“I developed a self-limiting belief that my worth as a person was correlated to my performance in the pool.”
Lizzie Simmonds is one of Britain’s most successful swimmers.
She is a double European Champion, a 13-time British Champion, a double Olympian and a Commonwealth silver medallist – that’s just a short list of her achievements.
But first and foremost, she is human. Just like everyone else.
The 28-year-old retired from elite sport back in July 2018 but, since then, things have been far from easy.
When you’ve dedicated yourself wholeheartedly to swimming as fast as possible for most of your life it’s hard to know where to turn next.
According to Lizzie, her identity was wrapped up in being an elite athlete and her self-worth as a person was intertwined with the times she set in races.
When you take that all away it can leave you in a difficult place.
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“I was training at a really high level – an elite level really – from the age of 13 doing 60km a week in the pool,” explained the current Vice Chair of the British Olympic Association Athletes’ Commission.
“My identity ever since my mid-teens was very much ‘I am an elite athlete, I am an Olympian’.
“It was tied up in my performance, and my sport, and that’s ok because you don’t really think about it when you’re in sport.
“But obviously sport doesn’t last forever.
“When an athlete inevitably comes to the end of their career, like I did last year, it was something that is – and continues to be – quite a big stumbling block for lots of athletes.
“You hear about athletes feeling that identity loss when they come out of sport and they can no longer say ‘I am an athlete’.
“It was tricky for me as well.”
“Who am I, what’s my purpose?”
Retiring from elite sport might appear to be a massive, liberating moment for many people on the outside.
In truth, for some athletes, it probably is. But for Lizzie it left her searching for answers to some massive questions.
“When I actually retired for the first two or three months, I felt like I was on a massive holiday so that was brilliant,” she said.
“But after that I really did start to struggle with the identity thing.
“I started to think ‘who am I, what’s my purpose?’
“I struggled with motivation as well because I had such a defined singular purpose for such a long time, where I felt really focussed on what I was doing in my sport and the objectives I was trying to achieve.
“Then suddenly I had a vast range of goals in lots of different things, but I couldn’t quite figure out who I was or what I was doing.
“It took a lot of time – probably about six months for me – to really start to come to terms with that.
“Over the past 18 months since I did retire it has been a ‘coming to terms’ situation.
“Now I do feel like I’ve come to terms with it. Now I’ve accepted that actually I don’t need to find one singular really defined identity again.
“Actually, it’s ok to have lots of different identities.”
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How many hours do coaches spend gazing across a pool, critiquing technique, motivating athletes and facilitating progress? – Brilliant masterclass with @rtwmonson at the weekend. Backstroke and underwater skills in the pool, followed by a workshop focused on priming the body (with activation exercises) before racing. I also did a talk focused on taking ownership of your own goals and journey. – Thanks to all the swimmers, parents and coaches who made me feel so welcome, you guys are doing some great stuff 👊🏻🏊🏼♀️🏊🏽♂️ – #nextgeneration #swimming #coaching #calves
She added: “It was really important for me to acknowledge – coming out of a sporting career where my identity was tied up in being an athlete – and you often here about athletes feeling grief when they come out of sport.
“I’m sure that’s the same in other industries as well. I’m sure there are similar reactions for people leaving the military and things like that.
“But it’s a very odd thing to feel because you know logically you’ve not lost anybody or anything particularly.
“But you do feel a certain sense of grief and a sense of having lost something or left something behind.
“When you start to think about it logically there will always be part of me that’s an athlete.
“No one will ever take away my experiences, my accolades, or any of the things I’ve done.
“There’s quite a lot of comfort in knowing and recognising that.”
“I would cry a lot beforehand and then be really happy afterwards”
For someone to have enjoyed the amount of success in a pool as Lizzie has, it may come as a surprise to hear she struggled to handle competition.
But that’s how things panned out.
While it never adversely affected her performance, competing – and the anxieties and worries that came with it – meant the 28-year-old was going through a roller-coaster of emotions each time before she raced.
“I really struggled with competition, because I was extremely anxious and nervous around competition,” admitted the 13-time British Champion.
“I loved and hated competition in equal measures – I would cry a lot beforehand and then be really happy afterwards.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about this because it affected me later on in my career as well.
“Now I’m in a position that I’m out of sport where I mentor other young athletes who have similar anxieties, similar beliefs around competition or get similarly nervous.
“For me I developed a self-limiting belief that my worth as a person was correlated to my performance in the pool.
“That didn’t come from anybody else. I had a brilliant set of coaches and the most supportive family.
“My parents were brilliant, and they never put any pressure on me as a youngster.”
She continued: “It was the ideal support that a young athlete could ever ask for but in my head I built up a belief that my worth – and who I was as a person – was entangled with the time on the clock, or the medal I won or the record that I broke.
“That’s quite common. It’s common in athletes who are successful at a young age because they don’t experience much losing.
“If you get athletes where they have quite a few races, where they don’t do that well, actually they start to recognise that they are the same person.
“They still have the same values.
“My value as a person is not tied up in what I do in the pool – it’s something separate. But I didn’t do that.”
In the grand scheme of things Lizzie managed to keep these emotions from affecting her performances.
But if things didn’t go to plan then it would have profound effects on her self-worth.
“It’s fine when things go really well but it makes the consequences of losing, or the consequences of perceived failure, or the consequences of not doing as well as you wanted to do – it makes those consequences catastrophic,” she said.
“Suddenly your self-worth falls down. Your self-confidence, and who you think you are as a person, also falls down with that.
“I was very successful as a young athlete, so I didn’t experience much of that.
“But it meant the worry and the anxiety around performance was that – if I don’t do well at this competition – then that means I am a less worthy person.
“That means I can’t be proud of myself and it means other people aren’t going to be proud of me.”
“It can be daunting and harrowing to get on the scales”
Along with identity crisis, retirement brings about a range of other challenges to athletes so used to being at the top of their game.
When you stop training for elite competition, and you stop eating according to a carefully prepared diet plan, your body will inevitably change.
That’s something Lizzie has had to go through herself.
“Obviously when coming out of sport an athlete’s relationship with food, with exercise and with their body is going to change significantly,” she said.
“Especially if, like me, you’ve been doing this for the majority of your life.
“I started when I was early teens, so I’ve only ever known myself to be strong and lean with an athletic build. That’s how I’ve always been.
“Even when I’ve taken time off it’s not significantly changed my body or the way I’ve looked.
“But I think lots of athletes, when they come out of sport, they are very conscious of how their body is changing – whether that’s putting on a bit of weight or losing muscle mass.
“Whatever it is you’re not doing the same demanding training you’ve been doing for the last five, 10 or 15 years.
“Your body is going to change and there isn’t much really to prepare you for that, especially if you haven’t experienced it.
“It can be daunting and harrowing to get on the scales and notice that things are changing and not wanting them to change.”
As daunting as it is, a changing body is something athletes have to contend with.
For Lizzie, the road to accepting change was to acknowledge that the only person who really cared was herself.
“It’s ok for your body to change,” she explained.
“No one else cares as much as you do about your body and about things changing.
“We think by putting on a bit of weight, or losing a bit of muscle mass, that somehow makes us less valuable as a person.
“It somehow discredits the wonderful things we have done in sport.
“That’s just not true. Most people around us barely even notice.”
Words: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: With thanks to Lizzie Simmonds and The Mintridge Foundation
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.