Back in October 2019 I was asked to speak at an event for British Cycling on the subject of nurturing elite talent from a dual career perspective. The event in April 2020, seemed a very long way off when, along with the communications team at British Cycling, I started formulating the content of the presentation. None of us could have imagined the circumstances we’d be in when it became time to deliver the messages.
As we navigate a rather uncertain and anxious time, I wanted to share the presentation and my thoughts on how the importance of dual career opportunities might become even more relevant as we resume elite sports programmes and look to create a sustainable model for investing in sporting talent in the future. Here’s a run through of the presentation slides and what I delivered in my speech.
“The traditional approach of nurturing elite talent usually focuses solely on the athletic success of a person and doesn’t always look at the chance to develop a person more holistically.
There’s perhaps a fear that if we create what could potentially be seen as distractions then the eye comes off the ball with regards to sports performance, but I think we can start off by looking at the talent we have more broadly and without confining our view to what they might do only in their athletic career.
By providing our young sporting hopefuls with a broad view of how what they are learning is relevant even beyond a performance environment we can set them up for finding their inspiration for an alternative career in sport, or a career beyond sport, so they are even more prepared for what life may look like after they have finished competing and they are even more capable of seeing their value.
The investment into an athlete at any stage of their career could be viewed as a strategy that will pay dividends further down the line because what they learn whilst exploring their physical limits will give them a unique insight throughout their life.”
“I often look to my own career to find the examples that back this idea because although it wasn’t necessarily a structured strategy, I have been fortunate to meet people throughout my career who have independently given me opportunities to develop skills alongside my sporting endeavours.
My path to accepting the role of Active Travel Commissioner in the Sheffield City Region was a development from right back in 1992 when I was mentored during my 1st Games by Tanni Grey-Thompson and Chris Holmes. From the beginning, I was always encouraged to volunteer and give back to sport and the various experiences I have had as a volunteer have also shaped my abilities further down the line. In 1993 I met the incredible former Karate World Champion, Geoff Thompson, who said he saw a spark in my ability to present and speak and then engineered as many opportunities as he could to nurture my public speaking.
All this was without formal media training being available [now there is great support via Performance Lifestyle support through the EIS in England]. With the confidence I’d learned through Geoff I sought my own path to study at University and beyond the support of speaker agencies to discover new opportunities.
The build up to a Home Games in 2012 provided opportunities to develop further and learning how to deliver messages that sought to provide business with lessons from sport in a coherent way, so they could develop their corporate strategy, became the next step in my journey.
In 2013 British Cycling launched their women’s We Ride strategy and this provided an opportunity for me to be involved and to connect my sporting success with a call to action for other women. Developing an empathic style of delivering messages for a wide grassroots audience was another new skill and led to an opportunity to start talking at a more strategic level with policy advocacy work at British Cycling alongside policy adviser, Chris Boardman.
My route through volunteering to fronting a variety of campaigns is a path that can be replicated to match the skill set of any athlete, to assist and steer them towards a post competition career that draws on their strengths and allows them to develop their weaknesses.
I’ve also witnessed this for other careers and as a swimmer enjoyed learning from our Team Doctor who nurtured those with an interest in sports medicine and sports injuries. He would go in to greater depth when he had time and was treating those who wanted to learn more. I was always very interested and perhaps it could have led to an alternative career for me, but it had a huge impact on one of my team mates, who was also enthralled by what he was learning and is now a the head physio for a national team.
It just goes to show how understanding what an athlete wants to know and understand, can genuinely inspire them to a future career. Athletes will take their inspiration from the experiences they have, so it’s vital everyone who works with them is aware of the positive impact they can have on their future.
“At every level of sport, a variety of opportunities can be explored to maximise chances for all athletes to look at the breadth of the environment in which they are competing and trying to progress. Nurturing talent to understand the decisions being made about them and for their careers, so that we don’t have situations where athletes go on to study after their career and then say they wish they’d had this knowledge whilst they were competing.
