Athlete Futures Network Newsletter - March 2020

Who Am I? Athlete Transition from the World Class Programme
By Dawn Airton, EIS Performance Lifestyle Transition Lead

Elite sport has often been part of an athlete’s life, and their family’s, for so long that it may be all they know, and a sportsperson all they identify themselves as. Daydreaming at school, athletes may drift off to a world of medals, notoriety and of choosing when they retire from doing the thing they love.

Some athletes may be fortunate enough to fulfill that goal and chose when to retire themselves, but there are a number of factors that mean this isn’t always possible; injury, deselection, funding changes, declassification, not meeting performance/development objectives or a partner retiring.

Whether athletes choose to retire from sport, or have that decision forced upon them, the process of transitioning is sometimes challenging. It can impact people on many different levels; emotionally, physically, financially, through changes to their daily routine, their identity and their relationships with family and friends. So many athletes have moved to centralised programmes to get the best support that their whole life is shaped around their sport - their house, income, friends, doctor and their social life – which means there are a number of adaptations an athlete needs to make when they come off world class funding.

But it isn’t all challenging. Going through transition, athletes often experience newfound freedoms and different ways to express themselves, ways they may not have been able to as an elite athlete. They suddenly find they can go to a friend’s wedding as it won’t clash with a competition; they have increased autonomy and choice; they can go bungee jumping, travelling the world for a year or go on that much-desired skiing holiday!

Whilst being on a World Class Programme is a hugely significant part of an athlete’s life, that spans child and adulthood, it isn’t an athlete’s whole story. They could have another 60+ wonderful years ahead to enjoy, so my role as Performance Lifestyle Transition Lead for the EIS is working with individuals to explore how they can make the most of those years that lie ahead.

I’ve been privileged to be let into the lives of athletes from a range of different Olympic and Paralympic sports as they seek support to make sense of their transition. Every individual’s needs are different; some may need help coming to terms with the shock of non-selection or knowing where to begin to manage this fundamental life change. Some may want to know how to transition to another sport so they can transfer their talents to something new. Some may just need to earn money in the immediate future to pay the mortgage and support their family, and some may want to know how to manage a long-term injury when they no longer have the support that surrounded them as an athlete.

But where I’ve seen the biggest need and request for support is developing an understanding of self-worth, purpose and meaning after retirement. Who am I if I’m not an athlete? How do I introduce myself at parties? Do I define myself in the past and who I used to be or who I want to become? And what is that? Big questions for anyone to answer in life, these can lead to mental health challenges as athletes have more time and decreasing confidence to be able to deal with these thoughts.

Some of the ways in which athletes can be supported to help them answer these questions include:

- Guided self-exploration of values, life goals, passions and interests to find out the core needs of the individual and how these needs can be met socially, physically, emotionally and practically.
- Exploring the strengths and positive transferable skills that athletes don’t often see or appreciate in themselves.
- Career exploration and development to establish which of these needs can be met in the working world, then trying to make it happen through CV development, LinkedIn profiles, networking and interview skills.
- Connecting athletes to networks - other athletes who have retired, companies, partners, family and friends.
- Reflecting and reviewing what has and hasn’t worked along the transition journey. We are finding that it may take a few career changes to discover what an athlete’s needs are. As they have lived in a sporting ‘bubble’ for so long, they may not know what’s right or wrong for them outside the sporting arena. They probably won’t know if they’d like a desk job or the local boxercise class until they try it, so the process of reviewing and reflecting helps to shape the next steps in fine-tuning that need.
- By getting some better understanding of these needs, individuals can not only start to make informed decisions, they can also feel empowered to be able to take action and make changes for the better.

Some tips for you to consider around transition:

Speak to someone to share experiences, worries and ideas. A large number of athletes have said that one of the best ways of dealing with transition is to speak to and learn from athletes who have either retired or are in the process of retiring themselves.

If you’re a current athlete, don’t be afraid to develop an understanding of what your needs could be after elite sport whilst you’re still competing. Those who have access to an EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisor should really take advantage of the support they offer as they’re great at helping athletes in this area.

Network, network, network! Find out what other people do and how they got there. It may help you understand the world of work but could also lead to something for you. There’s never any harm in asking, especially if you approach it with the mindset of wanting to learn from someone.
If you need support, ask for it. Be that from family, friends, me as Performance Lifestyle Transition Lead or your GP. There are people out there who want to help.

