Recently I attended the TASS Strategy Conference where the focus was on how we can improve the support provided for Dual Career athletes. I was part of an Alumni Q&A panel and thought it a good idea to share with a wider audience my experiences as an alpine skier.
We know a bit about your sporting and professional achievements. But what’s the one thing you’re proud of that has nothing to do with either?
My ability to integrate into other countries and cultures, which has come from a result of my sporting and professional environment. For example, my abilities in the French language have developed over the years to a point now where rather than be asked where I am from, I am asked what part of France are you from! Which for a British person with no French family or connections is fairly complimentary!
When did the journey to your current non-sport career begin? Ie. After finishing education, during, childhood?
My journey to the flight deck happened purely by chance. I injured myself shortly before the British Championships in 2015 and had every intention of returning to the sport. I was exploring the possibilities of bringing a dual career element back into my life, as a year of being a full time athlete had not worked for me. Ideas such as joining the armed forces or studying a degree were forming in my mind. However, in a very short space of time, my whole life changed. It started with a conversation I had with my father whilst I was driving to dinner and ended about two months later when I decided I wanted to pursue the training path to becoming a commercial pilot and retiring from my sport at the grand old age of nineteen.
Things that have / you think will make transition out of sport easier / harder?
Factors which make the transition easier are those such as having other interests outside sport which are unrelated, as these could develop into the next chapter of your life. They also serve as a way to split your focus and reduce the chances of you over investing in one area of your life, allowing a balanced approach to your time management. Secondly, it is important to be able to recognise when it is your time to retire. For example, realising you no longer enjoy the sport in the same way you did when you were younger. It is possible for you to become too results-focused and forgetting to enjoy the sport for the sport itself, which is what I experienced. Additionally, a good support network around you, such as your family and friends, is essential to helping you through the decision to retire and subsequent mourning or grief you may encounter. Finally, be open minded! By this I am referring to being open to pursuing a new path that is completely different. You might find something you had never previously considered really enjoyable. I would never have even thought about becoming a pilot if my father had not randomly suggested it to me. The career possibilities I had been considering in the past were strength and conditioning coaching, physiotherapy, journalism and volcanology. Asides the latter, the others are quite common career paths for athletes.
Factors which could pose a challenge for an athlete transitioning out of sport include not being willing to let go of your athletic career because you are perhaps afraid of loosing your identity or of failing. Regarding the former, for a lot of athletes, their sport has been dominating their life for the majority of its duration. This can cause them to allow their sport to define who they are and therefore experiencing a feeling that they are nothing without it. When in fact, this is often not the case. What can perhaps worsen the situation is when an individual has not committed to their education alongside their sport, leaving them to feel they are limited with their options. Whilst this is not an ideal situation, it is never too late to embark on furthering your education post sport, as you still have a large portion of your life left to live. Secondly, something an athlete may have to overcome is their fear of failure. Whatever stage of their career they are at, when an athlete retires, they will be failing one way or another because they will not have achieved the goals they had set themselves. Even if you are an Olympic Gold Medallist and achieved your ultimate childhood dream, you will still have set yourself a subsequent goal to work towards. The moment an athlete makes the decision to discontinue their sporting endeavours, it is likely they will feel they have failed, despite having achieved an extraordinary amount in their young lives. They may hesitate to retire because they are afraid of failing and be trapped in the mindset that they have not achieved what they set out to achieve, so must therefore continue. This may create a negative environment because they commit but may no longer enjoy the sport and the other lifestyle choices of an elite athlete. It is important to remember winning or success are not just about your on paper results, but also include the personal competencies and non-technical skills you have developed as a result from the competitive sporting environment. Finally, it is beneficial to be able to communicate with others about how you feel towards your sport and the transitional period you will undergo at the end of your athletic career. The inability to do so may cause a build up of psychological and cognitive stresses, making the transition harder. Mitigate this by having a good support network in place built of people you trust. Or alternatively, seek third party advice through someone who has no part in the situation.
Can you think of a time when you had to make a really difficult compromise between two halves of your dual career?
In January 2013, I was informed I had been selected for the European Winter Youth Olympic Festival, which I was exited about as I would have then competed in that event as well as the Winter Youth Olympic Games for Team GB. However, I made the tough decision to focus on my A Level studies and my upcoming mock exams. That particular year, I was completing two AS subjects and two A2 subjects, as well as committing as much time to a full time skiing programme as I possibly could. I had to prioritise my academics. As a dual career athlete, it is really important to learn when your sport needs to take a backseat whilst you focus on your education for a while. This is key to achieving success in both areas.
