Six months ago, I hung up my Team GB hat and goggles and retired from elite sport for good. Since then I’ve been on a whirlwind adventure, trying to find my feet in this exciting, but often overwhelming, new world. I feel truly lucky to have had so many people reach out to me, offering a supportive hand or a word of advice on how to successfully navigate new challenges and forge a fresh path in life.
For the first few months, not having to go to the pool was a huge novelty—the world suddenly seemed full of new opportunities when I didn’t have a brutal training regime to contend with. But as time has passed, I’ve started to miss the routine, the unending discipline, and the knowledge that every day I was operating at maximum capacity. I’ve realised that I’d become familiar with existing in an environment in which I knew I was thriving; an arena where my control was absolute, and my knowledge abundant. There is comfort in understanding your limits as a human being—only then can you know how to exploit those limits and push yourself towards the boundaries of your potential.
Now that I’m ‘out’, I’m free to do whatever I want in this world—an exciting prospect. But I’m also having to challenge my own identity, creating a new version of myself after being defined for so long by my sporting achievements. I no longer feel intrinsically comfortable in my environment, and it’s no longer a given that I will thrive at what I’m doing. I’m trying lots of things for the first time—setting up a business, creating a website, writing a covering letter, having a job interview—to name a few. It’s been a long time since I was a ‘first-timer’ at sport—I swum a mile when I was six years old and was hooked from then onwards, so I can barely remember actually learning how to swim!
In order to move forward I’ve had to do some soul searching and ask myself a tough question—what was I getting from sport that I’m no longer getting in the ‘real world’? Understanding an athlete’s motivation to pursue a life in elite sport is a bit more complex than their desire to win medals—nobody does it solely for the medal, because a medal by itself means nothing unless you’re melting down the gold to make Christmas presents. Some athletes do it for the notoriety—to gain recognition, to be a household name. This may sound disingenuous, but people in all realms of life strive towards standing out, hoping to be the best at something, so pursuing sporting heights requires an impressive level of ambition. Other athletes get a buzz from challenging themselves, from pushing themselves endlessly, from sculpting their bodies into machines and moulding their minds into the ruthless headquarters of that machine. Some find that doing what others are unable to do is their motivator; others feel a need, consciously or subconsciously, to prove themselves to others—to demonstrate that they are ‘worthy’ by exerting physical prowess.
It is interesting to untangle the motivations of athletes who perform individually, versus those who choose to participate in team sports. Some sportsmen and women obviously thrive from being wholly responsible for their own success, for conquering the inevitable vulnerability that competing as an individual exposes you to. Others flourish in a team environment, riding off the influence of teammates, continually challenging not only themselves but the people around them. For those in team sports, the familial belonging, of feeling part of something greater than the sum of its parts, is an experience that outsiders may envy.
For me personally, I think it has been a mix of many things over the years. Notoriety has been important to me because I have never wanted to fit in, or to be part of the crowd. My biggest fear in life is mediocrity, so to be living a life so far out of the ordinary has been a huge motivator towards success. I’ve also loved the daily challenge and the knowledge that I am living life at full capacity, because what is life if not to challenge convention and test yourself to the limit? A sense of learning has also been an intrinsic motivator—I have a very active mind and I continually look for opportunities to develop and grow, both physically and mentally. With swimming being an individual sport, I’ve never really found that familial sense of belonging in a team, but there has certainly been a comfort in training alongside other athletes who, despite having no direct influence on my own results, are also striving for their own levels of excellence and personal mastery.
I haven’t really thought about these reasons before—I’d always (naively) assumed that my motivations for swimming were that I want to be “better at swimming”! It’s now a little clearer to understand why it’s so disconcerting to have left that environment behind, because I’ve not only transitioned away from the physical demands of life as an athlete, but also the deep-rooted psychological motivators that accompanied choosing sport as a career. My current challenge is to continue to understand who I am and what I seek from life, to try and start constructing a new identity, based on a foundation of personal values, beliefs and motivations. It’s now obvious for me to see why athletes feel such cognitive dissonance when they leave sport—it’s an unnerving experience to be void of the motivations that have given us a sense of purpose for so long. Finding new pursuits to satisfy this deficiency will require exploration, time and patience.
