TASS Practitioner Focus: What is lifestyle support?

Solent University’s Kelly Jones (Credit: Paul Watts/Solent University)

Each year hundreds of talented athletes across England benefit from invaluable lifestyle support as a part of the TASS programme. In the second of a series of features focusing on the role of TASS practitioners, we caught up with Athlete Support Officer Kelly Jones.

TASS:  Please describe your current role – where are you based and what does the role entail?

Kelly Jones: I am a full-time Athlete Support Officer at Solent University. I work as part of the Performance Sport team consisting of myself, a lead strength and conditioning coach, a physiotherapist and a variety of student interns who support us in each discipline. I provide lifestyle support to our 30 performance programme athletes, scholars and some of our performance clubs. The majority of the work I do is on a one-to-one basis – supporting the students across the academic year to achieve their Dual Career goals. We cover everything from time management and organisation to meal planning, budgeting and managing the daily stresses facing a Dual Career athlete. The role is really varied and unique and sometimes requires me to be quite innovative to support the student in the best possible way. Last year I worked with TASS to achieve our Dual Career Accreditation so the Dual Career Co-ordinator’s job is now part of my role. Solent is really proud to have gained this status.

TASS: How long have you focused on lifestyle support and what attracted you to the specialism?

KJ: I have been involved with lifestyle support for five years now – starting in a voluntary mentoring position alongside my previous role before transitioning to a full-time role in 2015. I am passionate about supporting individuals to be the best version of themselves and to achieve their goals so the lifestyle support role instantly appealed to me. The opportunity to work daily with passionate and driven individuals – and to be able to have an impact on their future – is incredibly rewarding and something I was really excited about being involved in.

TASS: Can you briefly describe your career progression? 

KJ: I started my career within the health and fitness industry before I moved into a health promotion role – supporting individuals in achieving a healthy and balanced lifestyle. I quickly realised that this type of role suited my skillset and was introduced to the lifestyle support role by a colleague and then performance manager James Grant. I booked my TALS course and the rest is history! I worked initially with three athletes in a voluntary mentoring capacity alongside my health promotion job but I was fortunate that James saw great value in lifestyle support. Within two years, Solent had a full-time athlete support role which was a natural progression for me.

TASS: Why has lifestyle support become increasingly important to emerging athletes?

KJ: With a growing importance being placed on life after sport, large numbers of athletes are being encouraged to combine education with high performance sport with a view to managing the transition after retirement. Transitioning to university is a major life event and one which is fundamentally stressful without the added pressures of managing high level sport! The process can be made a lot smoother for the athlete with substantial long-term planning and a lifestyle advisor can facilitate this transition. More and more athletes are entering higher education and organisations such as TASS – alongside education institutions across the UK – are actively pursuing ways to support athletes.

Traditionally, some young elite athletes have had to compromise their education in favour of their sporting career. Now, education institutions are viewed as ‘hubs’ which provide support and flexibility to athletes wishing to pursue education – lifestyle support being key in managing this.

TASS: What are the unique pressures facing an athlete on a Dual Career pathway?

KJ: Those on a Dual Career pathway face multiple pressures and ultimately they are balancing two identities. Managing two identities can mean life can get very busy and often a bit stressful. Athletes are pulled in multiple directions, between sport and study, work and even parenthood. Less time means that time is precious and athletes need to prioritise their time to achieve their goals. There are often financial implications due to limited time to bring in an income through work. However, where there is challenge there is also opportunity! Dual Career athletes are able to focus on multiple avenues, giving them the best possible chance to succeed in both life and sport. Being a Dual Career athlete allows the athlete to have a wider support network and opportunity to gain many transferable skills.

TASS: Are students receptive to lifestyle support and do they appreciate its value?

KJ: Yes! I am really lucky that the athletes I work with really ‘get it’! It hasn’t always been like this and when I first started they were a little unsure of what value I could add to their support network. After working with them, I now get athletes contacting me weekly for a lifestyle meeting and some impartial advice which is great. Some of them even refer to me as their ‘Uni Mum’! It’s nice to know the support I provide is valued and appreciated.

High Performance Athletes at Solent University (Credit: Paul Watts/Solent University)

TASS: How closely do you work with coaches and academic schools in order to fully support an athlete?

KJ: The academic staff at Solent are really supportive of our Dual Career programme and work with us to support the athlete as best we can. At the start of the academic year I try to meet with the relevant course leaders to make them aware that they have a Dual Career athlete on their course and bring to their attention the type of sporting commitments they have. After meeting with the athlete and highlighting any potential ‘hot spots’ or absences in their calendar due to competitions, I encourage the athletes to communicate this with any tutors so we can work together to plan academic work and get it completed, where possible, before a hand-in. We also offer academic flexibility which includes opportunities for extensions and online notes. We have a number of athletes on flexible degree programmes which allows them to train and compete on a near full-time basis whilst studying at the same time which is fantastic. Typically, these athletes complete their degree over five years (rather than the usual three). Part of my role is monitoring the daily wellness of our athletes so I can see when someone may be struggling. We track a variety of measures from sleep to fatigue and soreness and academic stress and general mood. If I notice that a certain athlete is flagging in any one area, I can have a conversation with the athlete and coach to potentially adapt any sessions before they even get to the gym to ensure they stay fit, healthy and as stress free as possible!

TASS: When did you start working with TASS and what is your view on the support it offers to dual career athletes?

KJ: I started working with TASS in 2015/2016 as part of a small team at Solent and it is a really enjoyable part of my role. I think the support TASS offers to young, talented athletes is world leading. Being able to access lifestyle support, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, nutrition and sports psychology at a young age gives the athletes the platform to excel and thrive. With the support being delivered at university institutions it opens up the athletes to higher education and shows them it is possible to pursue both sporting and academic goals.

TASS: How difficult can it be to juggle a full-time education with elite sport?

KJ: There are challenges to balancing elite sport with full-time education but it is definitely doable. So many high-profile athletes are gaining an education whilst competing at the highest level and speaking about it which is great for young athletes considering their next steps. For example, Laura Muir just completed a veterinary degree whilst competing for Team GB! It highlights that with a good support network and planning, anything is possible. I am studying for an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology alongside full-time work which helps me relate to those I work with – it’s by no means the same as being an elite athlete but the time management, organisation and stress management is key so I can pass on lots of practical examples and real life experiences.

TASS: What do you enjoy most about your TASS role?

KJ: I really enjoy the variety that it brings. I get to meet and work with different athletes, of different ages, from different sports all with different career and academic goals – it keeps the role really exciting! No meeting is ever the same and you can be really creative and have some engaging and productive conversations. It’s an incredibly rewarding role and I feel very lucky to be able to work with TASS and their supported athletes.

Solent University is a TASS Dual Career Accredited Centre (Credit: Paul Watts/Solent University)