Athlete Futures Network Newsletter - September 2017
Introduction from Dame Katherine Grainger, UK Sport Chair
Take offs are optional; landings are mandatory.
I heard a retired pilot talking on the radio recently and he used that phrase in reference to his flying. On reflection, I thought it was relevant to our subject here. Becoming an athlete is an optional thing. It may begin as a dream, an ambition, or as a suggestion from someone else, but we go into it voluntarily. We may not know exactly what it will entail or where it will lead us, but we choose to follow the path to find out. Leaving sport, however, is the part we don’t generally think about or plan when we start. And yet that is the only guaranteed part of being an athlete: the fact that it will end. Sometimes athletes choose that time themselves, because they have achieved all they want, they have other plans in life, or they feel the time is right. Some athletes are forced out because of under-performance, selection decisions or injury. Some go quietly into the night, others rage against the dying of the light. There is no right or wrong way to do it; all we know is that it is inevitable and often not easy.
With that in mind, the Athlete Futures Network has been created and twice a year, you’ll receive this packed newsletter. Ideally it will contain something that is relevant to you and can be shaped by athletes for athletes, whether current or retired. This edition includes an article from Todd Cooper, who swam at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, and now works in the Major Events team at UK Sport. Charlotte Burgess, a former archery athlete is now on a coaching programme and talks about her journey from athlete to coach. Meanwhile Claire Bennett, who represented GB at fencing and now works for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, writes about the challenges facing athletes in transition, both in emotional and practical terms.
In addition, there is information on two upcoming events, one involving work in the major events area and one around the latest thoughts on transition, as well as links to a treasure trove of resources. There is also a very short feedback survey for you to complete, so we can be sure the newsletter, as it develops, is covering what is thought to be most relevant and useful for you, so please do take a few moments to share your feedback.
The Athlete Futures Network could not run without the help and support of the English Institute of Sport's Performance Lifestyle Advisors, a team that exists to help current World Class Programme athletes 'get an appropriate balance between the pursuit of performance and the care for the person behind the performance'. We will be working very closely with them going forward and you can find out more about what they do here.
The idea behind the Athlete Futures Network and the newsletter is to create an easy way for athletes, whether current or retired, to find information, share advice, get help, enjoy support and interaction with each other and keep connected as much or as little as they wish. Being an athlete is a special and unusual ‘take off’ to have enjoyed. Let’s all help to get the landing right.
1. Athlete Transition: My Story (Claire Bennett)
2. Major Events as a Career for Former Athletes (Todd Cooper)
3. My Athlete to Coach Story (Charlotte Burgess)
4. Athlete-To-Business Mentoring Scheme
5. Engineering Success (Henry White)
6. A Post-Athlete Career Outside of Sport (Paul Belk)
Athlete Transition - My Story
By Claire Bennett
My sporting background is in fencing. I am a former international GB fencer and retired after the Games in 2012. I started fencing at the age of 10 years old and went to my first World Championships at 14.
Like all elite athletes going for gold, I sacrificed a lot and had to work and train really hard. If you want to take up sport as a career and become a professional athlete, you need to be disciplined, determined, committed and focused. You need to be a self-starter. It’s about overcoming challenges and constantly striving to be the best. It’s about challenging yourself to do something really difficult, that requires a lot of skill, both physically and mentally.
Fencing had always played a huge part in my life and I remember announcing my retirement and feeling completely lost and dejected. Athlete retirement can be a significant challenge, and one that doesn’t get talked about enough. When I stopped fencing, I felt like I was no longer an expert at anything; I lost my passion and had no idea that my skills could be transferable into the workplace. I simply didn’t feel special anymore and felt like I had nothing to offer in the ‘real world.’ I would go as far to say that all my self-esteem was based around producing world class results, so when that stopped, I really struggled. I was always professionally really ambitious but I lacked the self-confidence I needed to make that first step and didn’t really know how to move forward. It was big thing to deal with at the time.