Reach out to other athletes. If you’re a retired athlete and could spare some time to speak to others about your transition, or if you work in a company that understands the wonderful transferable skills athletes can offer, there may be opportunities to make some great connections.

Stay connected. This might be through the Athlete Futures Network, through your sport or through your children’s sporting experiences. This will continue to ignite some of the positive things that sport has given you.

Stay active. Research has shown that athletes who engage with sport on a physical level, even choosing a new social sport, can experience a more positive transition. It’s a way to stay physically active as well as develop new friends in your local community.

As we continue to encourage and support athletes to develop their identities throughout their time on the WCP, we hope they can maximise these advantages in order to reduce the severity of transition challenges. But even the most prepared athletes may end up needing support, as the reality of life away from the sporting arena can look and feel very different. That’s why we are here and support is available. If this is something you would like to explore further, please let us know and get in touch either, through the Athlete Futures Network email address or dawn.airton@eis2win.co.uk.

From Athletics to Law
By Christine Ohuruogu

Retirement from professional sport in 2018 was not something that filled me with dread. Although I experienced a profound sadness that I wouldn’t be able to get to the dizzy heights of the sport that had been my passion for 15 years, I was relieved I had an opportunity to walk away. At the time, I was carrying a stubborn injury and didn’t have the time or presence of mind to deal with it; I was more than halfway into my law degree and unable to dedicate attention to recovery that my body was used to. The mental energy usually reserved for injury management I chose to spend preparing for exams.

My degree had begun a year before retirement in 2017, as I was intent on a career in law post-athletics. My interest in law was a novel endeavour but hadn’t been a life-long desire. I’d had a fleeting aspiration to ‘become a lawyer’ during my early years of primary school and this proclamation, I believe, was rooted in the aspirations of my parents to raise their children to have honourable careers. The idea of becoming a lawyer was soon abandoned after realising I never actually knew what it entailed! It was a discussion with a QC at an event later in life that sparked my true interest in a possible legal career.

After retirement, I sprinted out of athletics (actually, I hobbled out on my dodgy Achilles) and jumped into transition, focusing on completing my degree. Transition was not smooth sailing and sanguine; yes, on the outside I was optimistic and determined and all those characteristics that I’d displayed as an athlete, but on the inside, it was a tumultuous fight to keep the demon thoughts at bay. I worried constantly; am I doing the right thing? If it wasn’t right, then what was? Would I be good enough? Would I like it? Is this the correct path for me? Is this a waste of time and money? My degree, for the most part, kept me distracted from these thoughts, holding them at arm’s length while I read cases and attended lectures. However, following my graduation in 2019, they hit me with a vengeance; the full force of retirement, the stretch of the unknown, the insecurities and the fear, and the anxiety of having to start again from scratch. It was all waiting for me as I said goodbye to Queen Mary University. For the first time in my life, I was in a world that did not have the safety, rigidity or certainty of sport or education. I was truly out in a world with no rules and the thought of that freedom, even at the age of 34, scared me.

The fear I had lay in my uncertainty. My solution for dealing with this fear was the method I would employ in preparing for an upcoming championship. As an athlete, there were many uncertainties, especially when you factored in unwelcome visits from injuries or personal problems. I would lean into the uncertainties using a bit of flexibility and creativity rather than run away from them or fear them. I was able to remain true to my ultimate goal of the season, be it the World Championships or Olympics.

I now had a new ultimate goal - a career in law. I leaned into this new uncertainty by working out the small steps I could take to keep myself busy every day. I contacted a few companies for legal work experience and sent out my CV. Work experience was necessary and allowed me to submerge myself in the working environment, experiencing a 9–5 job. It helped me understand the skills I had, and those I’d need to work on. Being newly retired and having completed my degree, work experience at UK Sport was a perfect fit for me. I spent two weeks with the Legal Team there and was able to gain incredible insights into the inner workings of the seemingly faceless entity that had funded me for much of my career.

It was initially daunting to be thrust into the work environment - completely different to what I’d been used to - and I was concerned about the pressure to ‘perform’ because of my background. I realised quickly that this assumption was all in my head and no-one was expecting me to be brilliant at anything. All that was required was to show a willing attitude towards the work. I asked questions when I needed help or clarity; I worked doggedly at issues that were unfamiliar to me until I arrived at a solution; it was a challenge I revelled in. There were many opportunities to engage with staff working on different projects and at times, I was able to provide input from an athlete's perspective.