The second significant challenge I’m faced with at the moment is based around goal-setting. I’ve set myself numerous goals in the past—to win county/regional/national championships, to break a European Record, to win a medal at the Olympic Games etc. Sporting goals are difficult to achieve, but setting those goals is a straightforward process, and measuring them is usually relatively simple. We get given times in training, hit weights in the gym, achieve results at competitions. Our technique is videoed, analysed, dissected, pulled apart and put back together again. Our nutrition is calculated precisely, calories are counted, physiological measures are recorded. Fitness, strength, power and speed are scrutinised in a quantifiable way—numbers are binary and logical, recorded on paper, ready to compare to previous tests. Athletes receive continual information—from coaches, stopwatches, scoreboards, gym equipment, callipers, scales, machines and samples. You won’t find many people on the planet who have a more comprehensive understanding of their own physiological capacity at any given time. It is a straightforward exercise to set benchmark targets that give a clear picture of whether you’re on track to achieve your objectives, and athletes become incredibly adept at monitoring and adjusting goals as they continue to improve.
Since I’ve retired from sport it’s been hard to adapt to an existence that lacks this continual information feedback loop. For example, I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking (a skill that I knew I could improve on), but it’s tricky to gain tangible measures on how you’re progressing at this type of competence. Successful public speaking is dependent on achieving audience rapport, with empathy, humour and authenticity also thrown into the mix. But how do I measure improvements in any of these capacities? I can use feedback from the audience, but that will always be a subjective opinion and difficult to quantify. What I’m starting to realise is that the majority of life does not operate in the same way that sport does. There often won’t be a clear-cut winner or loser, black and white results, tangible measures or objective information. In these circumstances you have to be okay with setting your own parameters for success, to create your own definition of whether you’re satisfied with an outcome.
It’s also challenging to not have someone there to actually give the feedback, in the way that a coach does with an athlete. Only through transitioning out of sport have I realised how reliant I’ve been on having someone to assess and evaluate my application to goals—a partnership of development and progression. Of course, feedback from coaches and support staff isn’t always positive—there is a lot of negative information that athletes receive too, but negative feedback can still be utilised constructively. Now that I don’t have that relationship with a coach, I have to be my own advisor. I have to view my own actions with the perspective of someone else, and evaluate, analyse and assess, in order to move forward.
I have always had a tendency to be overly critical, impatient to spend as little time as possible being a novice, desperate to bypass mediocrity. I think this is a trait common amongst sportspeople as we’re not familiar with settling for average. I find it incredibly hard to give myself positive feedback, praise, or approval. I’m slowly learning that it’s okay to be a beginner, to be satisfied with gradual improvement, and to ask other people to explain or help me when required. Instead of berating myself for falling short of immediately reaching the standards I’m accustomed to operating at, I have to remind myself how long it has taken to become an ‘expert’ at sport—expecting to immediately become an expert in other areas is ridiculous!
All in all, it’s been a tumultuous few months. There are still emotions that I can’t explain or control but I’m starting to create processes that help me navigate these uneasy times. Some of the things that help are as follows:
- Listing the ‘realities’ of the position I’m in. Some of mine:
– I’ve had an amazing career. My achievements and memories will always be a part of who I am.
– My sporting career doesn’t define my future.
– There are now many more opportunities to try new things and have new experiences.
– I now have more time to spend with people I love, without being stressed about training/competitions!
– I now have much more scope to have a positive influence on other people.
– I can learn many new skills and be exceptional at many more things in life.
- Looking at all the things I’m doing at the moment, deciding what I like about them, what the challenges are, and what I could improve to help me be more effective. This is essentially ‘mini goal-setting’—setting myself small benchmark targets that give me the sense that I am moving forward. Some of these are tiny things (like learning how to use Excel better, or reading a certain book on sales technique), but they’re super important in helping maintain a sense of direction and progression.
- Talking honestly with others. It’s amazing how common it is for people to put up a front and pretend to be fine, when they really need the catharsis of opening up about how they feel. This is a big one for me because hiding my emotions adds to the sense of losing my identity—if I’m not accepting of what I’m going through, then how can I hope to construct a new version of me?
- Understanding that the people who are close to me will also be going through some kind of transition. My parents, for example, have always had a daughter who swims, first at club level, then national level, then international level. The ‘script’ that the support network has developed over the years to take care of an athlete has to change when that athlete retires. Only through starting to understand exactly what you need to get through this phase can you direct others in how best to support you.
- Sleep and exercise. I’ve never been a great sleeper, so I’m familiar with monitoring and prioritising sleep for sporting recovery purposes. At the moment it seems like when I’m lacking decent sleep it’s really hard to get things into perspective—emotions are heightened and it’s difficult to be logical and rational. On these days I try and postpone decision-making, as I know I’m not best placed to make good judgement calls. Likewise, with exercise—even though the thought of relaxing sounds tempting, it’s unbelievable how much of a difference exercising can have on my mood. After 15 years of regimented training, it shouldn’t be surprising that my body and mind are more familiar with me going for a gym session than going to the spa!