- Written by Catherine Rees
Whilst competing as a professional athlete, she also became a full time school PE teacher, juggling her teaching responsibilities alongside her sporting ones. Here she tells us about the benefits of having multiple identities alongside your sporting one, balancing sport with another career, and how it could actually help make you a better athlete.
Kelly Massey, 36, is a former 400 metres British champion. She’s won Olympic, European outdoor, European indoor and Commonwealth medals in the women’s 4 x 400 metres relay and retired from athletics in 2018.
“I first took up sprinting when I was 11,” said Kelly. “But it wasn’t until my third year of university that I stepped up my training for the 400m and began pushing myself competitively.
“From there I went from strength to strength - making it to the World University Games, and then on to the 2011 European Athletics Indoors Championship as a reserve. This led to competing in the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. So it wasn’t until my mid 20s that I first stepped on to the international sporting stage, but at the time I felt strong and unstoppable.
Like almost all athletes, our sport consumes our life. We dedicate 24 hours a day to it to ensure we stay at the top of our game. It becomes intrinsic to our identity and who we are. But when it’s gone, and we don’t have something to fill the void, we often find ourselves alone, asking: who I am now without my sport? And if you don’t know who you are without your sport, how on earth can you work out what you want to do when it ends?
“Everyone’s transition is unique. I was aware things would change but I didn’t know how until it happened. Except for the last two years of my professional sprinting career I was also a full time PE teacher. And now, as a lecturer at John Moores University, I’m researching how having something outside of your sport is one of the best things you can do as an elite athlete.
“There’s no escaping that feeling of loss when your sporting career finally comes to end. Even though I became a full time PE teacher alongside my professional sports career, I still found it hard. But what stopped it from being so hard, is having other things in my life that I could focus on. Whether you choose to learn a new language, explore a new career, or even learn the piano, having a distraction definitely helps if your sport isn’t going well or you're injured. The key is also understanding that you are more than just an athlete.
“Having multiple identities and interests also helps you put things into perspective in your sporting career too and increases your knowledge outside of your sport. The skills you develop as an athlete such as goal setting, self-motivation, teamwork, leadership, resilience, and communication skills, prepare you for a whole host of different careers. This makes you highly desirable for employers. Research backs this up by showing that when an athlete joins a business, they often improve productivity due to their winning mindset and drive.
“There are various sources of support for when you eventually make the transition out of your professional sporting career, but they’re often only prescribed for a short period of time. Most of them also offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach too - which isn’t going to suit everyone’s needs. The one thing I would recommend any professional athlete, no matter what stage you are in your career, is to speak to someone who has already gone through the transition process. A former sportsperson will understand your position better than anyone – even more so than your own friends and family. I reached out to former British badminton champion, Gail Emms – she’d been there and got the t-shirt, and it was immensely helpful.”
Kelly Massey is now a lecturer at John Moores University on the undergraduate PE programme.