I left UK Sport with experience of a variety of work and a notebook full of helpful tips to assist me in my future journey. That journey doesn’t seem so uncertain anymore; there are many things I’ve yet to work out, but ticking one small box at a time gives me an opportunity to reassess and decide how my path is going to unfold along the way.

Just Keep Swimming!
By Jono Drane

Athletes - we all worry about life after sport. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We’re humans, and we love to be concerned.

Over my short-to-medium lifetime, two things have led me to lose a significant amount of sleep: 1) The prospect of becoming a dad and 2) What’s next after sport?

I’ll be making two main assumptions about my audience: 1) Sad as it may be, you are not interested in my reproductive practices and 2) You’re hoping for reassurance that all things will serendipitously fall into place when you decide to retire.

Full disclosure; it won’t. Unless you’re very lucky, a career will not just manifest itself out of your tenacious efforts and achievements in sport. To get that career, you’ll need to apply yourself just as you did on the track/dojo/pitch/formally dressed pony.

My Story

Back in November 2016, still heartbroken after the Games in Rio, I made the conscious decision to retire from judo. Truth be told, I’d long struggled with my mental health and after what seemed like my 19th existential crisis, I came to the realisation that the true source to my happiness was being surrounded by my family, so I returned to Norwich.

Having worked on a number of small projects, I must have gone 24 months without saying out loud what career I actually wanted to pursue.

You see, as somebody with a disability, we face a number of barriers when it comes to work. For instance, did you know that people with a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed than those without? Also, when actually in employment, disabled people are, on average, paid 12% less than their non-disabled counterparts.

Contrary to my attitude in sport, I was scared of failing.

I was frequently asked by others “What do you want to do?”, and would respond so vaguely that nobody was any better informed having listened to my answer. When probed further, I simply hid behind the excuse that I was focusing on my Master’s and the process of devaluing the academic pathway – if I can get an education, so could any half intelligent potted plant.

But as I continued further along my transition journey, I learnt some valuable lessons, which I’d like to share with you below.

Lesson 1 - Learn to be vulnerable

Whilst attending a UK Coaching course, it quickly became evident that my reluctance to say aloud my intentions stemmed from a fear of vulnerability. So, I decided to lean into the discomfort and say out loud what I wanted – I wanted a job.

Lesson 2 - Maximise opportunities by networking until you can’t network anymore!

Nearing the end of my studies, it was vital that I was able to demonstrate having experience working in the ‘real’ world. In a Disney-like plot, I pleasantly found myself in a discussion with somebody from Leonard Cheshire. As a charity, part of Leonard Cheshire’s function is running a programme of paid summer work placements, development and mentoring. At its very essence, it’s designed to support the career development of talented university students and recent graduates with any disability or long-term health condition.

Lesson 3 - Expect to make mistakes. Be less Jono.

On smashing the application process and the corporate Tough Mudder-like assessment centre, I was given an internship at Leonard Cheshire itself.

I like to think they insisted on keeping all the best interns to themselves. However, they’d probably tell you that it was to minimise the risk of letting me, a self-described Norwich Bruce Wayne, out into the real world.

It turned out to be a wise decision. No sooner had they asked me to set up a blog and document my experiences on the programme, I was asked to take it down due to its risqué vibe. 

I’d made the mistake of combining my own interests and sense of humour with that of professional development. In one of the blog posts, titled ‘Make Interning Great Again’, I made parallels between the art of networking and allegations that Donald Trump had attempted to collude with foreign countries to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

On taking the post down, I quickly reflected on the incident and concluded that I needed to be less Jono, and more Office Jon.

Lesson 4 - Keep Swimming

Three months passed and I loved every minute of my internship – I can’t recommend the programme enough. On coming to the end, networking once again blessed me with a seamless transition into a new role.

I’ve been at this role for a couple of months now, and the lessons learnt from sport and interning are still very much part of my day-to-day practice. For example, goal setting.

I regularly collect job descriptions for more senior roles to align my willingness to take on extra responsibilities with the experiences that will put me in better stead to advance my career.

Closing thoughts

The intention of this article was never to provide you with a proven formula for a long and successful career. That would be a waste of my time and more importantly, a waste of yours. My hope is that in reading this, you’ll start to think more about finding a way to maximise the resources available to you now and make every effort to hit the ground running when it comes to the day you decide to hang up your trotters.

Slalom Inspires
By Eilidh Gibson

Who am I?