One of the things I miss most about not competing at the highest level is the sweat, the toil and the endeavor to go for something important. Of course, nothing compares to the genuine, heart-fluttering thrill of competing at international level, but I still get a major kick from of working out. My training routine and keeping active has been the only thing that has kept me feeling strong and positive in my retirement from sport.
Personally, when I transitioned, I went through different stages of feelings and emotions. At first I felt shock and denial, then anger, then a period where I felt very low and finally, after having found the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust (DKHT) and accessed tailored transitional support, I felt acceptance. I was then ready to move on and do something meaningful, that would make me happy.
The Trust were the first organisation to welcome me with open arms, irrespective of whether I had won an Olympic medal. When I met the Trust, I was hoping to find some direction. I remember doing a lot of GiveBack (volunteering) when I first joined the Trust. It helped fill the hours in my day and gave me the structure I really wanted. Mentoring young people facing disadvantage also made me realise that my skills were transferrable and that I could be successful in my life after sport. The very first programme that I worked on was Sport for Change, a programme that supports homeless young people. This experience had a huge positive impact on me and I remember speaking to a young girl after I had delivered my first fencing session to the group. I asked her if she was ok and she replied: “I have never felt as alive as I do today.” I will never forget her words and it made me realise that I too had found something in supporting others that would make me feel as alive as I did when I was fencing at an elite level. It was a special moment.
I also accessed a business coach via the Trust as I had a business idea I wanted to explore. I had lots of conflicting thoughts and feelings about what I wanted to do next and this coach really helped me to focus on what was right for me moving forward. Finally, I made sure that I attended the training that was on offer and was able to work on my personal, social and emotional development, which helped me to take responsibility for my own levels of personal and social capital.
I did try to ensure that I got some work experience alongside my sporting career, particularly in the down time that we had after major championships. I remember thinking that it was really important that I kept my eyes and my ears open for any opportunities that might arise, so that I could prepare myself for my life beyond sport. Pursuing other interests outside of your sport I believe supports an athlete’s personal and holistic development and helps them to perform better and stay longer within their sport.
I believe that upon entering a talent pathway, athletes should have an inter-agency team built around them that are responsible for the welfare of the athlete as well as performance in their sport. The welfare of the athlete must be at the centre of this approach, with other key components including an ongoing personal, social and emotional development training programme and structured support to develop skills and experience outside of sport, including planning for post-competitive life.
Supported involvement in meaningful activities will ensure that the investment into athlete performance whilst they are on a talent pathway will have a legacy. The exceptional abilities of athletes developed to a high level in competitive sport will be deployed to new areas, with both the individual and wider society benefiting.
Many people “in the know” say it takes about two years for an elite athlete to fully transition into life after sport, but it took me a full Olympic cycle. I feel I was very lucky to meet DKHT, where I started off as an athlete mentor and was then asked to work in-house. This was when I started to work my way up the organisation to the role I’m in now, that of Athlete Manager.
Sport has taught me resilience and given me confidence. I’ve had to deal with plenty of setbacks throughout my sporting career and this makes me a tougher, more well-rounded individual. I learned a great deal from the young people that I mentored; they reminded me how strong a person can be and gave me the energy and motivation that I needed to transition into my life beyond sport. I know now that my skills are transferrable into the workplace and that the high performing mindset of an athlete has huge employability potential and societal value.
I am proud to say that I’ve finally found something that makes me feel as alive as I did when I was an international athlete. I’ve always said I’ll know that I’ve succeeded in my athlete transition when I am standing up for something I believe in again, and I can honestly say that is how I feel today.
For more information about the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, please click here.
Major Events as a Career for Former Athletes
By Todd Cooper
At UK Sport, we are lucky enough to have several ex-professional athletes working for us. The skills and attributes they bring to their jobs often come directly from their time in the sporting spotlight, and they are always an asset to the organisation. For our first Athlete Futures Network newsletter, we asked ex-Olympic Swimmer Todd Cooper to tell us about working in the UK Sport Major Events Team.
Missing the buzz of competition? Lacking that sense of fulfilment from achieving success in something which matters to you? I was, until I found an industry which provides a great opportunity for athletes looking to channel their competitive spirit and maintain their ties with sport; Major Events.
