guest post from Fontaine Wright
Life as a professional athlete is a real rollercoaster of a journey; from the lows of losses and injuries to the highest of highs of winning and achieving your dreams. But what no one tells you is that retirement can feel just as hard as the climb to the top of your sport!
Of course, we athletes know we can’t compete forever and that retirement is all part of the circle of life but the fears and reality of ‘what happens now?’ can often outweigh the exciting new chapter that everyone tells you you’re entering.
My retirement over two years ago came quite unexpectedly and for months I battled with myself over the decision I made. I’d reached the top 50 in the world for women’s singles, I was England’s number one for almost 5 consecutive years and I’d won national and international titles.
I lived my dream everyday, training and competing as a professional badminton player, representing England and Team GB but I still had that burning desire to be better and achieve more.
Despite playing some of the best badminton of my life during the last season of my career, I wasn’t a funded athlete. Unfortunately, in 2017 Badminton England had lost all their funding from UK Sport and consequently so did I. This wasn’t new for me though, I’d lost funding before so I refused to consider retirement until I’d given it my all as a self funded player.
Rewind to 2009 when I lost funding for the first time, it was just a little over a year after having reconstructive surgery to fix my torn ACL and I’d just moved cities to train full time with the best performance centre outside of the National Badminton Centre (NBC). I went from a promising junior to an injury prone senior in a blink of eye. I spent the following 3 years working harder than ever to get over a fractured foot and then a prolapsed disc in my back and whilst I was focused on being a full time athlete, I’m so glad I listened to the incredible coaching and support team in Leeds who advised me to start university.
When I was injured and unable to train or compete, I gained invaluable work experience across all levels of sport and in the media; from the UK School Games and the Badminton World Championships to the National Badminton League on Sky Sports and the London 2012 Olympic Games. I fell in love with journalism and presenting and it made me realise there was something other than badminton that I was good at. The bonus? If I was unable to get my body back in working order to compete again at least I’d found something I wanted to do. I wasn’t willing to give up that easily though.
Fast forward to my graduation in 2013, my hard work on and off the court was paying off as I reached the finals of the National Championships and climbed the world rankings. Few had achieved success without the support of the governing body and with a full time university schedule. I was called back onto the England squad shortly after I started my part time Master’s Degree in Journalism and then moved to the NBC to train full time where I spent the next four years as the highest world ranked women’s singles player for the England team. My determination and stubbornness to prove I was more than just an injury prone player, coupled with the knowledge I gained about myself and from those around me during my setbacks were definitely a catalyst for my success.
I was on the right path to potentially achieving my dreams of going to the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. As with sport and life though, this path quickly changed course and became a minefield as I once again lost my place on Team GB and England. Although I’d lost all financial, medical and training support, my mindset didn’t alter. I’d self-funded before so why couldn’t I do it again? After leaving the NBC in early 2017, I started training with my old GB coach in Wimbledon and gained new sponsorship to financially support my world wide tournament schedule and in a bid to continue to climb the world rankings and qualify for the World Championships. My persistence paid off as I reached the quarter finals of the European Championships; the first time in 8 years for an English women’s singles player, I was beating players ranked in the top 25 of the world and I qualified for the Worlds. But when I injured the same knee I’d had surgery on, ten years previous, and struggled to recover from it, the reality of retirement crept closer.
Towards the end of 2017 I was mentally on the edge. My knee was unable to sustain training and competing and the lack of financial support was weighing heavy on my mind; a place no athlete wants to be when trying to perform at the World Championships. The New Year rolled in and the huge disappointment of not being on England’s Commonwealth Games team again pushed me over the edge. I lost all faith in myself and with a torn meniscus refusing to heal, I decided it was time to seriously consider retirement.
I made the decision just weeks after the selection blow and then had two months until I would be officially retired from the sport I gave my everything to. While it was the hardest decision of my life, looking back now, it was certainly the right one. My retirement plan for after the 2020 Olympic cycle was suddenly here but I hadn’t gained any more work experience in the media, although I now had a master’s degree in journalism, and while I’d been working as an athlete mentor to young people for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, it wasn’t a full time job option.
From social media it appeared I had it all figured out. But in reality, I didn’t. I was lost, anxious, excited, relieved and scared all at the same time. The overriding feeling though was that I had failed and let my family down. I didn’t know who I was away from the badminton court and so started to explore my options; I did work experience at the BBC during Wimbledon, I worked as a cover PE teacher and I even spent three months in recruitment thinking I needed the structure and financial stability of an office job!
None of them were for me though. Each time I stepped away from a new experience that I no longer wanted to continue, I felt like a failure all over again.
Athletes have an all in mindset and I always want to give my focus, time and energy to something I’m passionate about and truly want to do. So, despite feeling disconnected to who I was, I refused to give up looking for what my purpose was away from the court.
I nervously went to networking events, I joined online communities and read all the books on self development. I continued to push my body in the gym and getting my mind back into athlete mode was my saviour. I was sharing my workouts and finding new ways to move my body stopped me from spiraling into darkness! It then clicked, why not make this my job? I spent the next few months qualifying to become a Personal Trainer and fitness instructor. I started working in some of London’s most popular gyms and boutique fitness studios, and it felt like retirement was finally going my way! I built up teaching regular fitness classes and I had a number of personal training clients, life was busy, fun, engaging and I was loving working across different London studios.
When lockdown happened, it spun the entire fitness industry on its head and almost all my work disappeared overnight. I spent the first few weeks considering my options, trying not to panic and realising I was ready to refocus my energy into more than the fitness industry. After what felt like an abrupt end to my badminton career and cutting myself off from the sporting community, I’m now ready to get back to the world of sport and media. I’ve invested in business coaches, mentors and myself to fulfil my next goal.
I now know that all of the jobs I did weren’t failures at all, they were experiences that have helped me find out what I truly wanted to do with my life.
My love for writing and presenting has been reignited during lockdown and I’m soon to be a qualified NLP Practitioner and Life Coach. I now combine my physical work with coaching and mentoring athletes and high performers in helping them achieve their full potential through building resilience, inner strength and turning setbacks into success.
My journey through retirement will no doubt continue to change, especially as I’m now living in a new city, but I’m grateful to feel I’ve made it over one of the hardest hurdles of my sporting career. And remember, the injuries, setbacks and disappointments create strong athletes but even stronger people away from sport!
If you’re a current or retired athlete feeling lonely or in need of some support and guidance, get in touch with Fontaine. She’d love to help.
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