I was speaking at an event recently where I got asked:
Do you think your time in education helped you to succeed in sport?
Education taught me many things, but I can categorically say it was sport that helped me succeed in education, not the other way around.
There is one common trait that all elite athletes possess - the ability to perform brilliantly when they need to produce results. On competition day it’s about putting your training into practice and bringing home a medal.
This is exciting. It’s exhilarating. And it’s also really stressful.
When you look at the education sector, this is exactly what students do. Their academic career is geared up towards the exams at the end of it. They prepare, they revise and they have to perform in their exams.
The difference is that athletes are taught how to deal with pressure – to turn the stress of competition into a comfort zone. We learn how to get the most out of ourselves, channelling our nervous energy to increase the chance that we will performing at our very best.
This ability to perform under pressure isn’t something that just an elite few are good at. I choked at crucial moments and experienced my fair share of mental meltdowns as I progressed along the performance pathway, but I was also given a lot of support. I was taught tools and strategies to get the most out of myself and deliver the results I was capable of.
And the better I got at sport, the better my results got at school and university.
Performance is performance, whether in a sports arena or a school. I want to share three simple techniques that help athletes deliver the best results they can when under pressure:
1) It’s all about mindset
Sport might be seen as being predominantly physical, but the real battles are won in the mind. What separates those who win from those who don’t is the mindset, and even small shifts in the way we think has a BIG impact. Elite athletes expect to succeed, instead of trying not to fail – which is a super important distinction. This is about focusing on what we need to do in order to do a great job, rather than focusing on all the things that could go wrong.
Sometimes negative thoughts sneak into our brains without being invited, but we have a choice over whether we listen to them. Choose to ignore them, choose to focus on something else, choose to talk back and tell it that it’s wrong – but most importantly choose to succeed. If you stick to the revision plan, if you keep working hard and set your sights high, then you are gearing yourself up for success.
2) You have a support team – make sure you use it
The best coaches I had were the ones who believed in me, especially during times when I didn’t. They offered positive encouragement, they inspired and supported me, and they held me accountable for my actions. We all have people around us who want to help, but they don’t know what support we need unless we ask for it. If you want somebody to bounce ideas off, somebody to help you work through topics you don’t understand, or even somebody to talk to then find those people and ask. Your team can also offer positive encouragement as well as helping you stick to your revision plan.
3) Appreciate the things you do well
When you’re preparing for something it’s all too easy to look at the areas that you need to improve. Whilst this is always useful feedback, it’s super important not to forget all the things that you’re doing well at or the progress that you’ve made. There are lots of areas that you will have vastly improved in, and things that you’ve picked up. Even small steps take us in the right direction, and the more steps you take the further you get. Take time out each day to reflect on the good points, celebrate the small victories and feel proud of your progress.
The exam period can be a very stressful time for students. I've created this video to help students increase the odds of performing better when put under pressure:
For as long as I can remember I have been told that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. If I work hard enough and if I am resilient enough, then I will succeed. Yet even though I was told to aim high and dream big, at the same time I have been drip fed information about the gross gender imbalances that thrive in today’s world and would make my journey to success much more difficult.
I remember the first time I heard about the glass ceiling. It was a school assembly, I was sixteen years old and our head teacher spoke of an invisible barrier that the girls in that room would face when we entered the workplace – about the uphill battle to get promotions and pay rises.
He must have finished it with words of inspiration. He must have told us that the world was changing and we shouldn’t let barriers hold us back, but I can’t remember that bit. What I do remember is a cold fury spreading across my body. There was no way I was going to let a glass ceiling park itself over my head. I would prove to the world that I could carry out tasks better than anybody else.
Yet it planted a seed all the same. Despite my determination not to be shoved to the side-lines a little pocket of doubt started to grow. What if, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t even given an opportunity to demonstrate my abilities? What if I got stuck in a net and I couldn’t do anything about it.
When I look back, I can’t help but wonder how many girls in that room heard the same messages I did and gave up. How many of them thought that the path ahead would be too difficult, too demanding and settled for less because that’s just the way it was?
I didn’t. The positive messages that other people in my life kept feeding me were stronger and these were the messages that I chose to believe. I think that we are all worthy and capable of achieving great things, and even when barriers, setbacks and challenges are thrown in our path we need to remember that these ceilings are made of glass, not steel. Keep hammering away and it will crack and break. Collaborate, connect and work together and it will shatter.