I am a 24-year-old canoe slalom athlete on the British Canoeing World Class Programme. I have competed for GBR at Junior, U23 and Senior international levels since 2012. This is who I am… or so was the rhetoric in my mind until injury took that away. Why is it that, despite all we are as athletes, we sometimes struggle to define our identities as more than what we do? Our “self” is centred around being an athlete. As soon as something disrupts our ability to be an athlete, our whole identity can come into question. If you’re injured and unable to canoe every day, who are you then?

Let’s start at the beginning. I was brought up on the river; my parents, who met through canoeing, took my brother and I out in their boats before we could walk. From as early as I can remember, canoeing was part of my life. At first, it came in second place to my main sport, swimming. However, around the age of 13, I started to fall out of love with swimming and in love with being with friends on the river. I realised that playing in the waves is one of the best feelings in the world.

Over the next few years, I progressed through the Scottish regional, development and performance squads, then Junior, U23 and Senior GB teams. At 18, I found myself on the Senior British Team for the first time and about to start studying biomedical sciences at the University of Edinburgh. For the next four years, I battled through an intense degree 400 miles from my coach and the British Canoeing base in London. Those four years consisted of stress, laughter, tears, sleep deprivation, making life-long friends and cramming as many biological facts into my brain as possible. Finally, I found myself finishing my exams and graduating, fancy gown and all.

What should have been an exciting time quickly became difficult. The cause of some long-term shoulder pain I’d had was uncovered, proving to be much worse than expected. I was going to have to take six months off the water to rehabilitate. I suddenly found myself going from being ready to take on the world to having an abundance of free time and feeling at a loss.

Then a little idea changed my life. I’ve always had a passion for females in sport and my newfound free time gave me an incentive to do something about it. I decided to run an event for the girls of canoe slalom. In November 2018, we had 60 girls from all over the UK come to the Olympic canoeing course at Lee Valley. It was a weekend of girls-only canoeing sessions, hilarious team-building activities, inspiring talks, parent discussion workshops and a general celebration of the love of canoeing. The weekend was supposed to be a one-off, but the response was overwhelming; I’d never experienced so much positivity. Everyone, from the girls and their parents to the volunteers, were open minded to new ideas, new experiences and making new friends. It was clear we had initiated a conversation that needed continuing so Slalom Inspires was born.

In 2019, we ran four events; three regional, in each home nation for the younger girls, and another national event at Lee Valley. Overall, we had 50 volunteers, 100 attendees and many incredible speakers from Stacey Copeland (Commonwealth Boxing Champion and founder of Pave the Way) to Katherine Grainger (GB’s most successful female Olympian and Chair of UK Sport). We’re creating a worldwide community on social media and a strong sense of belonging for the girls in the UK, from our eight-year-olds at the regional weekends to girls on the GB team heading to Tokyo. This year we’re going bigger and better! Another four events, chances to volunteer at the European Championships and opportunities to undergo coaching qualifications.

I do sometimes feel I'm living in a paradox. I started Slalom Inspires with a deep love for canoeing but, as it progressed and reached wider audiences, my journey with injury was getting more challenging. The last few years have involved two surgeries, missing the Senior GB team twice, losing my Tokyo 2020 dreams, many hours of rehab and daily shoulder pain. I’d be lying if I said I have had an unwavering love for my sport. Currently I feel hurt by canoeing and angry that it has given me so much upset. I struggle to engage in watching competitions as I am scared I'll never be able to compete again and realise my dreams. Mostly though, I’m overcome with fear that I’ll never be able to canoe again pain-free. How can I run an organisation about promoting a love for canoeing and encourage girls into the sport when I don't know if I can love it myself?

It was Etienne Stott, 2012 Olympic champion, who gave me the wisdom to understand this paradox. He asked why I started Slalom Inspires and if becoming an Olympian was the main aim of sport. Slalom Inspires has allowed me to see more clearly that the answer is “Of course not!”. The whole premise of the organisation is to celebrate the love of canoeing and what this incredible sport can give you. It changes lives. It develops friendships, gives life experiences, includes travel to incredible places, builds self-confidence and celebrates a love of the outdoors. If I can see how much of an impact canoeing has on the lives of the girls I speak to, regardless of results, can I look in the mirror and realise it for myself?

Slalom Inspires has, at times, been my saviour. Running it and being a role model for girls has given me a purpose; a deeper understanding of my relationship with my sport and what my “why” is. It’s helped me understand that I must define myself as who I am and what I believe in, not what I do.

