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.