The movement for women’s equality has come an astounding distance when you look back at the turn of the last century. Progress has been slow, but the changes implemented have been monumental. Using a sporting analogy, in terms of women’s equality, I feel we are currently at medal potential. Many of the big, radical overhauls have been made, but to get to the next level – to achieve true equality for everybody – we need to start working on changing the fundamental perceptions of women and men.
And we have a very long road ahead of us.
That’s why International Women’s Day is so important. It’s recognition of the distance we have come and a call to action to propel us further ahead. We all have a responsibility to ensure that everybody’s voice gets heard and to challenge the perceptions we hold about all genders. The beautiful thing about the human race is the endless spectrum of differences that it has to offer. Inclusion and equality isn’t just the right thing to do, but it’s a critical performance driver. Difference leads to creativity, innovation and better problem solving abilities.
For me, International Women’s Day is about celebrating success and initiating conversations about how we can start redefining perspectives and break through barriers that still exist. And it’s about bringing everybody together. The theme this year is #balanceforbetter, which I am super excited about. The future is not female, and it is not male. The future is people and we achieve more together. Men and women should be allies - collaborators not competitors, who, by working together, can work change gender expectations in a way that helps everybody.
So this year for International Women’s Day I’ve split the week between London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, using my voice to empower women to recognise their limitless potential and shed limiting stereotypes. Nobody’s dreams should be extinguished because of their gender, or any other factor for that matter. We are capable of redefining what is possible and making powerful strides forwards, breaking through barriers that are in our path. By their very nature barriers are tough, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t be beaten with the right support and strategies.
I’ve always liked challenging myself. I’m not a fan of small, realistic goals; my philosophy is to set the bar high and find a way to achieve it. Stepping outside my comfort zone is a thrilling mix of excitement and apprehension, and it never ceases to amaze me how quickly we can adapt, stretching the limits of our potential and redefining what we think we are capable of.
This year I’ve pushed myself in a completely new direction and signed up to do a 5km open water swim for The Mintridge Foundation. If I’m completely honest, I am a teeny bit terrified and wondering how I am going to rise to this one.
my body to breaking point. Sure, I do a little bit of swimming to maintain general fitness levels, but the reality is that I have one speed only – slow – and I look a bit like a demented turtle.
stadiums in Shanghai and Italian summers. So yes, I think I’m going to find this part the hardest and I’ve got some thinking out the box to do to make sure my health is not affected.
So why am I doing it?
I want to prove to myself that I can. Setting new challenges teaches us more about ourselves; pushing the boundaries of what we think we are capable of is key to our personal growth and development. You can never know your full potential until you test it. Sometimes the biggest barriers that we face are the ones we put on ourselves and I want to live my life without self-inflicted limits.
And as well as my own personal aspirations I am proud to support The Mintridge Foundation. They do fantastic job at increasing sports participation and improving physical and mental health of children and young people. Sport is such a powerful vehicle for change – it transformed my life as a teenager and helped me come to terms with having a disability. It taught me how to deal with setbacks, build my self-confidence and really value my self-worth. So many people helped me get to where I did and I really want to put something back. Doing this challenge as part of Team Mintridge is awesome – it’s great to feel part of something bigger and it’s giving me the motivation to dig deep, keep getting up early and get swimming.
And sure, it’s a daunting. I always find that the hardest part is taking that first step out of my comfort zone. In that space outside things become clearer and it’s easier to figure out how to raise your game. We find a way to make things happen and get the job done. When we confront the things we fear, when we have our tenacity tested and when we push through it we come out much stronger on the other side.
So I’ve stepped out. I’m working hard and I’m slowly building up to getting out in the open water. Yes, I’m looking forward to the challenge. Yes, it scares me, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I’ve never been very good at quitting and I’m really looking forward to discovering the full measure of my potential.
I am taking part in the Great East Swim on the 22nd June. I would be super grateful for any support to my chosen charity The Mintridge Foundation, to enable them to continue to make a difference.
Communicating our ‘why’ has become super popular. It’s the purpose behind our behaviours, it’s the inspiration for our actions and it sets us apart from everybody else. When we can clearly articulate ‘why’ we are trying to achieve something then it not only gives us a lot more clarity around our vision, but it’s much easier to get other people excited and engaged about what we want to achieve.
Understanding your ‘why helps us to make sense of our purpose in life and come up with a plan to deliver it. However, it is far more powerful to go upstream of this and start by looking at the ‘who’. To really get to know yourself at an identity level.