So, I’ll ask again, who am I?

I’m a fierce daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, a grateful role model, a proud Scot, a ceilidh lover, a chocolate enthusiast, someone who values kindness, integrity, hilarity and someone who is passionate about making a difference to a world that is bigger than myself. I am, like most others, just a person trying to navigate the world in the best way I know how with the help of the people I hold dearest.

Social Media
Instagram - @eilidhgibb, @slalominspires
Facebook - @slalominspires
Twitter - @eilidhgibson4, @slalominspires
Website - www.slalominspires.com

The Rough With the Smooth
By Helen Lucas

Since I was six years old, my dream was to compete at an Olympic Games. Sailing was not the obvious choice; I would sit terrified in my parents’ boat at the age of eight, and it wasn’t until I was 11 that I developed a passion for the sport and realised I had a talent for it. I’m in the unusual position of having sailed in both Olympic and Paralympic campaigns; I sailed the Olympic 470 class from 1997, then moved into the Paralympic 2.4mR in 2004 before making my Paralympic Games debut at Beijing 2008.

After winning gold in London, I think many people were surprised I didn’t retire straight away. I stuck it out because I wanted to defend my title in Rio, but also because I had no idea what I would do if I stopped. In the intervening years, I tried to start thinking about the future and planning for life after sport, but I found this very hard; I was so focused on trying to win medals that I felt I had no time to gain qualifications or organise work experience. In hindsight, the best time for this would have been in 2013, and my coach was encouraging me to take some time out. But I was under pressure from my team manager to keep training, racing and getting results. Although it’s getting better, I think there needs to be more support for athletes who want to take time away from sport to pursue interests, qualifications and opportunities which may help their future career.

In Rio, I won bronze and after the Games, hung up my kit for good. I assumed that opportunities would come flooding in, but by January 2017, I realised this was not the case - I was going to have to put myself out there and make something happen. Retiring and starting a new career has not been easy for me; in fact, it’s been far harder than I expected.

I have a BEng Hons degree in yacht and power craft design but having only worked in the industry for two years some twenty years ago, thought it unlikely I would get a job in that field. The one thing I knew I didn’t want to do was sit behind a desk but the question was, what did I want to do?

Since retiring, I’ve found it hard to manage my expectations. As a medallist, you’re surrounded by people telling you you’re amazing and you possess qualities that most companies will desire regardless of your experience. You’re led to believe everyone will be knocking on your door offering you jobs because of your medals. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Another thing I’ve experienced is people assuming that as an elite athlete, you’ve made lots of money through sponsorship deals, endorsements and a high salary, so you don’t need to work. They also assume that because of this, you’ll give talks or do appearances for free, which can be rather awkward. I found myself initially getting caught up in this, which probably helped my profile but certainly not my bank balance! Now, at the beginning of an enquiry, I will state what my fee is to avoid any misunderstandings.

Post-retirement, I was fortunate to discover quite quickly what I enjoyed doing, which is coaching, motivational speaking, writing technical articles and professional yacht racing. However, it’s hard work to make a career of all this; it’s slowly building, but I still have a long way to go. I’m lucky that my husband has been supportive and given me sound advice, like the fact it can take at least three years to build a business (and that most people give up in the first year!). It’s exactly three years since I started putting myself out there and I’m not close to giving up yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thought about quitting to get a “proper job”, but the resilience we possess as athletes has kept me going.

My dream would be to get into commentary and presenting, but even with the great contacts I have in the industry, I’ve not managed to get a foot in the door yet. I think perhaps there’s not enough advice or support out there for athletes wanting a career in media.

The hardest times for me are when I’m not busy and have no work in the pipeline. I’ve certainly felt down during these times and struggle with having no direction. When I was sailing, I’d wake up with a plan each day around when to eat, sleep and train. It’s hard now to wake up every day wondering what to do, desperate to be working and earning money. I’m not used to filling my day with chores and going to the gym! I know it can be easy for athletes to fall into depression during times like this and I believe I would have too if it wasn’t for the support of my husband. He has always told me not to give up, that something will happen and to be patient.

The advice I would give to athletes who are still competing is no matter how busy you are, try to find time to plan for your future. Start building a network of useful contacts whilst you’re competing and if you can find time to study and get qualifications, this will help fast track you when you retire. Attend any Athletes Future Network events and workshops that you can and take advantage of the help that is out there for you. The events are a great opportunity to find out about possible careers, make useful contacts and gain really good advice.

