Preparing for the Inevitable
Double Olympic Champion, Helen Glover MBE, was an athlete that I had the pleasure of working with on her journey to the top of the ultimate podium. She is taking time out from sport at the moment, and has recently presented a series of Radio 4 programmes about athletes and their journey out of competitive sport and into the next phase of their lives. In the first episode, Helen talked to Dame Kelly Holmes about her life after sport.
Helen talked about her identity as an athlete, and how simple it was to explain to people what she did. But now, although she is busy with public speaking and various amazing adventures with husband, Steve Backshall, she described feeling like 'a bit of a fraud' when she tried to explain this to people, and an overwhelming feeling of losing that simple and impressive identity of 'athlete'.
Dame Kelly Holmes, who has openly discussed her challenges with mental health, particularly depression, after retiring from sport, described having no clue who she was anymore. And even after twelve years of retirement, she has only just come to terms with who she needs to be. Both women are candid and honest about what a huge challenge it is for athletes to transition out of sport and into the next phase of their lives.
Yet these two athletes were at the absolute pinnacle of their careers and their sporting dreams literally came true. What must it be like for athletes that have similar dreams, but for whatever reason they don't come true and that same transition out of sport has to happen, but without the elation of having succeeded in sport first.
One of my roles outside High Performance Parenting is as an associate for the organisation Switch the Play https://switchtheplay.com . It's an organisation that specialises in supporting athletes through transition and is very mindful, not only of amazing role models like Helen and Kelly, but also supporting the forgotten majority. At a recent Associates Away Day with Switch the Play, I was very struck by the following information. Athletes of all ages, across all sports are obviously struggling with the notion of transition, whatever their reason for stopping sport, and whatever field they are trying to move into, it's hard.
As a parents, if you have got an ambitious young athlete in your household who is dreaming big and putting all their eggs in the sports basket, how can you guard against your child becoming one of these statistics in the future?
Dream big, but always have a plan B – at HPP we love the big dream. Ambition and goals are wonderful things to have and can really drive young people to be active and develop a great work ethic. But it's really important to acknowledge that sport can be fragile, and a career ending injury could be just around the corner. So stick at education, think about possible alternatives to sport as a life choice and have that on the back burner.
Do sport for fun – It's great to want to be a champion and win the big competitions, but ultimately, sport should be done for fun. It will never be 100% fun all the time, but the overriding driver should be enjoyment. So as a parent try not to develop a language and culture of outcomes in your household, but engage more with the day to day processes and the enjoyment being derived from that. What does this mean? I guess it means at the end of a competition day, have a conversation with your child about whether they enjoyed it and how much fun it was, rather than whether they won or lost. That way, if and when their sporting career comes to an end, the journey has been enjoyable whether they have won the ultimate prize or not.
Accept the rollercoaster – We often only see the podium moments of our sporting role models, but all athletes are on a rollercoaster of amazing highs and devastating lows, even the likes of Helen Glover and Dame Kelly Holmes. Accepting and expecting this as a parent can help to prepare you for the difficult times. Sending a message to your child that this is all part of the process and that the very best of athletes (and people) are the ones that face the devastating lows with courage and resilience, try to learn as much as possible from the bad days and look for ways to get themselves from the lows back up to the highs.
Ask for help – And lastly, as this is mental health awareness week, don't be afraid to ask for help. You can't possibly be an expert in everything, so if you are unsure about how to support your young athlete, seek out reliable help and support. This is also a great example to set to your child, that sometimes we all need a bit of help. If you are worried about how your child is getting on, your first port of call would be to communicate this with their coach / club / school who will all have strategies to support young athletes. And in terms of transition out of sport, Switch the Play have a whole host of services to support athletes in their transition out of competitive sport.