Your identity is so deeply, fundamentally personal to you. The beautiful thing about humanity is the endless spectrum of differences that it has to offer. The only thing that makes us the same is that we are all different, and your identity sits at the core of who you believe you are. This is about your true self; a complex jigsaw with many pieces, each one contributing to the whole. You are more than just a job role, a label, or the sum of your past. You are a wonderfully complicated being with valid hopes and dreams, and how we see ourselves in the present is a reflection of who we have been in the past and who we want to be in the future.
In order to be the best at anything – the best athlete, the best professional, the best partner and so on – you need to be the best at being yourself. Only then can you become the most valuable person to the world you operate in. Reflecting, exploring and discovering who we are at the deepest level brings with it some pretty radical benefits.
Having a clear sense of our identity affects how we live our lives – how we think, how we feel, how we behave. When we see ourselves for who we truly are and embrace all our strengths, flaws and capabilities we gain clarity and direction. This is the first step to living a more authentic life. It allows you to stay true to your values, pursue the things that are meaningful to you and helps you make the choices that are consistent with your definition of success. It’s the golden key that unlocks our potential and enables us overcome limitations.
And answering questions about the WHY, WHAT and HOW become much easier. When you understand WHO you are, you are able to really clearly understand and articulate WHY you want to pursue certain causes and then work out HOW you are going to get there.
I like to think of identity as a fountain; when we start focusing on who we are at an identity level it cascades down across all other areas, affecting our drivers, our belief system, the choices we make and how we communicate our vision.
So how do we figure out who we truly are?
Understanding Your Identity
This involves digging deep and developing a global understanding of what it means to be you. It’s the traits and characteristics that make you who you are. It’s your values, beliefs and passions. It’s your purpose, abilities and behaviours. It’s your strengths and your weaknesses, your roles and responsibilities. It’s the life experiences that have created the person you are today, and it’s the choices that you make every day.
Try to capture the essence of who you are. Like any self-awareness activity, it’s important to come at this from a non-judgmental place and assess yourself objectively rather than attaching criticism or value judgements.
Choosing Your Identity
Our identity is not permanent, fixed or unchangeable. It’s not the sum of our past or something that constrains who we are. Sometimes our identity can be quite limiting, especially if we have developed negative thoughts about ourselves. We get to choose who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives.
Take any goal – instead of looking at what you want to do, focus on who you want to be. This shift in mindset makes it easier to develop the habits and behaviour change that are required to help you get to goal.
Understanding our identity is a revolutionary step forward, and one that encourages us to start living more authentically. When our behaviour is aligned with the fundamental core of who we are we are on our way to becoming unstoppable.
I don’t often open up about my disability other than to explain what it is and give a brief rundown of how it affects me. I think that’s because it’s always there, and whilst it does impact me on a day-to-day basis I think of myself as a person first and foremost. My disability is a big part of my life, but it’s a factor that - I believe - has no bearing on whether I make a success of it.
I’ve got something called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It’s a neurological condition that causes chronic pain in both my feet all the time. Living in pain isn’t always easy. In fact it’s draining on so many levels, but I deal with it by focusing on all the things that I can do rather than the things I can’t. I find that this mentality allows me to live life on my terms and achieve all the things I want to achieve.
I was diagnosed with CRPS when I was sixteen after struggling with it for five years. This was a difficult time and if I’m completely honest it crushed my self-esteem. The world places so much value on outward appearance and I… well, I was broken. I didn’t fit within that blanket ideal of physical perfection. I was different, and different can sometimes be a lonely place to be. I worried that people would treat me differently, that they wouldn’t be able to see past my crutches and wheelchair and discover the person beyond. I was petrified that the BIG plans I dreamed about would no longer be achievable. That my life was over before it had even begun.
It was sport that helped change these perceptions about myself. Taking archery up on my fifteenth birthday and finding something I was good at started the long process of repairing my shattered confidence. And getting involved with the Paralympic movement was life-changing. I had this real wake up moment in Beijing 2008 - out there I saw the most incredible athletes achieving spectacular things in spite of their disabilities. It put my problems into perspective and I started to accept myself for who I was rather than who I wanted to be.
Learning to become more confident and develop a stronger sense of self-worth wasn’t easy, but it was the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. Sure, there are things that I find challenging and there’s stuff that I find harder to do because of my disability, but this mentality has allowed me to realise that my potential is limitless, that I am deserving of success and worthy of making meaningful connections with others.
Yes, I have bad days and I hit stumbling blocks, but ultimately my disability has shown me how strong I am mentally. That no matter how big the hurdle in front of you there is always a way around. It’s taught me to be creative, patient, persistent and resilient – skills that I can apply to any dimension of my life.