If my experience and advice can help even just one of my fellow athletes, that would be amazing. Just remember that when you do retire, be prepared to put yourself out there; you have to create opportunities for yourself, not wait for them to come knocking at your door.  It can feel exhausting at times but keep going and don’t give up.

Moving On From Sport
By Kelly Massey

Retirement! Not a word many people would associate with themselves in their early 30s. But retire is what I did and what every elite athlete will inevitable have to do at some point. It’s often something we don’t like to consider - a taboo topic of conversation. However, more light is being cast upon retirement as athletes share their stories and various organisations, including our National Governing Bodies, ask us “What job do you want?”; “What course do you want to do?”; and “How can we up-skill you?” These are hard questions to answer when you’re trying to be one of the best in your sport but they’re even harder to answer when your sport has just been taken away from you.

I was a full-time PE teacher for the majority of my athletics career. This could be considered an advantage in preparing me for life after sport, or perhaps a disadvantage to fit it in whilst I was still training. It was only during the final two years of my athletics career, when I was on Lottery funding, that I was able to concentrate 100% on being an athlete.

My last 400m race was for my club, Sale Harriers, at a UK Women’s League and it wasn’t until six months later I announced I’d retired. During that time, I had four weeks off, was loving life and doing things I couldn’t do as an athlete. But after the break, that’s when it hit me: “What the **** am I going to do now?!”

I did love teaching but felt like returning to it would be taking a step backwards. All the emotions and feelings you hear associated with retirement from sport, I had. Regret, confusion, anxiety, anger, sadness… but loss was the biggest and most consistent feeling; I felt like I had lost who I was. In the five months leading up to my announcement, I was still training as if I was an athlete, mainly because it was the only thing that got me out of bed and out of the house most days. I trained on my own during this time as I felt I needed to disassociate myself from my squad and my coach and it wasn’t until I announced my retirement (via a cheesy Twitter montage) that I started going back to training with other people.

A few months prior to being taken off funding I began to build up some self-employed work in preparation. This work included mentoring others, guest speaking and coaching, using all the skills and knowledge I’d gained as an athlete. Talking about what you’ve done, but are never going to do again, and constantly being asked whether you’re going to the next Olympics, takes its toll. I did this for a year or so, but I was getting to the point where I needed to enter the “real world” and find something more sustainable.

I’d never had a permanent job as I only ever covered maternity leave when teaching PE. If I’m honest, the thought of a permanent job completely freaked me out! How would I fit in training? (Yes, even though I had retired I was still prioritising that!) I think I applied for one permanent job in a school but then withdrew because I just couldn’t face it. Then, by chance, I was asked to apply for a maternity position at Liverpool John Moores, my old university. The year before, I’d delivered a talk there and joked with my old scholar manager that I was going to come back and work there one day. After applying, I panicked and overthought everything, which was pretty standard for me. So when I found out I’d been successful, I was beyond surprised! And panicked a little more. After a year of imposter syndrome and feeling like I’d jumped in at the deep end with a brick attached to my feet, I really enjoyed the new challenge and trying to be the best at something other than running.

I managed to find a balance where training would still fit into my life; I could still maintain the level of fitness I wanted (and also the figure! I’ve said it a million times before, but who am I without my abs?!). My position became permanent and I even put together a research project around physical activity in children to start my PhD.

I can’t say I don’t experience negative feelings anymore, because I do, and probably always will. But they come in smaller doses now and I’ve accepted that.

I mentioned before that athletes are now more open about sharing their retirement stories and I find it interesting hearing how every journey is different, yet there are many common themes. This ignited a desire in me to change the PhD topic I’d chosen; I wanted to focus on something I found fascinating, had been through myself and I wanted my work to have a purpose. I want to use the stories, knowledge, understanding and experiences that athletes have to support others. We are not defined by the medals we’ve won, the courses we’ve taken or the job we have. There is more to you than that and there is more to transition from sport. Who better to pave the way and highlight effective support tools for transition from elite sport than those who have been there, done that and got the GB t-shirt?

To this end, I would love to hear from any former elite athlete to get their input into this research. If you’re interested in playing a part or would like to find out more, please click on this link. If you’re currently considering transitioning out of your sport and would like to share your journey as it’s happening, drop me an email (k.l.massey@ljmu.ac.uk). Everything is confidential and you’ll remain anonymous at all times. You can also decide it’s not for you at any point in time. Thank you in advance.

