Top alumni share experiences of student athlete transitions

Kristian Thomas, Sarah Speers, Carol Bridge, Peter Speight & Anna Turney

Talented athletes from across the midlands descended on the University of Birmingham this week to learn from alumni at a TASS Athlete Transitions workshop.

Five world-class athletes from a range of sports shared their experiences of dealing with change to better equip the next generation with the skills and knowledge to tackle any challenges that arise during their own sporting journeys.

Having experienced the demands of balancing sport and education first-hand, the TASS alumni advised on transitions affecting student athletes such as leaving home to go to university, managing a busy schedule and finishing education to become a full-time athlete.

Double Olympian Kristian Thomas has recently returned to education to study for a Strength and Conditioning degree. Having always planned to leave competitive gymnastics post-Rio 2016, Thomas described how it was key to reconsider his identity before retirement.

“I was just Kristian Thomas, the gymnast. That was great, but there are times when you need to be a husband, a parent or a teacher. Becoming that person gradually not only helps with the transition out of sport, but it also helps you while you’re in sport.

“You’re not just athletes. There’s so much more about you, and there’s other skills that you can always be developing. Whether that’s gaining qualifications, being an entrepreneur, or following another interest; whatever that might be, start building that identity,” he advised.

Paralympic ski racer Anna Turney offered a slightly different perspective, having faced a number of unexpected changes during her sporting career.

“I’d finished fourth in the world [at the Sochi Winter Olympics] but I felt like I’d failed,” she said. “It was really difficult getting my head around the fact it hadn’t gone the way I’d hoped it would after I’d done everything I possibly could to win that medal.”

“Fortunately I had built an amazing support team, I went out to my routine yoga classes, played wheelchair basketball team with my team and I continued my work with young people and this helped me to draw myself out of that depression.

“But I wonder if had I been aware of my broader identity earlier in my career, then perhaps that transition might have been easier. So I would urge young athletes to go out there and think about who you are, what you value and who you want to be.”

Thomas and Turney were later joined by Winter Olympian Peter Speight, former Commonwealth triathlete Carol Bridge and former synchronised swimmer Sarah Speers on a Q&A panel to speak about their experiences of common transitions for dual career athletes.

Halfpipe specialist Peter Speight competed at PyeongChang 2018 and has been skiing full time since graduating with a History degree from University of Manchester, although he admits that this transition was not as smooth as predicted.

“Through the whole of my third year of university I couldn’t wait to become a full-time athlete and it was my goal to be able to ski all the time. But when I got there I actually found it really challenging not having that ‘other thing’ to focus on.”

“University gave me the opportunity to get qualifications while I was still progressing with my skiing and history is a subject I’m really passionate about. I’ve always wanted to find out about the world and I guess I’m lucky to have found a subject that I enjoy.”

Attendees took part in a practical ‘divergent thinking’ activity with the aim to develop the tools to help them to face future transitions with a creative approach and there was also the opportunity to network with the alumni athletes and practitioners.

Each year more than 400 TASS-supported athletes receive core services including Lifestyle support to help them manage the demands of balancing both performance sport and education.