“Who am I? What am I about? What do I want to do? Not having the answer to those questions has taken a toll.”
Ollie Hynd MBE is sharing his advice for elite athletes. He knows many will be retiring from competition currently, preparing to retire, or never having considered life after sport before – and that all three types of athlete would benefit from hearing others’ stories.
After winning three Paralympic titles, @olliehyndgb struggled to adjust to life after elite sport 🏊
Now, he talks honestly about the challenges he faced, and how other athletes can prepare themselves through his story
Find out more ➡️ https://t.co/PoRijFTtIs#BEAAWithYou pic.twitter.com/BArMonB7nz
— British Elite Athletes Association (@GBEliteAthletes) November 7, 2023
Having struggled with adjusting to life after retiring as a swimmer, Ollie wants other athletes to learn from his experience by understanding their identities as people and preparing for their next stage in life, whenever it may come.
He hopes that by sharing his story, current athletes will be able to better understand the transition to life after elite sport, and make use of the support available through the BEAA, UK Sports Institute, and their NGB among others.
Ollie began competitive swimming by setting a European record aged 16 before becoming a three-time Paralympic champion.
“My identity was completely wrapped up in my sport,” he says. “So I saw myself as Ollie Hynd MBE, the Paralympic swimmer… If I was successful in my sport I obviously felt successful, and if I wasn’t it didn’t matter what else was going on in my life: that was what defined me.
“My perception back then was that everybody else saw me in that way and exclusively in that way, which of course is not actually the case. I very much wrapped up my identity in that package: Ollie Hynd the athlete, Ollie Hynd the swimmer. That’s who I was. That was everything about me.”
Ollie says entering elite sport at such a young age meant he sacrificed the time and effort most teenagers require to establish their sense of self. And while he wouldn’t reduce the commitment he gave to sport because of the experiences it provided him, the now-28-year-old laments not allowing himself more time to explore “Ollie Hynd the person”.
“Elite sport, representing my country and swimming as my job has been my identity since I was a kid.
“I think at that age it’s pivotal for everybody to figure out their identity and what’s important to them, what they’re about and things like that. I almost had a split personality. I had Ollie Hynd MBE the athlete and swimmer and Paralympic champion, then Ollie Hynd the person. I’d spent so many years exploring and developing Ollie Hynd the athlete, I’d almost not really explored me as a person.
“It does become your identity and your entire life. I think looking at things a little bit more holistically now, your identity as an athlete and you as an athlete is a small fraction of who you are.”
A lot of athletes struggle with a sense of loss after they retire, which Ollie calls “having the carpet ripped from underneath you.” But they can also put themselves under pressure to retire in a certain way when, in reality, everyone’s experience will be unique.
“One of the things I’ve struggled with over the last six months is that pressure of: okay, it’s two years down the line in my transition after sport and it feels like I’ve not moved forward. That’s where a lot of my anxiety and depression around it stems from. A lot of it was that: I’ve not progressed and stepped forward as much as I’d have hoped.
“But everyone’s on their own journey and transitions look very different for different people. [I am learning that] being okay with that and not worrying about things that I necessarily can’t control and just focusing on what I can control, and if it takes another year for me to feel like I’m making steps forward, that’s okay.
“That’s a piece of advice I would pass on to athletes… I think it’s okay to have your own journey and take your own time with things. You’re not going to have the answers overnight – it can take years, it can take months. It depends.”
Today Ollie says he’s adapting to life mid-transition better, and that speaking up about it has helped him reflect on his experiences. He now teaches at his old pool and says “having more time for my family has been great.”
“From when I officially stepped back and said I was done with sport to now has been a journey of ups and downs. Some of those questions have been asked and explored but very much I’m not all the way there. I can be honest now, the last few months particularly have been challenging.
“It’s made me more aware of my feelings and my emotions and things like that. It’s made me ask those tough questions to myself and put more of a plan in place.
“Transition looks different for different people, and mentally I’m becoming more okay with that.”
Relax and enjoy yourself, but keep active.
Ollie says: “I spent probably three-four months just enjoying myself and catching up on the things I didn’t get to do as an athlete, which absolutely I needed. But I think it gets to a point where that needs to stop and you need to start planning and putting things in place.
“When an athlete has transitioned and come away from the sport, from the programme, it’s absolutely okay to enjoy yourself, have some time away and not put pressure on yourself to take that next step, but also give yourself a cut-off point.”
Replace your structure.
“Not having that structure, I really struggled with that,” Ollie says. “As an athlete you have almost a military-level regimen. It was set out: I knew exactly when I was at the pool for training, when I was at the gym, when I had my competitions. To step away from that and be left to my own devices, it seems crazy but that was really, really challenging for me.”
Be proactive during your career.
Ollie says: “One regret I still have throughout my career and being involved in sport is that I wasn’t active in planning for that transition.
“A happy athlete is a high-performing athlete. I’m a very big believer of that and I think for you to be a truly happy person you have to explore other parts of your life.
“Put those things in place now, be proactive, have those difficult conversations with yourself and your team and really explore your identity away from the field of play. The more you can do that while you’re competing, the easier the transition will be.
“It’s education: when you’re in your sport and focused on competing and the next goal, next medal, next record, whatever it is, you don’t really think about these things. You think it’s going to last forever, which obviously it isn’t. My advice would be to be as proactive as possible.”
If you’re a former World Class Programme athletes, you can join the British Elite Athletes Alumni platform to catch-up and connect with others. Register by clicking here.
Support is available through the BEAA or your Performance Lifestyle practitioner for six months after coming-off programme, and through the PL Futures team for two years. You can also speak with your NGB about the support they provide.