In episode 7, Claire Bennett talks about athlete transition. We explore life as an international athlete, the emotions associated with retirement and how she works with other elite athletes to shape their life after sport.
Until August 2012, Claire was a member of the Great Britain women’s foil fencing team and part of the World Class Performance Programme. She has represented Great Britain in European and World Championships since the age of 14. As captain of England Claire won individual Bronze and Team Gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Fencing Games. Whilst studying for her modern languages degree at Durham University she was British Universities Champion.
Since stopping fencing after 2012, Claire now wants to help inspire and encourage young people and adults alike to achieve their potential. She is a keen writer and motivational speaker. “I know first hand how much of a positive impact sport and mentoring can have on a person’s life. I have learnt so much about myself through sport. Therefore on a basic level I have a strong wish to give something back and share my experiences to help people achieve their potential.”
Claire is now the Athlete Manager at the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and supports their team of elite athletes in their lives beyond sport. Claire is an Athlete Supporter of the Women’s Sport Trust and is involved with several organisations directed at women. She is dedicated to progressing women in sport and inspiring young girls to achieve their potential.
In her spare time she has written for the London Evening Standard as a columnist and for the Daily Telegraph in their Olympics section. Claire also commentates for Eurosport as their fencing expert.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 1.1.17 – Ep 7. Claire Bennett – on life after elite sport
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR[Music]
TP: Welcome to A Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
Today I’m talking about athlete transition. My guest is Claire Bennett a former member of the GB Women’s Foil Fencing team. Claire captained England and won individual bronze and team gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Fencing Games. Now returned from international competition, she works as an athlete manager at the Dame Kelly Homes Trust helping other athletes to cope with life after sport.
When you look back at your international career, what stands out for you?
CB: I think for me in terms of sporting success, what I was really proud of was captaining the England team to the Commonwealth gold medal in 2010. But now that I’ve got a bit more perspective – my life beyond sport now that I’ve transitioned, I think a very proud period was that sort of Olympic cycle where I committed myself fulltime to trying to qualify for London 2012. So I graduated in 2008 and just went for it and I really left nothing in the tank and I reflect on that period and I feel really proud of that now.
TP: It must be a difficult life for athletes because lack of funding often means you having to manage both a career and working and so forth whilst training, it must put a lot of pressure onto make both worlds work; would you agree with that?
CB: Yeah I think so, and especially for me coming from a minority sport, fencing, there was never a question I wanted always to have that safety net of going to university so I always struggling with academia or sporting commitments. I remember I missed Fresher’s week because I had the world championships, which [laughs] isn’t important but it was important at the time because I was missing on that. And I did need to seek private sponsorships; I wasn’t on the World Class Programme initially, so I had to write maybe 200 – I put together 200 sponsorship packs and I was knocking on lots of different organisation’s doors to get corporate funding. And, of course, that took time but for me the important thing was building up that support network and getting that funding in that I could every year until 2012 so that I could just dedicate wholeheartedly to what I wanted to do, which was qualifying for the Games.
TP: Why did you end up retiring?
CB: I think for me it was a time in my life where I had to start a new chapter really. It felt the right time, I was 27, I could have gone onto Rio if I’m honest because fencing is a skill sport so I absolutely could have gone onto Rio, but I just felt…I probably should say that I actually just missed out on qualifying for London 2012, and at the time, it was very very difficult, I sort of faced this inexplicable hurt that I always find it hard to articulate if I’m honest, it just felt like I’d been shot.
CB: And when you dedicate your life to something – I started when I was 10 years old and I went to my first world championships when I was 14, and really you do as athletes you put your body on your line, you put your life on hold. And I suppose my – not that I had an ego, but that was crushed and all my self-esteem had gone and I found it, if I’m honest, very difficult to move forward. But, the only sort of peace of mind that I had was that I knew it was the right time to stop for me, personally, I couldn’t bear putting myself through another Olympic cycle, or my family for that matter. And, actually, it was the right time to move on, I am professionally ambitious, I wanted to move out of home ultimately, although I was funded still living with parents at the time and there were other life goals that I wanted to achieve, so it was the right time then.
