NMP Live Meets double Olympic Champion Dame Kelly Holmes. In our exclusive interview, we discuss the fundamentals of being a winner, plus, the importance of support for athletes dealing with mental health issues.
Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Dame Kelly Holmes
Do you remember when your Olympic ambition begun?
I was 14 years old and I had two dreams. One was to be Olympic champion, and the other was to be in the Army as Physical Training Instructor.
It’s funny because the careers officers came and they showed us three DVDs; one of the Air Force, the Navy and the Army.
The Air Force I didn’t want to do because all they showed was in a classroom, or in a room filing, which clearly was going to switch me off.
They showed the Navy, ships at sea, but I couldn’t swim when I was 14 so that was a no-no.
Then they showed the Army. The Physical Training Instructors screaming and shouting at all the soldiers, and all the soldiers underneath the scramble net, over the 12 foot wall, and that was it. That was what I wanted to be, both of them.
How did you move from a career in the Army to become a professional athlete?
I was a junior international athlete by the time I went in to the Army. I joined it when I was 18, of course and they made me have to change it in to being a career. I gave up athletics.
I was identified again, spotted in the Army because I was beating all the guys, and they collared me in to the Army Athletics Team. And then it was really just because of the 1992 Olympic Games. I was watching a girl that I used to race against running; I am sitting in my barracks room, she is at the Olympic Games, and suddenly the dream came back alive. I wanted to be an Olympic champion.
Started running again, ran internationally for many, many years, and it was 1997 that I decided to pursue my second dream to become an Olympic champion.
Why did you specialise in running?
During the forces I was doing lots of different sports, but when it came to athletics you get enough injuries by running without being thrown across the mats in Judo or twisting an ankle in volleyball, which I used to do for the Army as well. So, I had to then just focus on athletics and specialise in that to make sure that I got the best out of myself.
How did you overcome setbacks in your career?
It’s extremely hard when you go through the downsides of any career, in any profession. In sport it’s quite evident that you are on a downer because you are getting injured, you get ill, and that leads to bad performance. It leads to emotional turmoil and that obviously gives you a lack of confidence and self-esteem.
First and foremost you always have a goal, because as an athlete you still have things to strive for so that is one thing that you hold on to and it then shapes how you are going to get over it.
The key is how quickly you can get over the problems you have got. That obviously has a time factor because you can’t say whether a stress fracture is 6 weeks of healing the bone; you hope you can get running but then all the muscles have gone weak and you are on this cycle.
Also what I think I realised through my career was that the impact of injuries wasn’t just the physical impact but the mental and emotional impact. You go in a physio bed; the elbows are in there, the needles, they are treating that injury, but no one asks you how you feel.
Is there more support now for athletes with mental health issues?
I think over the past few years I have seen a lot more focus on helping people get over the emotional side of sport. Actually, it has been integrated into international sport quite a lot, especially in Olympic sports and teams that compete for Great Britain. I know they are quite keen on making sure there is the expert to be able to give them that advice.
We have always had sports psychologists, but what people, I think, thought was that it is going to help with the downsides of sports, but it doesn’t.
Sports psychology, in my eyes, is the specific reason that I get really nervous, and I am sick every time I go on to the track, or I don’t know how to execute my last bit because all I am worried about is my position. It doesn’t treat the anxiety, the worry, and the self-attacks because you feel like you’re never achieving your ultimate dream. And the tears you get behind the scenes when the doors are closed, no one ever sees.
So I think there is a recognition of it now, especially with more and more people becoming public who have been world class in their sport, Victoria Pendleton has been one of those in cycling, I have been very open about my depression, self-harm in athletics, Rio Ferdinand has been very open his turmoil’s in football. So I think since those have come to light more and more emphasis has been put in the sports.
What did winning double Olympic gold in Athens mean to you?
Imagine since the age of 14 having the dream for 20 years, the fluffy cloud that you have as a kid finally comes true, and more than that! I never ever dreamt I would win two gold medals, I mean, really? People remember my eyes popping out my head in the 800 meters so a little bit of shock there!