Today is International Day of Persons With Disabilities, a campaign that raises awareness about the world of disability. And it’s needed. With over 1 billion people living with a disability globally, a movement that advocates equality, empowerment and opportunities for such a traditionally underrepresented group of people is needed.
We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can change the way we see them and learning to develop a positive mindset opens the door to possibilities. Positive thinking isn’t about denying there is a problem – it’s choosing to redirect your attention to the good stuff instead of dwelling on the bad. Challenges can be overcome with the right kind of thinking; it’s about believing that you are a match for any obstacle in your path and pushing until you get through.
The International Day of Persons With Disabilities is also a fantastic platform to raise awareness about disability on a wider level. There’s still a lot of progress to be made to create more inclusive communities and make sure opportunities are available to everybody regardless of their ability or background. For me, inclusion isn’t a tick box but a holistic approach that levels the playing field and leaves nobody behind.
A disability does not stop anybody from living a meaningful life or achieving success in many fields. It doesn’t define who a person is, nor what they are capable of. We all have strengths, we all have weaknesses, and we all require varying degrees of support to achieve our goals. And we can all be UNSTOPPABLE when we get our mindset working for us rather than against us.
Danielle Brown MBE is a double Paralympic gold medallist and the first English disabled athlete to transition to able-bodied sport at the Commonwealth Games. She is also a Professional Keynote Speaker, Training Provider and Coach. Her organisation inspires and empowers people to unlock their potential, overcome adversity and achieve big goals.
Please feel free to reach out to Danielle at firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you ever had your life turned upside down? Things are going great, then something gets flung your way that you never expected?
Yep, that happened to me…
I had this awesome sports career that just got better and better. It was a bit of a whirlwind really. I started archery on my fifteenth birthday, made the Great Britain team three years later and jumped straight in as World Number 1. Year on year I outdid myself. World records, world titles, world firsts. I pushed the boundaries of my potential and redefined what I thought I was capable of.
Whenever I am asked about the important factors that lead to success in sport it can unreservedly be summed up in one word: passion.
If you love what you do then you’re going to want to put in however much time and effort it takes to achieve scary, big goals. Passion is the thing that inspires you to keep striving for better. It ensures you keep learning and evolving, and think up creative strategies to drive performance. It’s your motivation to find a way around the obstacles that inevitably crop up and stops you from walking away when things get impossibly tough.
And I was passionate about my sport. I poured my heart and soul into it. Archery had changed my life in such a profound way, empowering me to live life on my terms when I became disabled. This was my purpose, my reason for getting up in the morning. And I was good at it.
But then something happened that I couldn’t prepare for. The International Paralympic Committee changed the rules around classification. Whilst I’d always passed this with flying colours, under the new rules it was decided that my disability did not affect my ability enough. And that was it. I was no longer allowed to compete as a Paralympian. Overnight I lost everything.
My sport. My purpose. My way of life. My identity.
My life came crashing down and I quickly moved from shock to disbelief. The classifiers saw what I wanted the outside world to see and didn’t understand just how limiting my condition was, so I contested it. I appealed and protested, and I got nowhere. Failing again was almost worse than the first time. I felt angry, frustrated and alone.
But life moves forward whether you want it to or not. My only option was to adapt to the situation. I could do nothing about the classification decision, but I could control my response to it. Instead of focusing on all the things I had lost, I focused on what I had left. I needed to find a new purpose, one that I was just as passionate about as my sport.
And that’s exactly what I did. I reinvented myself, set up a speaking, training and coaching business – and I absolutely LOVE what I do now.
Life doesn’t always go to plan, but we are all capable of breaking through barriers. When you’re thrown a curveball here are three things that you can do:
When stuff goes wrong it’s usually accompanied by an emotional response, making us feel pretty rubbish about ourselves and the situation. Emotions are healthy and we don’t want to switch them off, but we don’t want them to interfere in any decision-making processes either. When we’re thinking emotionally, we aren’t always able to see things with clarity. Putting things into perspective allows us to respond better. Acknowledging your emotions and practicing self-compassion is important, then take some time to reflect on the situation and the reality of it.
When we hit barriers our focus is often drawn to the ‘why?’ We want to find a way to rationalise the experience and understand how it happened to us. However, this keeps us stuck in the past. There might be a few important lessons to be learned, but in order to move forwards we need to shift our focus away from what happened to what we’re going to do about it. It’s much more impactful to think about solutions rather than trying to explain away the problem.