I have experienced two Olympic Games as a swimmer; Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. After Beijing, I retired from the sport, and it was then time to think about my post-competition career.
Transitioning from being an athlete to getting a job in the ‘real world’ can be a challenging period. It’s a very abrupt change from a routine filled with discipline, specific daily, weekly and annual targets, and a broad team of performance staff providing support and guidance. We athletes are inherently driven, highly motivated and hard-working. Competing delivers a certain high to us, and we gain a sense of achievement when we succeed in something which matters so much.
The obvious route for most athletes, post-professional sporting career, is to seek out opportunities in the media, coaching, or a vocational career tied to a degree. Another option is the major sport event industry.
The UK has built up a proud reputation as a world-leading deliverer of major and mega events. A quick look through the last ten years and through to 2020 illustrates how adept and accomplished the UK has become at delivering pinnacle events. The 2012 London Olympics, the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2014 Ryder Cup, 2015 Rugby World Cup, Rugby League World Cup, Cricket World Cup and World Championships in athletics, gymnastics, track cycling, road cycling, canoe slalom and numerous European and other World level events have all been delivered or are about to be staged in the UK.
Every one of those events had an athlete-led and sport-focused approach which ultimately ensured that they were delivered not just successfully, but in an outstanding way. Current and former athlete involvement was a crucial component in all of those events. Be it through athlete committees or advisory boards, athlete involvement as professional Organising Committee paid staff, or as the leader of the event (Lord Sebastian Coe as Chair of the London 2012 Olympics for example), athletes have been firmly ensconced and provided a fundamental role in shaping the UK’s reputation for outstanding event delivery.
Working in major events has so many parallels with an sporting career; it’s project based with a definitive final objective; it’s hard work and brings a great sense of accomplishment; it requires assiduous planning and proactivity; it allows you to travel the globe; and it allows others to benefit from insights which we athletes have gained from our own experiences at events around the world.
Sport-specific knowledge, a broad understanding of major event delivery, and familiarity with major event service delivery standards as they relate to athletes, is premium knowledge which money can’t buy. Through experience of attending major events around the world, athletes have an insight into not only the technical requirements of sport, but the wider needs of athletes and team officials. Put simply, we know what works well at events and what the priorities should be to ensure things run smoothly. Be it the quality of a running track, athlete transport, in-venue sport presentation or those idiosyncratic things which make a difference to the overall event experience, athletes have a keen insight which can be invaluable to event delivery.
The most important factor, though, is the opportunity that major sporting events provide as a means to stay integrally involved in the thing which we live, eat, sweat and breathe: international elite sport. What better way to channel your own athlete experiences than to provide the best possible performance platform for current and future athletes to achieve international success and for sports fans around the country to scream, shout and cry when they see British sporting success?
National Governing Bodies (NGBs) across the UK have sophisticated event and competition programmes, which range from the local and regional level of events to the very biggest sporting events in the world – this year’s World Athletics Championships for example. There are also a number of larger events which the UK has hosted, and will continue to host, which provide opportunities for retired athletes. And here’s a secret; those organisations – be they NGBs, commercial operators or larger organising committees, will welcome athletes, and their knowledge, work ethic and experiences with open arms.
My Athlete to Coach Story
By Charlotte Burgess
My archery career started on a family holiday, when I came across a “Have a go at archery” area at a local festival. I don't really remember where the arrows went or even if I hit the target, but what I do remember is the sound and feeling of empowerment when shooting a bow; I was only 10 years old. This quickly evolved into shooting for the British junior team at 12 years old and then the British senior team a couple of years after that. Being in the senior team environment as a teenager was challenging and I quickly learnt life skills and coping strategies on and off the shooting range.
2004 was an interesting year, as I found myself at the Athens Olympic selection shoot, and narrowly missed out on attending the Games by a single point. Due to this performance, I started to receive National Lottery funding through UK Sport and spent 10 continuous years within the national team, attending multiple World Championships, European Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. My greatest achievements came as part of the Ladies Team event. The team is made up of three people and communication and understanding of your teammates is an integral part of the skills required, along with your own shooting technique, for a team to be successful. I always felt that I played a strong role in the closeness and commitment we showed to each other and helped to promote and nurture the trust we had in each other.
