How to be a Real Person

Retiring at age 27 is a very strange concept, especially when my current job is the only one I’ve ever really known. As an elite athlete, every decision you make—eating the last cupcake, drinking a milkshake, climbing a flight of stairs, or running through the rain—everything we do is subconsciously analysed and organised in relation to the consequences on our bodies and the subsequent impact on training or performance.

Since I was a tiny tot on my first British Swimming ‘Smart-track’ programme (identifying kids with notable talent and providing considerable opportunities to develop this talent), it has been drummed into me to make the ‘right choices’. This involves the obvious: training hard, focus, determination and dedication—qualities that act as the nucleus of the sporting world atom, driving an athlete forward and determining their outcome and success. It also involves the slightly less important electrons, whizzing around with less force but still consequential to the overall movement of the atom. These are areas such as correct nutrition, psychology, strength and conditioning, as well as injury prevention strategies, and of course perfecting the art of napping.

All of this, when done correctly, equates to the perfect athlete. I know how to push my body past the point of pain and into the realms of self-inflicted torture. I know how to lift a dumbbell in a way that will benefit my backstroke catch phase but will avoid irritating the muscles in the front my shoulder, muscles that have daily tantrums in objection to my continuous paddling. I know how to avoid eating butter, or McDonalds, or at least how to feel ample guilt if I do indulge and commit a culinary sin. I know that for the majority of the year the only alcohol I see will be contained in a tiny bottle and used to sanitise my hands after a particularly unpleasant gym session, and also that the ache felt whilst walking up a flight of stairs is not a sign of being unfit, but rather a burning reminder that I spent a good 50% of my last training session kicking underwater. I’ve spent years looking for those marginal gains, that 0.01 of a second that differentiates me from my competitors.

And now it’s time for me to open a new chapter of the book, one that (hopefully) involves slightly less wet hair and slightly more gin and tonics. But after knowing this sporting world so well, I’m at a notorious set of crossroads, with signs pointing every way you can imagine, wondering which way to turn. I’ve had a clearly defined, single purpose for so long, and now I have hundreds of diverse options. I’ve represented my country at the Olympic Games, and yet I’ve never had a job interview. The world, quite literally, is my oyster, although I’m hoping that whatever comes next is significantly more exciting than a mouthful of slimy shellfish…

Lots of athletes get into trouble when they leave elite sport, and it’s not too difficult to understand why. After being identified as ‘Lizzie the swimmer’ for so long, I’ve just morphed into ‘Lizzie the normal person’, (I’m kidding myself a little bit there—I don’t think I’ll ever be referred to as normal). But my identity is changing and if, like me, an athlete has often defined themselves by their successes in sport, then it can be difficult to surrender their hard-won identity in the search for a new one.

Despite challenging funding allowances, there is progressive work being done by sporting organisations to help current professional athletes construct an identity that centres around their human qualities, as opposed to their sporting statistics. The English Institute of Sport (plus their Scottish and Welsh counterparts) have Performance Lifestyle Managers who are at the forefront of personalised athlete development; on site to assist and direct with a huge range of educational and vocational pursuits. During my time within the system these advisors were invaluable to me—from helping me gain an education in the early days, to advice on setting up a business in more recent times. It’s also great to see nationwide ‘Athlete Futures’ events (run by both UK Sport and EIS staff members) being held. These are exclusive events that offer workshops and career development seminars, and act as a unique opportunity for current and ex athletes to connect and network with a range of potential employers from different industries.

A significant challenge for UK Sport and the EIS is changing the stigma around preparing for transition—traditionally it has been seen as a distraction from sporting focus to think about the future whilst still competing, whereas the reality is that proactive preparation can actually alleviate sporting stresses and be greatly beneficial to the wellbeing of an athlete. Cultural shifts take time to evolve but I know that the athletes who utilise the current support benefit greatly from the efforts being made.

