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Athlete Blog – Lizzie Simmonds

I retired from professional sport a little over a year ago, and what a whirlwind of a year it has been since then! Like many athletes trying to find their feet out in the ‘real world’ I’ve been exploring a number of different options, both within sport and in other industries. At first, I said yes to every opportunity, wanting to experience as much as possible whilst I tried to find a new direction and purpose. A year on and I’m still trying many new things for the first time, but I’m slowly starting to shape an identity outside of competitive sport, and I’ve begun to narrow my purpose and motivation. Ultimately, I’ve found that I’m passionate about helping and supporting others, both in and out of the sporting arena. This has meant a number of roles within sports governance, where I’ve been able to use my own experiences as an athlete to help shape the sporting journey for others. I also do lots of work with schools, sports clubs and businesses, and find there are so many relatable areas that can be transferred from sport to other areas of life. Maybe it’s because I did an individual sport and focused for so long on self-improvement that I now feel motivated to help other people improve their lives!

Back in 2016 I was elected onto the British Olympic Association’s Athletes’ Commission, and since then I have enjoyed the opportunity to use athlete perspective to support the BOA’s mission and initiatives. Keen for further involvement I was recently elected Vice Chair of the Commission—this role includes having a seat at National Olympic Committee Meetings and representing GB at events such as the upcoming IOC Athlete Forum in Lausanne. Being part of an organisation such as the BOA offers a window into some of the ‘behind the scenes’ work that goes on in high-performance sport. As an athlete I was largely oblivious to the amount of planning and preparation that is required to take athletes to a major competition, so it’s truly insightful to now be involved in the build-up to an Olympic Games from an operational perspective.

As well as contributing to athlete performance programmes, I am also passionate about optimising athlete wellbeing here in the UK. My own sporting career has taken me to the heights of top World Rankings and Olympic representation, to the lows of de-selections, funding appeals, and a struggle with poor mental health. I recognise, from first-hand experience, that many athletes have periods where they do not feel well represented and it can be incredibly challenging for some governing bodies to correctly prioritise athlete welfare when there are such intense pressures on performance metrics. I believe that athletes need to be fully supported, both physically and mentally, in order to realise their true potential, both on and off the field of play. Elite sport is a high-pressure world so it’s important to look after those who dedicate their lives to representing their country at the top level. I’ve been working closely with the BOA, UK Sport Athlete Futures and the EIS to develop transition support for athletes leaving professional sport, which is an area I feel particularly passionate about. There are a multitude of other fantastic projects being run across the high-performance landscape to improve athlete welfare and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to contribute to the development of this crucial duty of care.

Having an organisation, such as the BAC, that provides comprehensive, impartial support to athletes facing hardship and challenges, is an integral part of optimising athlete welfare. I thought that my own experiences, coupled with my current position within the BOA and other sporting bodies, offered me a perspective that would be valuable to the BAC’s mission and objectives, and I therefore applied as a Non-Executive Director (NED) for the BAC Board. My application was successful, and I am now excited to sit on the board as part of a core team whose role is to develop and define the way in which the organisation represents athletes and supports wellbeing across the UK. Being a NED is an exciting position as it gives me the opportunity to bring personal athlete perspective to the table and have meaningful impact on the direction of the organisation. All key stakeholders within the high-performance system aim to have athlete impact at the heart of their decision-making, so it’s great to see that athlete voices and opinions are prioritised in the BAC’s organisational strategy. From a personal perspective the NED role is also a considerable professional development opportunity, as the position offers regular board experience, networking, and communication with individuals who specialise in other areas of athlete support.

The first board meeting of the year was a great afternoon at the Winston & Strawn offices in London. This was an opportunity for me to meet the rest of the board and hear about some of the BAC’s strategies. It is really interesting to learn about how the organisation has developed mediation programmes that help athletes work through disputes with other athletes, staff or governing bodies. This is a crucial part of resolving conflicts in an informal manner (before they escalate into unmanageable situations), and successful mediation results in a reduction of associated stress and anxiety for both parties. It’s also a key strategy for creating and maintaining collaborative relationships throughout the high-performance system. It was beneficial to hear about to how the BAC champions athlete voices by having athlete representation within the majority of sports. These athlete reps offer a real-time feedback loop to the board and ensures that athlete perspective remains at the forefront of all decision making.

After some domestic discussion the agenda moved onto international issues. At a time when the integrity of global sport is being regularly challenged (by issues such as doping violations) it is crucial for British athletes to continue to set the highest standards for sporting conduct on home soil, whilst collectively maintaining pressure on international federations to resolve critical issues. In order to do this successfully, organisations such as the BAC must gain a range of athlete feedback, before aligning with other sporting bodies to create a unified and representative stance. Both Vicki Aggar (the BAC Board Chair) and I will be present at the upcoming IOC Athletes Forum in Lausanne, so it will be interesting to get an overview for some of the key issues facing global sport. The meeting concluded with a discussion about commercial strategy.

It can be a bit intimidating for athletes to move into circles where there are professionals of other industries present, and it can be quite daunting to sit around a table and hear terminology that you don’t completely understand. This can range from legal jargon to business acronyms or strategic framework—I know I found it difficult at first to hear acronyms that everyone else seemed to know but me! It is important for athletes to remember that they are absolutely experts in their own field (sport) and that their questions are normal and welcome. My experience is that it can actually be really beneficial to have individuals in the room who don’t understand every detail, as it helps the experts explain things in a more comprehensible way! This is especially important when the topic being discussed will eventually be communicated more widely, as it’s crucial that complex processes are distributed in an accessible way. It’s also good (but sometimes hard) for athletes to remember that the skills and attributes they developed over a career in elite sport will make them an asset to other organisations, and that the mindset that helped them progress and succeed in sport will also drive them to learn and improve quickly in other roles.

It’s a great opportunity for me to be working within an organisation such as the BAC and I look forward to contributing my experiences and input as we continue to develop athlete support over the next few years.

Lizzie Simmonds

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