My retirement (time away from international shooting as I like to call it) came in 2013. It was a surprise and not something you want to hear. I had struggles balancing my personal life with training full time, which had resulted in my performances levelling out and having a flat trajectory. They were still higher than others within the programme, so this was a little hard to comprehend and to accept initially. However, having spent 10 years in full time training, I thought that it would be nice to spend some time doing the “normal” things in life, like getting a 9-5 job, or going out with my friends at the weekend. I especially wanted to do more extreme sports without the fear that if I was to break a finger, I wouldn't be able to shoot.
The honeymoon period didn't last long. I have qualifications in the sport and recreation industry and I had always planned on returning into that area of work once my shooting career was over, but I found that the qualifications I had achieved prior to shooting full time were now not as relevant. So much so that I struggled to even get through to the interview stage of applications, let alone being offered a job. I found myself doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting on my future whilst working in temporary jobs. I took up part time work working in a local pub, pulling pints and serving food and even took a job delivering 10,000 carpet cleaning leaflets to make ends meet. I started to resent myself and the choice to train full time. I also resented the sport and the lack of support it offered me after the time and effort I had committed to it over the years. However, on the occasional weekend, I began coaching at my local archery club. Coaching was never something that I had ever focused on doing, but I found that with more and more days booked by archers wishing to better themselves, I began to enjoy an aspect of the sport that I had never considered and began to rekindle some of my love for archery. At last I felt I could give something back to the sport and it also beat sending out more CVs to companies, only to get no response. Looking back now, I do wish I had spent a little more time working out a more robust plan for life after the sport, but am pleased to have saved my relationship with archery.
So how then did I become a full time coach? It’s a long story, but to put it simply, it started with the same performance director who told me I was out of the funding programme. They called me and explained that they were recruiting new coaches to work with the junior academy. I wasn't really sure how I felt whilst I was being complimented on my technical knowledge and archery skills. I was confident in my own abilities to shoot, but unsure of my ability to translate and explain this to others, especially at a national level. I did eventually put my CV forward for the position, but only about five minutes before the deadline! For days before, I was unsure if it was something I actually wanted to do, but thought maybe I would at least get an interview, something that wasn't currently happening with other job applications! Fortunately, I did get the interview and the job. I started working with the junior academy programme and whilst coaching the juniors, I also found I was learning about myself and reflecting on my past as a performance athlete, and more importantly, the interactions I had with my past coaches.
Sometimes, it was a little weird working with people as a coach, when previously they would have known me as a rival. I questioned if they took me seriously? Or if the other coaches just saw me as an ex-athlete they found a job for? I hadn't had many years of coaching experience so I didn't have a reputation to precede my first contact with anyone. Interactions with programme athletes had changed considerably in my time off the programme, and I had to spend time working on how I interacted and communicated with everyone from scratch. Throughout the first year of training camps, I would leave feeling frustrated or feeling like I was missing the point. Luckily I had support around me and people to talk through these issues with. I eventually got to the point of understanding that I was just seeing things from a different angle. I began to see and that it actually made the coaching team far stronger so it was very important to me that I shared my ideas.
Understanding myself as a coach was going to be the key. Archery had been in my life since I was 10 years old, so I had seen a lot of people come and go from the sport, athletes and coaches. I thought back as to why that was… I found that successful coaching wasn't just about technique, it was about identifying what the athlete’s specific needs were and how best to deliver to them in a constructive and engaging manner. I started to become more confident about my coaching style in the public domain, but I still had many insecurities behind closed doors. Luckily a new coaching programme was just starting, run by UK Sport, called Athlete 2 Coach. I applied for a position on the course and received an interview (my fourth ever). Thankfully I was successful! This gave me an opportunity to work with a number of ex-athletes who had moved into coaching and it was surprising to me that they shared in a number of the things I struggled or felt uncomfortable with; it was a group of people that I could really identify with. The programme was a safe place to be pushed in my thinking, learn new coaching skills and to find blind spots in my current technique to start working on. During the course, I was also advanced into the Lead Coach role for the Paralympic archery academy. My confidence grew once again; I was now leading a programme where I could put my developing coaching skills into practice, experiment with different styles of coaching and also build relationships with athletes and staff. I really enjoy working with all the pathway athletes and have found that the para athletes really challenge and excite me. You have to work together to find the best solution, and understanding a person’s disability and how it effects their day to day life helps to see how it can affect their archery.