Despite this invaluable attention from sporting organisations, athlete transition remains a bit of a grey area, essentially because it requires support and investment to be given to an athlete after they have left the performance world (and are no longer contributing to team rankings or medal counts). It can be especially difficult for athletes who are not on a funded World Class Pathway at the end of their careers, as they don’t have the same access to the 6-month ‘shoulder’ period of support that athletes within the performance system will be offered. I am one of these athletes outside the system, although I’ve built up a great relationship with both of the PL advisors I’ve worked with, so they won’t be getting rid of me that easily…

I was relatively prepared for my own retirement from sport and I’d been considering different options for a couple years, but it’s very hard to adequately prepare for the reality of life without an unyielding training routine. In some respects, parallels can be drawn between being an elite athlete and serving in the military. The stakes are obviously very different, and I don’t mean to imply that spinning my arms backwards matches risking life and limb for your country. But the regimented lifestyle is very similar: instructions on when we will and won’t be training, what time we must get up, when we can and can’t take time off; weekly, monthly, yearly. What we should and shouldn’t eat. Everyday our focus is undivided, the motivation for the task is clear, the application is absolute and indisputable: practise is institutionalised. I’ve been out of the water for around three months now and it’s still very strange for me to have days that are free! Since the age of 12 I’ve only had a handful of Saturdays that haven’t involved training, and the only bank holiday benefit for us athletes is that the roads are usually a bit quieter on the way to training!

What I do know is that, after hanging up my goggles for good, it’s super weird to hang out with people and not be asked how training is going, and to not have an unyielding exercise routine for 48 weeks of the year. To be able to say yes to a spontaneous holiday or social engagement will be a novelty to say the least! In theory the idea of freedom sounds exciting—in reality it’s all a bit daunting. I can understand why some athletes in this position can find themselves at the edge of a metaphorical cliff and, unfortunately, sometimes at the edge of a real cliff.

So, I’ve decided to start this blog. Partly because it gives me something to do whilst I’m figuring out what to do. Partly because writing will hopefully allow me to process the journey so far, like some kind of cathartic therapy, cleansing the chlorine from me. And lastly because I think it’s important for people (public and other athletes) to know what happens when we leave the elite bubble. There are too many sportsmen and women struggling with the transition, and often a lack of helping hands available to guide them through the rocks and into the harbour of the normal world.

We sacrifice a lot to stand on that podium, beaming with pride, mumbling incoherently about God saving the Queen. We don’t live like the rest of the world, and we often don’t have the same accolades, substituting hours in the library for hours of training. We have a different skillset, excelling in focused goal application, perseverance, commitment to a task, and a tenacious desire to learn and improve. My CV doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s (partly because I dropped it in the pool so it’s a bit soggy), but I’m hoping the unique experiences I’ve had still allow me to thrive in new pursuits.

I hope, as a bi-product of me putting pen to paper, I manage to provide a little insight into the world I’ve been a part of since my teenage years. I’ve been around long enough to have experienced the good, the bad, the ugly, and the often-hilarious sides of this profession. After all, which other job on this planet includes routinely being visited, at your house, at an unspecified time, by someone you don’t know, so they can watch you pee into a pot? Which other jobs can (legally) take away your entire income if you fall over and twist your ankle? Which other pursuit involves a performance of a few seconds, or minutes, every four years, a performance that can determine your entire future. Sport is unique, as are the people who choose to do it for a living.

Being an athlete is an interesting existence and there are not many people who can truly relate, unless they’re also part of that world. Unfortunately, having ‘only’ finished fourth at an Olympics, I’m not quite famous enough to write an autobiography (and get it published), though I’d hope my ponderings show a different perspective—the experience of the 99% of athletes whose story isn’t on the shelves of Waterstones. The guys and gals who are still training hard, still motivated, still putting in the hours, still competing at Olympic Games and World Championships. Who are still tested—for fitness, for fat, for strength, for illicit substances. Who are also the followers of dreams, committing themselves entirely to the pursuit of excellence. We too, will have a life after sport, even if that doesn’t involve doing a Cha Cha on Strictly Come Dancing, or being knighted at Buckingham Palace. We have a story too. Welcome to mine.