But it’s weird because people say how did you feel when you crossed the line, there are so many emotions, it’s hard to put that across to people. When I say if you got the job you always wanted, if you got married or had your child, those emotions, the goosebumps, that excitement, that would be part of it and maybe 20 times more.
It was a shock coming back from having achieved my goal, being a double Olympic champion for Great Britain, because I left 3 weeks earlier being well known in the world of sport and athletics, but coming back from Athens and coming back into a world where I thought everybody was mad. People were literally screaming, shouting, hanging out of windows, stopping cars, and I was like, oh!
One minute I was just Kelly Holmes and the next minute, it’s crazy! I don’t know if you ever come to terms with that.
What is the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust?
I originally started the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust because I felt that in my position as an athlete who was catapulted into the public eye because I was in a sport that was very high profile, I realised that there were a lot of athletes that were also at the level I was. They were committed, determined, motivated, achieved a high level but just basically went into normality, if we can say that.
The impact of that actually brought out a lot of the emotional turmoil that athletes felt, their lost identity, didn’t really know where they were going next, what to do with their lives. And there were a lot of people where that had a big impact on their life in terms of depression.
I have spoken to athletes that went into alcoholism, lots of things, because they just didn’t know how to change their life from what they had known for many, many years. So, I started it to really help them transition into new lives, but then I was also a patron for many other children’s charities, because I believe it takes one person only to make a difference to your life, like my PE teacher. And I wanted to help people in disadvantaged areas be the best they can be and realise that they have got an opportunity to change. Actually, the two together makes our charity very unique.
My athletes are mentors to my young people in our programs. Our aim is to get them back into employment, training or education, but the athletes are real. They sit there and tell them the stories I am telling you now, the hardships, the lows, but if you want to be good you have to work hard, and that resonates with young people.
I’m very pleased with the trust. We have helped over 300,000 young people around the UK and we have about 450 athletes that we are helping at the moment.
What are the fundamental traits of a winner?
To be a winner you need to be stubborn. Let me rephrase that; to be a winner you are stubborn. Very independent, to a certain degree. You think you know what you want and you go for it, but there is a realisation that you have to bring a team on.
So a winner is actually someone that can bring a team together, is also a leader, but is die-hard focussed on achieving their dream. No matter what the circumstances, they find a way of getting around it to achieve the ultimate goal. That could be short term or it could be like a marathon, it takes years and years and years, but you have got your path and you go for it.
How important are small changes to achieving your goals?
Small changes could be big, could be massive, and I think that some people get nervous about taking risks or making changes; it’s the unknown.
In sports, and especially my sports, small changes for the marginal gains could be, for me, not getting too tense in my shoulders and restricting my airways. I remember that in Athens, that prior to it I had been training, training, training to relax my shoulders 50 meters before the line, 30 meters before the line. For the 800 meters I said in my head relax, relax my shoulders, and take one step forward. No one would have known that, but for me that has made a massive difference to my performance.
In everything that I do now, I think you have to be able to reflect on what you have done and sometimes it doesn’t always go smooth. Sometimes it’s a small tweak to a presentation, writing up a contract so that both parties are okay with it.
I am sitting in my café now and there are small changes that I need to make to make sure that the customers are okay, like on a menu. There’s lots of things, I think, when you really think about it, when you are nervous about small changes, actually they can elevate you to other things.
How important is a pre-event briefing call?
I absolutely love having briefing calls. I think it sets the scene. It also just connects you straight away. People can get a perception of who you are, just seeing you running around a track or you’ve done an interview in town, but I think you get a nice flow.
From my perspective, I get to understand what the business is about, but also what their outcomes are; what they are trying to achieve from my talk. When I talk, even though it will still be around my story, I will always tweak it so then the key messages come out within what I am talking about.
So yeah, I always have a briefing call beforehand.
Is there a single-most important take away message from your talk?
I don’t always say it but people used to say to me when I was going through questioning things, or can’t do this or can’t do that, that you only live once. It’s not true! You only die once, you live every day.
So every day you should be making the most of the opportunities and situations you are in, learn by mistakes, learn by the things that make you feel bad, and also gain confidence and energy for everything you do right.
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