Life on the Other Side
By Kate Macgregor

Injury isn’t how I thought my Olympic sailing career would end. Being forced to stop was hard - really hard. After the World Championships in 2017, I didn’t think I’d be out of action for the following nine months after treatment for an ongoing injury. During this time, I was desperate to get back on the water. I kept trying but my ‘Return to Sail’ programme wasn’t going to plan. The injury didn’t seem to be improving and my chances of competing in Tokyo were slipping away. With time ticking, my partner made the decision to move on with her campaign. Whilst potential new talent was coming through the system, there wasn’t enough time to develop as a new team whilst also trying to get back into a boat with an injury. Ultimately, I had to make the decision to call time on things.

During the first few months of retirement, I was able to coach the 49erFX Olympic Development Squad. I enjoyed this more than expected, and loved mentoring upcoming talent. I was, however, nervous about going to events where I would see my previous competitors. I had concerns over what my reactions would be, seeing the world I’d left behind.

Whilst coaching, I was applying for jobs outside of sailing. I’d always been keen to experience the events industry and had done some work whilst still competing. Through this, I’d made contacts and created opportunities for my post-sailing career, whilst also earning money to pay for sailing equipment.

After a year of coaching, I let my contacts know I was ready to work if a suitable job came up. I also made full use of LinkedIn and recognised its importance in the events industry. A friend pointed me in the direction of an advert for the Netball World Cup Venue Operations Project Manager for which I applied and was invited to an interview. My Performance Lifestyle Advisor Jack Grundy was great in helping me prepare for this. I knew I had logistic and time-management skills from running Olympic campaigns but had to ensure my transferable skills came across to the interview panel. I talked to various people from many different fields in preparation for the interview and thankfully, this all paid off as I was successful!

To be part of a world class female event was a huge privilege and working on something I’m so passionate about was amazing as my first job ‘on the other side’. I was lucky that the World Cup team were like-minded people who wanted to pull together, working towards a common goal. Netball was in the spotlight after the England team won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games so we had to put on a show to inspire families all around the world, and I’m pleased to say it was a success. It was an intense seven months, with plenty of long days and working weekends. Due to the nature of my role, the longest days were in the immediate lead up to the event. The step count was high and my steel toe capped boots gave me a constant leg workout, but I loved the logistics involved. The most bizarre part was that my ‘downtime’ was during the event itself, as everything was underway by this point. After a busy few weeks, being able to sit down was hard as the tiredness had caught up with me!

After netball, I was invited to work in Abu Dhabi for the 48th UAE National Day. The Head of Operations for netball was also the Head of Operations in Abu Dhabi and needed managers in her team. This was an invaluable experience and perfect timing, just a few weeks after the netball had finished. Being part of Betty Productions (the company responsible for putting together the London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies) was incredible. As an athlete, you don’t think about behind the scenes work that goes into ceremonies. Working in this area was an eye opener, especially in another country and culture. I felt fortunate to have been invited to work on one of the largest National Day ceremonies in the world.

One area I didn’t really think about before entering the events industry is the time I would spend away from home. Seven months based in Loughborough and then nearly four in Abu Dhabi went quickly, but I was ready for some time back home in Dorset. I love to travel and enjoy working away, but after sailing, I wanted to minimise the time I spent living out of a suitcase. If you’re lucky enough to live in a location that hosts lots of sporting events, you’re onto a winner but unfortunately, I don’t. This is making it hard for me to decide on my next project; do I find something completely different and live in my own home, or carry on living out of a bag?

Overall, I think I’ve been lucky in my first year post-sport, being in the right place at the right time. For now, I’ve gone back to non-Olympic sailing for some extra work whilst looking for my next project. If contracting is for you, as it is for me, just remember to always be on the lookout for your next project. This may seem daunting but at the same time, can be super exciting.

If I’ve learnt anything from my transition experience, then these are the most important things:

MY TOP TIPS

- An important thing for athletes to do whilst still training is network. This will undoubtedly make your transition easier.
- Be prepared to be rejected. Many companies love the idea of having an Olympian/Paralympian or professional sportsperson in their team but it can be hard for the outside world to understand what it means to be an athlete.
- Do your research and practise interviews. You may be confident in front of a camera but putting yourself out of your comfort zone (in an outfit that doesn’t involve wearing trainers!) can be scary. If you’re prepared, the interview process is a lot more enjoyable.
- If you aren’t sure what to do straight away, keep busy. Don’t be afraid to do work experience to see what’s out there. The worst thing for me was having time to think about the “what ifs” around sailing.
- Use your Performance Lifestyle Advisors! It’s easy for athletes to think they aren’t dedicated enough to sport if they start talking about a future career, but having a meeting with your PL definitely doesn’t mean that. You never know what’s around the corner and a backup plan is always useful.

