time as an athlete in a different setting, and learn some new things along the way. Henry used his position to allow me to spend some time at FTSE Russell, surrounded by people who also have a drive to succeed. This showed me how good business can be, encouraged me to take some next steps and taught me valuable lessons. I now feel really confident about my transition, and Henry is continuing to support me in a range of ways as I move onto the next stage of my life.”
So, what’s Henry’s secret recipe for a successful mentoring relationship? “Invest time at the beginning to form a strong personal bond so you both have the confidence to open up; set expectations upfront, as that provides the framework for your entire relationship; and meet regularly, taking the time to understand not just isolated challenges but their whole story. When you do all that, the impacts can be profoundly rewarding.”