NGB’s, sports teams and other providers of competitive opportunity to aspiring athletes can play a role in educating athletes as to their environment. This could be clarifying the reasons and strategies for a decision so athletes develop their own ability to lead, enabling discussions or framing requests and plans to ensure the individual sees the value of that opportunity in opening other doors in the future. For example, media training isn’t just an ability to answer the questions of a journalist and learning how to develop a nutrition plan isn’t just about eating what you are told, but understanding how to make good decisions. An experience in sport will trigger a passion for something that isn’t just competition, so everyone an athlete comes in to contact with has the potential to inspire them in to a future role.
The it comes to assessing the impact of a career in sport, the focus is often on the highest profile athletes and where they have taken their career after they leave the top of the podium. This approach means we miss an opportunity to acknowledge the vital investment we have made in all athletes to learn from their sport, be that at grassroots or right the way through a formal programme. Those who have not quite made the selection for the biggest events still retain the knowledge and understanding they have experienced and been exposed to. We need to recognise that value is never lost.”
“As well as acknowledging that we all play a part in inspiring a young athlete into their career beyond sport, we need a conscious pledge from everyone to stop genderising certain roles in sport so that our children stop thinking certain roles are off limits because “that’s a job the boys do”.
Normalising the role of women in all roles is vital, rather than pointing out when it’s an exception and then focusing on the reasons why it is an exception. We need to focus on the work ethic and success of the person in that role to make it about how they are doing the job well, rather than that they are doing it against the odds.
It is also vital to provide female role models for our future leaders to ensure that we lose the issue of “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. We don’t treat women’s sport equally when we refer to the women’s version of an event as The Women’s XXX, but then when it comes to the male equivalent the event title doesn’t feature the gender category. Football started to remove the women’s clarification from the title of their teams and it is vital other sports follow suit.
Everyone in the media has a duty to ensure that if they are writing or talking about a female athlete or female coach/member of the support team, they ask whether it would be acceptable to refer to a male athlete/member of staff in the same way, or in the same context.
Given our recent experience of utilising technology to continue to work whilst social distancing is required, we may now have an opportunity to see where these technologies could assist in certain sporting roles when family life may mean that someone can’t be there in person. Our flexibility to work during lockdown has also opened up many discussions around working remotely across many different roles, so it would be great to see whether this can now be translated in to addressing the gender gap that still remains in sport as women assume they can’t fulfil certain roles that requires a lot of travel because they are still needed at home with a young family.”
“The 10th anniversary of the London Games is fast approaching and the sporting landscape is vastly different now to the way it was then. Many NGB’s have achieved targets set after those Games [eg. British Cycling and We Ride, to get one million women on bikes by 2020], so we need to write our most sustainable model of sports funding investment we have ever written. Health and well-being is our biggest focus in this unprecedented situation with COVID-19 and it’s never been more important to ensure we fund sport and broaden our understanding of the comprehensive nature of what that sports funding is investing in.
- In the short term we are funding elite sportspeople to inspire and excite a nation.
- In the medium term it is an investment in human beings who will become multi-skilled through the unique experience of elite sport pathways
- In the long term it creates a society-wide benefit from being able to mould future leaders and embed the work ethic and resilience of sports performance in to the people who can contribute to society far beyond the privilege of wearing a GB vest.
Now is our time to develop this strategy, to acknowledge the sense of duty that is so highly developed in athletes and the long-lasting contributions our sporting alumni can therefore make. Right now we have ex-athletes who are working on the frontline, we have former athletes turning their engineering company to the task of making ventilators and we have others pulling together strategies to support those who are struggling to comprehend how they’ll get through each day. British sport has been one of the best funded in the world for many years, but the true benefit of that funding is usually never calculated.
Now is the time we can apply this 3 pillar strategy, to measure the success of our funded pathways, to join up the relevance of elite sport to the whole of society and to celebrate the success of every athlete who sought to produce their very best performance in their childhood dream of being an athlete.
Whilst only a fraction will make the top of the podium at an Olympic or Paralympic Games, every single athlete the nation has ever funded will have developed life long skills that we as a nation can benefit from, and that is a legacy that really can’t be ignored.
Image via www.swpix.com
Slides in conjunction with British Cycling