The next interview I had was to become a full time Programme Coach, working with the Paralympic Performance Programme. The athletes within this programme are most likely to represent the country at the Paralympics. Again, I was successful and started to work full time as a Performance Coach. My personal development has been quite fast, but I have built up a great network of people around me to support my endeavours. Some from within the sport, some from other Olympic/Paralympic sports. When I attend staff meetings now, I’m often asked “Charlotte, how do you see this?”; “What’s your view on this?”; and this really supports my feeling that I am succeeding in my journey to being a world class coach.
I never use the words “When I was an Athlete, I did…” I am very proud of that time and it will always be a part of my life. I want use my past encounters, understanding and my expertise to help coach athletes.
Athlete-to-Business (A2B) Mentoring Scheme
The Athlete-To-Business (A2B) Mentoring Scheme, devised and managed by Moving Ahead, matches current and retired elite athletes with senior leaders at leading organisations including Deloitte, Belron and The London Stock Exchange Group. The scheme carefully matches high potential athletes with male or female top tier executives and guides them through a year-long mentoring programme and a series of learning and networking events. The pairs meet in person or by telephone every four to six weeks.
The Moving Ahead A2B programme, managed in collaboration with the English Institute of Sport Performance Lifestyle Team, leverages Moving Ahead’s specialism in mentoring and the detailed knowledge and expertise of EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisors. It gives athletes an opportunity to plan for their futures, whether they are planning on competing at PyeongChang 2018 or Tokyo 2020 or have already transitioned into work.
The deadline for application to the next intake of the A2B scheme is 28 November 2017. To find out more about the scheme, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founder and CEO of Moving Ahead, Liz Dimmock, said: “This scheme helps current and retired athletes to prepare for life beyond elite sport. Athletes represent an untapped economic talent pool. World-class athletes have exceptional transferrable skills, including a commitment to excellence, natural leadership and resilience under extreme pressure. They are proven team players with strong communication skills. Research from the University of Stirling demonstrates that being an elite athlete significantly impacts employability potential because they are more confident in their abilities to carry out broader roles in the workplace, and excel in identifying opportunities, taking action and lifting the productivity of their colleagues.
“The A2B Mentoring Scheme will provide athletes with exposure to the corporate world, where they will learn from the experiences of others, disrupt their patterns of thinking, and create meaningful relationships with individuals from different organisations. The mentors have a lot to gain by being pushed into seeing life from another perspective. We can all benefit profoundly from escaping our silos and engaging with different perspectives.”
By Henry White (Lead Technologist: Sensing and UK Sport Partnership Engineering Lead, BAE Systems)
Being the official engineering partner to UK Sport has had many benefits to both the world of sport and BAE Systems. From a personnel level, the exposure to elite coaches and athletes has made me increasingly aware of the links between sporting and engineering excellence, although I’m very aware of the dangers of generalisations; all athletes are individuals and what it takes to excel will vary from sport to sport.
Similarly, BAE Systems employs approximately 33,000 people at 50 different UK sites with a huge variety of skills and experiences. A large number are engineers, but once you add a different prefix (mechanical, aerospace, systems, computational etc.), the day to day life will be vastly different even before including the range of company products that they may be working on. On top of all these engineering roles, a wide range of additional expertise is required to make the company work: project management, finance, commercial, training, publicity, health and safety; the list goes on. In this article, I draw out parallels and differences between the elite sporting arena and a large multi-national engineering company like BAE Systems.
Engineering as a discipline involves understanding a problem and providing a course of action which best solves the problem within the given constraints.