What has helped the most with moving on from your sporting career?
Investigating what winning means to me has made a significant contribution to the transition into life as a pilot and to helping me move on. I am at a point where I have absolutely no feelings of regret towards the path I have pursued and the timing of the decisions I made. I have been able to reflect on my sporting career and turned my failures into successes by accepting them, learning from them and using them to drive my inner strength and resilience. A key lesson was learning to realise the biggest achievement from my sporting career was who it has made me, not how many medals or trophies I have won. By acknowledging how the non technical skills that I learnt from a competitive sporting environment, I have been able to move on and flourish in my life after sport. This was assisted by realising I could apply and develop these skills in my new career as an airline pilot. Notwithstanding, discovering a new passion and forming new ambitions definitely enabled the transition to be easier as I was able to let go of alpine skiing and move on from the initial grieving I experienced shortly after deciding to retire from the sport.
If you could solve one issue in your sport what would it be?
Specifically regarding dual careers, it would be really beneficial to the sport if it could be possible to continue committing to the demands of alpine skiing at a high level, whilst undergoing university or any other higher education studies. At the moment, it is not a possibility. Many athletes either commit to the sport after completing their GCSEs or A Levels (or equivalent) and no longer work on furthering their academic education. Or they retire from alpine skiing to attend university, causing a drainage of the available talent pool and a reduction in the possibility for those athletes to reach their full potential. Other countries have the support in place to allow their skiers to continue their education beyond school, whilst committing to a high level in the sport. If they can do it why can’t we? A potential solution would be to perhaps build a relationship with at least one university, as other sports have done, such as British Canoeing and Nottingham, to then establish a higher education academic and sporting programme which can nurture the athletes’ abilities in both areas.
Biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, or potentially not?
As a ski racer, I found myself being far too results-focused, which created a fear of failure and despite being aware of it, I could not conquer it. Since moving on from the world of competitive sport, I have reflected on what it all meant to me and how I can use my experiences to thrive in my new working environment. I realised failure can be turned into success if you allow yourself to facilitate it. Initially, as a new pilot, I was concerned history would repeat itself and I would allow myself to get the better of me, as I did in ski racing. But I am proud to say, I have moved on from that. I can conquer failures and set backs with a very positive attitude by identifying them as learning opportunities to further my skills as a pilot, becoming more refined and competent. This allows me to review them, learn from them and become more resilient and stronger because of them. Flying an aircraft requires you to be focused on the process, you have to let mistakes go and move quickly on, keeping up with the dynamic environment you are in. This was something I tried to accomplish as an athlete, but was never able to understand and apply it.
What’s the one thing that’s surprised you about your career (of either kind)?
I think probably how useful the environment of elite sport is and striving to achieve the highest level taught me. Despite not achieving my dreams of becoming an Olympic and World Cup athlete in ski racing, I did not fail. In fact, I had a very successful career. As a result of it, I have become a highly resilient, open minded, positive, determined and calm individual which is able to perform under pressure, work with many different people and be flexible in a highly demanding working environment. Having learnt to win and lose gracefully, I have adopted a good level of integrity, maturity and calmness towards my profession. Additionally, I am capable of balancing all aspects of my life and I understand my limits, I know how to manage my energy and how to get the best out of myself. All these skills and characteristic elements have helped lay the foundations for the non-technical skills required to be a modern-day airline pilot.
Most important lesson you’ve learned?
The key advice I would like to share with young athletes is that your sport is not what defines you. Despite it being something that you have been dedicated to your whole life up until you retire, it is not your identity. I believe understanding this concept will allow you to move on without regret, regardless of what you did or did not achieve. Others may refer to you as “the skier”, “the gymnast”, “the cyclist”, etc. This is not who you are. You are an athlete. That is your identity moving forward into the world beyond. By this, I am referring to the person you have grown into as a result of your sporting commitments. The skills you developed will be able to be carried forward and evolved in your next chapter, allowing you to achieve whatever you subsequently commit to.
Are you still involved / how would you still want to be involved in your sport post-retirement?
I am not currently directly involved with anything, but I would definitely be interested in finding a way to mentor and support young athletes striving to achieve dual careers. Equally, I wish to help others transition into life after a sporting career. At the moment, my writing is merely a passive way of achieving this. I really would like to make this active where I can make a difference to others and help them, by having a more active role.