The UNLOCKED Programme
By Claire Bennett, Director of Programmes, Women's Sport Trust

In January 2020, the Women’s Sport Trust (WST) launched UNLOCKED, a campaign which brings together 41 female athletes, who all want to be leaders within and beyond their sports. The charity is helping these athletes to up their game through this one of a kind programme, which provides coaching in a variety of areas from personal branding, social media training and working with sponsors. It aims to help athletes understand how to use their influence as a role model and focus on the areas of women’s sport they want to change. To help them, WST has mobilised a powerful group of ‘activators’, made up of leading figures from sport, business and the media. The activators are all at the top of their game and keen to use their expertise, not only to help the athletes achieve their personal goals but work together to understand the issues that are affecting sportswomen and how we can overcome them.

Individually and collectively, the athletes are challenging and supporting each other to unlock media platforms, pitch to investors, speak out on live issues, tell new stories, get into boardrooms and break down assumptions. Together they will play an important role in shaping the future of women’s sport.

Athletes taking part in UNLOCKED have been recruited from 24 sports with a focus on championing diversity and those who want to make a difference. Sportswomen in this inaugural group include Lucy Adams (champion UK skateboarder and Chair of Skateboard UK); footballer Karen Bardsley (the current longest serving Lioness in the England squad); Alice Dearing (only the second black woman to compete for Britain in swimming and a World Junior Marathon champion); Asma Elbadawi (a basketball coach who helped overturn the ban on wearing a hijab in her sport); and Alice Powell from motorsport, who was the youngest driver, male or female, to win a Formula Renault race in the UK.

Stacey Copeland, the first ever British woman to win a Commonwealth title in boxing, is also part of the group. She says: "Taking part in the campaign has enabled me to collaborate with other athletes and their projects. This has strengthened our positions and allowed us to support each other using our voices and platforms to bring about change. It’s also given me the opportunity to meet Baroness Sue Campbell, my activator, who I've always felt is a hero in sport. It’s been the catalyst for me to take the next steps with my charity Pave the Way.”

The campaign has already had huge success, with many athletes raising their profiles and utilising their influence to achieve personal goals outside of their sport. Naomi Obgeta, triple jumper and five-time British Champion, said: “I’m so grateful to be part of UNLOCKED. I’ve always been passionate about media so was delighted to be paired with Alex Trickett, who’s been working in the sports media industry for years. I’m able to ask him questions and obtain career advice and he’s given me access to a network of people I otherwise wouldn't have been able to connect with.”

Rachel Choong, a para-badminton player who made history by achieving 10 World Championship golds, said: “I was lucky to be matched with Emma Mitchell, EIS Performance Lifestyle Advisor for GB Hockey. She’s helped me write a CV so I can target broadcasting/production companies in the hope I'll be employed to do commentary work at the Toyko Paralympics. Emma has helped me understand this side of the industry and outline the other goals I have to help the progression of women's sport.”

Emma herself is equally as positive about the pairing: “As Rachel’s activator, I’ve been inspired and excited by her drive to make a difference. She wants to help para-badminton reach a wider audience and encourage participation in sport amongst girls and young women, to break down barriers so that people from all ethnic backgrounds can participate. UNLOCKED is a cleverly targeted initiative, matching athletes who really want to make a difference with individuals from business, sport and the media. The energy in the room when the activators met and opened their envelopes to discover their athlete was wonderful; a mix of anticipation, excitement and creative energy which can only point towards positive change!”

If you would like to express an interest in being part of next year’s UNLOCKED campaign, please get in touch with Claire Bennett, Director of Programmes at the Women’s Sport Trust (clairebennett@womenssporttrust.com).

 

Funding Partners
  • DCMS
  • TNL partners
Official Partners
  • BAES logo
  • BUPA
  • IHG logo
Strategic Partners
  • British Olympic Association
  • Paralympics GB
  • Sport England
  • Sport Northern Ireland
  • Sport Wales
  • Sport Scotland