- Written by Ben Croucher
As Switch the Play highlights, athletes across a variety of different sports can struggle to transition from life as an athlete to life outside sport. British Olympian and England Volleyball Hall of Fame member Rachel Laybourne has made a transition not once, not twice but three times and explains that if you wait until your career is over to think about the next step, it’s too late.
With over 150 international caps, Rachel Laybourne was a mainstay for England and Great Britain Volleyball for the best part of a decade, culminating in an appearance at London 2012.
After graduating from Loughborough University in 2002, Laybourne appeared to have landed every athlete’s dream with a professional contract in Sweden.
One year later, she’d experience her first transition.
“It was a great experience living in a different country but not all I thought it would be,” she explained.
“You become a commodity, a cog in the machine. Ultimately your performance matters.
“But I wanted a proper job and stability in this country.”
Being a commodity, a small part of a larger entity and being required not just to learn but deliver results is not just applicable to the sporting environment.
Businesses operate in nearly identical ways and Rachel put the skills learned in her degree and in the sporting arena to good use a a consultant for public and private leisure management services.
During this period, she continued to play domestically and internationally but admitted her “priorities changed, drive wavered and volleyball suffered” as she put her job ahead of her sport.
That was until one pivotal day in 2005.
“I put volleyball in the background,” she continued. “That was until 6th July 2005, when London won the rights to host the Olympics.”
“That was a fantastic opportunity to throw myself into it harder and better than before. I moved to Sheffield to train in 2007, trying to keep my job going. The first couple of years were incredibly tough. (From 2005-2009 – Rachel continued to train with Great Britain and hold down her job)
“I thought I was doing it the right way but we had a year of learning how to train. That sounds patronising for girls that had been playing a long time but when we got there, we learned we weren’t robust or fit enough and our lifestyles needed changing quickly.”
And Rachel’s changed for the better in 2009, when she signed her second professional contract with French side Quimper. Gone were the days of commuting from London to Sheffield with work trips to Banbury thrown into the mix.
“I went to France in a much better place, with a tougher mindset,” she said. “I knew what to expect. I used them rather than them using me.”
She used them to good effect as well, culminating in a memorable, and ultimately final appearance on home soil at the Olympics where Great Britain finished ninth.
Rachel’s final transition, her second from professional volleyball to the ‘real world,’ was not of her choosing.
“It was never a conscious decision to stop afterwards,” continued the 34-year-old. “UK Sport didn’t fund us. They disbanded the team.
“For all the girls, that choice wasn’t ours.”
By now, you sense the ups and downs and huge range of experiences that Rachel has had to overcome simply to continue playing the sport she loves.
Sacrificing a well-paid job to achieve her dream of representing her country at an Olympics to having it all end with a teary goodbye in an airport arrivals lounge.
“We all struggled in various different ways to find out what made us tick,” said the Sheffield-born athlete. “We had this massive hole.”
Along the journey that has taken Rachel in and out of sport to her current role as Relationship Manager for Volleyball England, there are many lessons that can be transferred outside sport.
Being a willing team member, being prepared to re-learn what you think you already know, being honest with your employers are all key to sport and business.
Knowing what to expect in Rachel’s second attempt at professional volleyball is particularly striking.
For when athletes attempt to focus on a career outside of their sport, many don’t know what skills they have or what to expect. What they can do is be as best prepared as possible so few aspects of the transition surprise them.
Rachel says: “It can’t afford to be an afterthought.
“This talent pathway isn’t forever. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got your education in the background. It pays dividends.
“I would encourage anybody to find time, even if just once every few weeks to keep that CV building and enquiries open. It’s as important as your daily training.
“In sport we call it prehab – preventing injuries happening. You need that form of prehab in the real world.
“You need that preparation so that when it bites, you’ve got a strategy. It’s really tough when you don’t.
“There was nobody outside my closed network to offer any helpful advice. It would have been fantastic to have had impartial advice.”
She concluded: “I thought somebody had the answers. I thought my sport was behind the curve but sport is behind the curve.”