TP: How did you come to terms with that hurt and that loss? Or have you?
CB: Yeah, that’s a really good question actually because it does take athlete…every athlete has a different transition journey if you like, and they say normally it takes about two years for an athlete to transition, but it is very very different. So I suppose it is a fair of chunk time to get over that kind of grief, and it was definitely grief for me. When some people talk about the grief cycle and you at first you go through like shock and denial, then perhaps you really go down and you face depression, you go through a really difficult period, but then after that you start facing acceptance and then you realise that there is light at the end of the tunnel and you find a new meaningful way of life. It’s interesting when people do compare athlete transition to the grief cycle because it can be a real grieving period.
And I suppose to answer your question, Tammy, of how did I get through that period? Well it took quite a time and it was important for me to allow myself the time settle. As soon as I stopped fencing I wanted to do 101 things, which wasn’t the right thing [laughs] to do. I started writing a book, I wanted to climb Mount Everest because I was at peak physical condition and I had nothing to [laughs] do with my body if you like, so I wanted to do Mount Everest, and then I decided I wanted to join the bobsleigh team and go for Sochi [laughs]. So I guess how did I get over it was allowing myself that time and then luckily I met the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust in January 2013 and the charity really just sort of welcomed me with open arms and started to structure the hours of my day by offering me bits of employment and I became an athlete mentor inspiring young people facing disadvantage. And things like they put me in touch with a life coach who helped sort out conflicting thoughts and ideas about what I wanted to do next, and that was really important just to get a real single pointed focus about next steps and an action plan essentially. So it was just little things like that and, apart from anything, it was peer support as well, talking to other athletes going through transition and seeing other athletes have positive transitions and setting up their own business and being happy in their life beyond sport.
TP: You’re working for Dame Kelly Holmes Trust now…
TP: …which is fantastic, you’re an Athlete Manager, is that right?
CB: That’s right, yeah.
TP: So what does that involve?
CB: So yeah, I’m the Athlete Manager and I look after around 168 or so – [laughs] I’m being very precise because we’ve just done a report of active athletes that we’ve got at the Trust. So I support those two-fold really, I help them in their transitions in their life after sport, but also we help current athletes to think about their life beyond sport and with employment opportunities and upskills to become athlete mentors.
TP: Would you say the transition that you went through as an athlete is very similar to what you see other athletes going through?
CB: Yeah, there are definitely similarities, but I do think athletes go on different transition journeys as well. You have some athletes who feel really lost, who feel dejected and who are depressed and who might turn to alcohol or gambling, but you have other athletes who actually have spent a lot of time during their careers thinking about their life beyond sport and have therefore put themselves in a better position to be able to have that positive life when they retire. And I think it’s really important, and I would advise current athletes to really think about what else they can be doing along their sport to think about keep their eyes and their ears open for opportunities that arise and perhaps get into some volunteering and perhaps think about their personal, social and emotional development alongside their sport.
TP: Is it possible to sort of see beyond that when you’re going for the next competition where you’ve got Rio or Tokyo or whatever in your targets to think beyond that?
CB: It is difficult, you’re a funded athlete and your responsibility ultimately is to get a medal with that no compromise approach is to get a medal at the Olympic Games, so you have to be ruthless and relentless in your work ethic for your sport. With that said, I did understand the importance of doing other stuff and I did use to enjoy giving back and volunteering alongside the sport. But I suppose it’s also there is a culture thing and it is about getting everyone in your support team to back that up and be okay with you going out and doing some volunteer work or spending a bit more time on your personal development. For example, what I used to do after the world championships we might have two or three weeks downtime and I really wanted to become a sports journalist and television presenter at the time and I would go and get a work experience with the Evening Standard or the Daily Telegraph, so I was really trying hard to set myself up. I did, personally, experience a short amount of time where it was a difficult time for me to move forward, but I think it would have been much much harder had I not gone to get the work experience and focus a little bit on other stuff outside of my sport.