3. Choose the right response
We always have a choice, even when we’re faced with adversity. It’s not what happens to us, but how we choose to respond to that situation. We can give up or we can pick ourselves up. Taking ownership of the situation and focusing on the things you can do something about puts the ball back in your court.
Pushing through adversity isn’t easy. It can be a very lonely place, but remember you are never alone. Your support network is there to help, offering encouragement and guidance. They can help you manage your emotions, act as a sounding board to bounce ideas off and hold you accountable for actions you decide to take. I can’t begin to explain how many people have helped me (and still do!) through the adversities I’ve faced in my life, giving me a fresh perspective and allowing me to tackle challenges better.
I set my first business up when I was eight years old. My Grandma is a keen gardener and I used to help her out on the weekends. She set aside a little vegetable patch for me and I sold what I grew. It was great fun watching my hard work turn into extra pocket money and I would ask for seeds and gardening tools for birthdays, which proved to be a fantastic return on investment.
Somewhere along the line I forgot about entrepreneurship. When looking at my future I knew I wanted to be successful, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be successful at and I felt pressured into making a decision. At school it was drilled into us that success is top exam marks. Good grades meant a good career, which meant financial success and stability. Success, then, was measured by how much money you made and I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I wanted the big house, the nice car and the high-flying career that would pay for it all.
So I chose law. Not because I was particularly passionate about it, but because I thought it was a relatively well-respected and well paid profession. I also quite liked the idea of dressing up in a wig and a cape to go to work.
Where my story differs from countless others is my disability. At sixteen I was diagnosed with a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. This is a neurological condition that causes chronic pain in both my feet and had started when I was only eleven years old. It progressively got worse, forcing a wildly outdoorsy girl who loved playing sport to be confined indoors. To start with, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. Some were testing me for brain and spinal tumours, whilst others accused me of making it up. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me. I didn’t know anybody else with a disability so there was nobody I could relate to.
It was hard.
I was down to either archery or swimming, and playing with bows and arrows sounded way cooler. And I loved it. I was back outdoors, doing something I enjoyed. Archery became my passion. It kept me going, giving me something to look forward to even on my most painful days.
I went to the University of Leicester to study law, where I worked hard and trained hard. University was a fantastic experience and I learned a lot about myself. I enjoyed my course from an academic point of view, but deep down I knew that practicing law wasn’t where my passions lay. I ignored those thoughts when they surfaced. I had invested too much time into this - I would learn to like it. It was a well respected and well paid profession, after all.
That would be enough, right?
During my time at University, archery turned into more than a hobby. I made it onto the Great Britain Paralympic team. I won two World Championship titles and returned home from the 2008 Beijing Paralympics with a gold medal. The same week I graduated with a first class degree in law, it was announced that I had made the team for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I became the first disabled athlete to represent England in an able-bodied discipline, coming away with a gold medal with my team.
Now I had a choice to make. Did I go for that very stable career choice of law, or did I go for sport – a very unpredictable, often lonely and sometimes cruel lifestyle?
I chose sport. I was passionate about it and I was good at it. I loved travelling the world, meeting new people, experiencing new cultures. I moved to the national training centre to train full time for London 2012, the event that would surpass all other events. I wanted to retain my Paralympic title and do it on home soil. And I did, leaving it right to the very last arrow. Talk about tense!
After London, the International Paralympic Committee decided to change the rules of the classification process. In what can only be described as humiliating and harrowing circumstances, I failed and my disability was deemed not severe enough to allow me to compete at the Paralympics. That was it. My sporting career was over.
This was devastating. Everything I had worked for was gone, and I was left to pick up the pieces and figure out a new career path for myself.
I didn’t know the first thing about business, but I had an idea. As an athlete I knew what it took to win, to consistently be at the top of my game. I'd spent a lot of time researching success - and implementing this knowledge. Life revolved around thinking up changes, taking action and monitoring improvement. It was about moving forwards and always, always striving for higher standards.
I wanted to pass this methodology and mentality on to others - to teach people how to unlock potential, break through barriers and achieve more.
I set the plan into motion. I learned a lot. I made mistakes. I said yes to opportunities, even if it meant getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning and driving half way across the country for a meeting. I learned how to network and develop my contact base. I slowly climbed back to my feet and began to achieve in a completely new field.
I love what I do. Each day is different, each day is a challenge and I've found playing a small part in other people’s journey to success is far more rewarding than winning gold medals.