The Rule Book
A key difference between elite sport and most other professions are the rules: if you gave an engineer the challenge of getting faster at freestyle swimming, one of the first suggestions might be to remove the water and sprint across! Often in the BAE Systems/UK Sport engineering partnership, our initial wonderful suggestions to help a particular problem have been met with “that’s against the rules”. Usually in engineering, it’s the laws of physics rather than the laws of the game which apply, but sometimes a customer will impose certain restrictions; having a clear mind over the “rules” of the project is important in making progress.
Time Pressures and Limitations
The time constraint is one other area of difference between industry and sport. Quite often, the timescales for engineering projects stretch due to changes in requirements and resources; I’ve yet to hear of the Olympics being postponed by six months! In sport, a hard deadline is a hard deadline. Sports people learn how to manage external variations to keep them on schedule. This skill is something that can be beneficially brought to large engineering companies. Furthermore, being adaptable to change, be that as a result or injury, illness or weather conditions in the sporting environment, is a very beneficial skill when undertaking engineering projects, even if the cause of the change may be something very different.
A specific aspect of elite sport is competition, something currently lacking from my own sporting experiences (my scenic cycle ride for Land’s End to John O’Groats is expected to take seven years off and on!). Even in team sports, there needs to be an individual drive for self-advancement: to be a good team player, you need to be good enough to get in the team. Engineering is not directly so cut and thrust. Companies are very supportive and there is a longer timeframe to develop the required skills in individuals, but nurturing personal self-motivation is hugely beneficial within a company.
Much has been made over the years about sports’ adoption of marginal gains; this is still an area engineering is learning from. BAE Systems excel at optimising a particular technology solution, but additional questions are vital: Can we provide it quicker? Can we provide it cheaper? Can we make it require less maintenance? The best solutions to these questions will undoubtedly be a combination of many factors, where one isolated improvement may not have seemed worthwhile.
Another fascinating area where engineering can learn from certain sports is that of radical gains. Figure skating, snowboarding and gymnastics are among the sports where step changes are needed in routines to get to the gold medal. As well as improvements in technique, confidence is required for the radical step from moving from a triple to a quad. Applying this to engineering decisions could allow new solutions to be adopted earlier than they perhaps would otherwise.
There are numerous potential benefits that elite athletes can bring to engineering. The routes into a company like BAE Systems can be quite varied, although all job applications are dealt with via a central website. As well as applying for specific roles, prospective employees can enter themselves as part of a “talent pool”, for when new vacancies arise. In addition, there are the yearly intakes to the apprentice and graduate development schemes. Over 2,000 apprentices were training with the company at the end of 2016 and the company recruits over 200 people onto the graduate training programme each year. The required qualifications will vary for each situation; some company roles will require specific degree qualifications whereas the apprentice scheme has three different levels of entry. The right attitude can be the most important attribute as opposed to specific qualifications.
The benefits of a career in a large engineering company include being able to find a role which fits you personally, having a really supportive company and being able to contribute as part of a motivated and enthusiastic team. The lows can come from the necessary paperwork or when, for some of the long-term projects, you realise that it will be some while before you see the final fruits of your labour. The highs come from working with world experts both within and external to the company and feeling the sparks fly when new ideas are thrown around - when you know you have made a difference to a vital part of the UK industry - and the knowledge that you have been part of developing a world first!
Engineering is varied and complex but I’m convinced that skills that elite athletes hone during their sporting careers can bring many benefits to companies such as BAE Systems. The attributes of work ethic, self-motivation and desire to seek improvements are essential for sporting success but also essential for achieving greatness within industry.
Click here to read more about BAE System's Partnership with UK Sport. Click here to find out about careers at BAE Systems.
A Post-Athlete Career Outside of Sport
By Paul Belk
Let's get one thing clear; I was not a great swimmer. My achievements include: Relay medals at European and World Championships; individual top 10 finishes at World Championships; swimming at the Olympics in a relay team and multiple GB Individual gold medals. Indeed, I seem to remember one year I even finished the world rankings in the top 10. However, compared to some of the athletes who may grace these pages, I was an also-ran. I do not ever consider that I “made it”. By the standards I set myself, I most certainly did not.