21 Comments on “How to be a Real Person

  1. Pingback: 055: Lizzie Simmonds on Transition – Supporting Champions (full width)

  2. Hi Lizzie
    Brliant summary of all that makes elite sportspeople the special individuals that they are. My own transition into retirement culminated in walking away fro. My role as Performance Lifestyle Adviser at the sportscotland institute of sport after 20 years having been involved form the birth of UK Sport and the various national Institutes since 1998. In that time I’ve had the incredible honour of working with many famous and not so famous athletes, some who have gone on to Olympics, Commonwealth Games and to star at Europea and World Championships. Equally I have supported athletes who through injury or personal circumstance have had to leave their competitive career earlier than they did have wished.
    I echo your sentiments entirely when you say that preparing for the day that an athlete’s identity changes from Lizzie the swimmer to Lizzie the normal person is as important if not more so than the sport itself. Those who have made the successful transition have been those athletes and their coaches who have bought into the concept of preparing for life outside the pool/pitch from an early stage.
    I’m sure your blog will be an inspiration to athletes of all disciplines and I wish you well in ‘normality.

  3. Hi Lizzie,

    I grew up as a swimmer. In the past many years people used to know me as: “She is my swimming teacher/coach.” As you wrote, swimming was a huge part of my life until a few years ago.

    Transition into a different existence was painful…literally and in many other ways.

    Part of the transition is really to recognise the many transferable skills one has gained in the long years of disciplined lifestyle.

    Another part of the transition is to take an honest look at: – who I am as a person/character, – what are my interest – what makes me happy – what makes me feel like my life has meaning and purpose – what puts passion in my heart so that I want to get out of bad every morning – what puts ‘anger’ in me and why and how can I use this ‘anger’ to my and others’ benefit

    For anyone out there who is a professional athlete and/or trainer/coach, the opportunities are endless as to how best to use everything a person is and has gained/leant during the many ‘atomic’ years.

    Lizzie, I much enjoyed your blog article. You certainly have a gift in writing! Writing in itself could be used as “cathartic therapy” in one transition to a different life style.

    It could also well be one of many professions an elite sports person could do when they decide to put an end to the ‘atomic’ years.

    I would certainly be happy to read your auto biography when its out in book stores!

    Until then:
    The best is yet to come! 🙂

  4. Hey Lizzie,

    Good luck with the transition!

    Some good advice to pass on that I received around my transition (I was lucky enough to be able to afford to see a counsellor to help with my transition over the five months before retirement and a few months after). She recommended that I use a writing therapy (like I guess this blog will be for you) to explore my feelings, thoughts and reactions to my sporting life, from the early days, through elite competition, successes, failures and so on. The point was to be able to take forward the principles of what had enthralled me with that life, to identify the positives to apply to other strands (work, relationships, new hobbies etc.) and to park the negatives, to name them, reflect on their impact and then leave them behind.

    I found this approach worked very well, both in terms of identity transitioning and translation of skills gained in elite sporting life into “normality”. Simplifying somewhat, I identified a need for performance (which is now filled with concerts for a couple of orchestras), a need for continuous learning/feedback (which I get through work and I’ve done a part-time MA) and sunlight/fresh air (I have two dogs which need walking come rain or shine). I retired in 2011 after a 13/14 year career as an international cricketer.

    With best wishes, Claire

  5. 👏👏👏 I look forward to reading more. #BeyondthePodium

  6. Pingback: Favorite Things : July 14-20, 2018 – Reveries of the Solitary Jogger

  7. Hi Lizzie
    Really enjoyed your blog and all the sudden changes you are experiencing as you hand up your goggles.
    I like the fact you are telling the story for the majority of top class sportspeople who do not hit the top headlines. Important to hear your story.
    Having gone through my own transition from full-time work to nothing and now into Life Coaching in the last 18 months, my advice would be to take your time, don’t rush into commitments, perhaps find a Life Coach to help you discover a new inspiring goal.
    Keep writing!

  8. Lizzie,

    I also write about the pro athlete transition and felt many of the same emotions, feelings, and mystery.