TP: Do the NGB’s do enough?
CB: You know, we’re getting to a stage where I think they’re starting to understand that it’s everybody’s responsibility to think about athlete welfare. And we’ve also got Tanni Grey- Thompson who’s leading on the Duty of Care or DCMS, which is an amazing amazing step forward. And I think now we’re in a position where UK Sport have the best system potentially in the world, the best world class system, they’ve have to be relentless, they’ve had to be ruthless in their approach because ultimately they had to deliver results and that’s what they’re paid to do. Now they’ve done that, which is absolutely fantastic, and I think they need to protect that because it’s working well and they need to carry on doing that, but, actually, perhaps there’s something in how can we enhance that? And how can we bring that athlete care that holistic side of things to enhance their performance even further? Because we did do independent research at the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust where it showed the benefits of working on your personal, social and emotional development and all of that underpins our athlete training programme at the Trust. And athletes who do that kind of training, they start to take more personal responsibility for their development and, actually, in the long run they have more personal social capital and feel more empowered and are better performing people.
TP: Yes. This podcast is about performance it’s about different people’s views about what success is and so forth, what’s success for you and I suppose also the follow-up question would be has that changed over time as your context has changed?
CB: Mmm, that’s a really good question. It’s definitely changed, success for me when I was a fulltime athlete was achieving and winning medals – bottom line – there is no hiding place in elite sport everyone says that, and that’s what you’re expected to do. And for me, actually, my self-esteem was based around achieving those world class results, and if I didn’t then it was the end of the world and I’d come home in an absolute mood and my parents would bear the brunt of it and blah blah. But success for me now is it’s still having that strong work ethic and being completely dedicated to what you do. But, actually, it’s about doing something that’s really meaningful to me that is rewarding and…I suppose yeah, bottom line is comes to doing something meaningful – I don’t want to repeat myself, but I’m not saying that going for an Olympic gold isn’t meaningful, but I suppose my idea of success is I’m doing something that I’m passionate about and that makes me feels alive as I did when I was fencing and which is meaningful and I feel like I’m giving back and I feel like I’m making a difference somewhere else, that’s success to me.
TP: Mmm, brilliant. Any advice you’d give to someone starting in competitive sport now?
CB: It’s a funny on isn’t it because I do think about…a lot of people have asked me what if you were to have children would you be happy if they went into the competitive environment and became an elite athlete? And because I know how tough it can be at the top – obviously it’s difficult, but my advice would be to be resilient and not let anybody set any limitations on what you can or can’t do, to just go for it wholeheartedly and leave nothing in the tent, because actually if you do that then whatever the outcome you can walk away feeling really proud and that’s the important thing.
TP: That’s brilliant. I’ve just got some quick fire questions for you.
TP: What did you eat for breakfast?
CB: Cereal and a cup of tea.
TP: Your favourite piece of sports kit?
CB: Probably my Flynet trainers, they’re really good.
TP: [Laughs] Okay. Sporting hero?
CB: Kelly Holmes, it’s got to be Kelly.
TP: Why? Other than she’s your boss!
CB: Yeah, other than she’s my boss, honestly she’s someone who never gave up, she achieved her sporting success very late on in her career. So she just showed huge amounts of resilience and, apart from that, she set up her charity to support athletes and young people. And she’s also like a complete businesswoman, entrepreneurial and doing lots of different… and set up a coffee shop where she lived in Kent, and so she’s someone who always strives to be the best at anything she does.
TP: Brilliant. Most useless piece of advice you have either given or received?
CB: Forget about your past, because I think it’s important to still remember your past but perhaps not dwell on your past.
TP: So build from it?
CB: Yeah. Exactly, yeah.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
CB: It’s a hard…it’s going to be in between baking, because I do love baking cakes, like really passionate about baking cakes, but also [laughs], on the other hand, which is probably my bigger passion it is supporting others and getting the best out of others.
TP: And last one, best performance enhancer?
TP: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Claire, it’s been brilliant talking to you.
CB: Thank you, Tammy.[Music]
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.[Music]
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