Do not think this is me wallowing in self-pity - it isn't, and I’ll tell you why. The years I spent swimming were some of the best of my life. The sport introduced me to the people and life skills which have positively shaped my life and, 15 years later, it continues to do so.
I’ll briefly wind you back about 30 years. I got into swimming accidentally. My parents attempted to channel some of my youthful energy into music but my piano teacher, after an unproductive month on a stool, advised sport, preferably a lung busting discipline.
I started swimming, poorly, but I loved it. I loved the work, the technicals, the slog, and most of all, the competition. To everyone’s surprise, I finally grew into my arms and legs and gradually, I started knocking out national qualifying times, then finals, then medals. That impatient piano teacher unwittingly set me on a path which has meandered from sport to school to university to career and currently sees me being responsible for a half billion USD turnover at a physical oil trading desk of a Fortune 100 oil company.
To be a good athlete, you need a plan. In fact, you need many plans. Short term: How am I going to survive this gruelling session and improve? You plan. Medium term: How am I going to become good enough to win the next race? PLAN. Long term: What happens when I finish swimming? PLAN. Actually, that long term plan did not occur to me until my A Levels. I was swimming hard, competing, generally winning, but my academics were failing. I was being well supported by the people around me, but I was winning national gold medals, I was the fastest in the country and I figured I didn’t need A Levels right now – they could wait. They couldn't. After some hard truths from my mum and dad, I worked out my next plan. I ratcheted back the pool work, scraped a place to read engineering at Bath University and for the first time, I thought seriously about my life after swimming. I decided that whatever happened in the pool from then on, I needed a fall back option. If that meant I might not be World Champion, then so be it. This doesn't mean I stopped trying to be World Champion, because I didn't, but the moment I decided to redirect some of my energy into books, deep down, I knew I would probably always be an also-ran. I do not believe at the modern levels of elite sport one can make it to the very top without being 100% committed to that goal, no diversions. So with that thought, life after swimming started to take shape.
In 2000, I was aiming for a place on the GB Sydney Olympic Team and graduating as an Honours student in Engineering. There were some pretty dicey moments when I worried I might fail at both; a “didn't run at all” and a third would be disastrous. In the end, I ended up average at both, which makes sense looking back – a solid relay place instead of an individual and a 2:2.
After Sydney and my graduation, I continued swimming to buy some time to plan the next step. Around this time, Lottery funded support programmes were being developed to help athletes like me, and I enrolled in a six week course with a career consultancy firm. They very clearly explained what my future might entail if I didn't start working on it. They planned exercises ranging from the incredibly useful but mind-bendingly simple (such as listing pros and cons and likes and dislikes), to more complicated interview role plays and planning your most influential network circle and how to approach them. I cannot recommend this sort of consultancy enough, and the sooner the better – do not wait until you retire from your sport. Not long after, I interviewed with a small specialist oil company and got the job. From this point, my “second career” took on a more traditional course.
Initially, I figured that entering the oil industry had been more luck over judgement, but I have a different view on it these days. I’d managed to pick an industry which can be easily compared to elite sports. There are wins and losses, personal gains and personal disasters; there is a need to plan the course of action and nothing happens by accident. Conversely, you might have everything worked out to the nth degree with supreme confidence only to find you've lost a race or a deal on a tiny detail.
These comparisons, then, bring me back to the start of my article. As I look back over the skills I gained whilst trying to be a World Champion, I continue to be amazed at how parallels can be drawn between the two disciplines. The buzz of winning a gold medal to me is very similar to completing a successful deal; the self-improvement to become faster can be directly referenced to the self-improvement needed to be a better trader… the comparisons just don't stop! Management wanting more, coaches pushing harder – I could go on.
I believe one must recognise and harvest the transferable skills gained from top level sport if they are to transition successfully to a career in any field and try to draw from them. The sooner this can be noticed the better – it's never too early to plan, or too late to thank a piano teacher.