    I write to explore those transitions into startup life, creating a new career, and doing the hard work of self reflection while you suffer to let go.

    Good luck!

    Trevor Huffman

  9. Hi Lizzie this was a really interesting and intriguing read. I think what I took away was that despite the PL support that exists the challenge of moving from one stage to the next is still immense. Having been Head of Performance Sport at Loughborough for 12 years I saw so many athletes facing the challenges you are now facing with many not really coping that well. The UK now seems to have an ‘industry’ springing up around supporting athletes with the career end ‘transition’. I would love to know your thoughts on whether it is helpful to portray the move from one state (swimmer) to another state (non-swimmer) as an end and a beginning or whether it would be more helpful to encourage athletes to see movement through life as all being part of one life-long story that unfolds over time. I am really looking forward to hearing more when you are ready to share.

  10. This was the best blog post I have ever read!! It was so funny but yet serious about an important topic that is very fresh in my mind as a swimmer that hung up her hat and goggles 2 weeks ago. I hope you continue to write more as it would be good to have a role model to follow since there is no defined pathway for beginner swammers and we need to look out for each other. Look forward to reading the next one, good luck and keep busy. x

  11. A lovely read. Thanks for sharing a little bit of your life. I will be sharing this will by 11 year old daughter who dreams of being in Team GB as a swimmer. It is a long way off but with some focus and hard work (and a great role model!) she has a chance.
    Wishing you all the best for the future.

  12. If you love the sport….keep doing it….the masters community would love you and welcome you with open arms.

  13. Lovely first blog Lizzie – as well as learning to float(!) you’ve obviously also got a knack for writing! Looking forward to reading later editions. Hope you’re well!! :0)

  14. Great blog Lizzie, look forward with interest to your transition and the start to the rest of your lift. Best of luck.

  15. Lizzie.
    You sum up the journey of training to transition so well. I am sure your blog will support many people going through the same thing. Having been there & now 4 years post competing retirement, I’d echo so much of what you’ve said. Our sports may be different but our experiences are very similar. Transition isn’t always easy as the struggle to adjust from athlete to ‘normal person’ should be easy – it should be a celebration of G&T & weekends off, but the hardest thing is often just answering strangers questions when they ask you “So, what do you do?”
    I’m in a great place now & I wish you loads of luck for the future. I will be following your blog with interest. 🙂

  16. Lizzie, an enjoyable read and a common challenge. Never underestimate people’s interest in what might have seemed a ‘routine’ for you. Once you’ve found your ‘calling’ the experience you’ve gained will help you progress quicker than most (especially if you apply the same work ethic) and make sure you use your network of contacts. It’s amazing what a small world sport is and it’s not an accident that there are lots of influential people from sporting backgrounds.
    My post pro sport journey took me into education. Good luck with yours.

  17. Hi Lizzie, thanks for sharing your fascinating and inspirational insights about your career transition. My name is Gabriela, I’m from Brazil (from Belo Horizonte, the city British Swimming made the prep camp for Rio 2016, I was part of the coordination team) and now I’m here in the UK studying at Loughborough University, just conducting my master study on this topic, specifically for female athletes. I would love to have a chance to hear more from you. Here is my email:
    Wishing you all the best!

  18. Nice job Lizzie, I’ve worked with athletes for the last ten years building transition programs and championing the importance of considering emotions and identity awareness in athlete development. I wish you well with your future pursuits. Give me a shout anytime if I can help.

  19. Great blog Lizzie! Loving the humorous style and the fact that you have captured the feelings around this transition so well. Can’t wait for your next one!

  20. Great blog Lizzie as Dave #OPRO points out we work across industries with athletes to get athletes a range of experiences and support them with really practical tools to explore their love beyond sport. Get in touch and I can explain more. #brandyousport

  21. Great first post. Reading about the self discipline and the training that you have inculcated in you, hopefully nothing will be too difficult in the world, as long as you can bring the same level of motivation to those tasks 🙂

    Wish you best and will keep an eye for future posts.

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