It can take many years to become an elite-level athlete; many years of absolute dedication, total commitment, and personal sacrifice. It’s often a solitary occupation and is generally a thankless task: there’s little financial help or encouragement unless you’ve already made it to the top, so athletes are often forced to beg and borrow just to make ends meet so that they can continue to compete at the highest levels. Fortunately times have changed: the London Olympics has certainly helped there. Athletic performance is now valued and appreciated, and those who reach the very top know that they stand to gain substantial recompense and be held in the highest esteem by their fellow countrymen if they come away with a gold medal this summer. But what about those who haven’t quite reached that elite level yet, and don’t qualify for the Sport England Elite Athlete Funding? What help is available to them? Who can they turn to for advice and encouragement? Well, these ‘nearly-athletes’ can now turn to the likes of national heroine, Kelly Holmes, and her athletic performance mentoring programme. Holmes set the benchmark for grit and determination during a career that threw up disappointment and challenges at every turn.
One of her first mentees was middle distance runner, Hannah England. Although only 25, England had been around on the circuit for a number of years. However, despite her best efforts, she hadn’t quite made it to the elite level. That was until she was taken under Kelly Holmes’ wing. If ever proof were needed that performance mentoring works, then it was delivered decisively last year at the World Championships. England surprised many by blasting her way to second place in the 1,500 metres final in Daegu last September. However, the one person who was not surprised was Holmes. She discovered the 25-year-old athlete at her 'On Camp with Kelly’ mentoring initiative. England has gone on record saying that only a lack of self-belief had prevented her from taking gold previously, but now with a global medal under her belt, Holmes’s star pupil is beginning to believe in herself at exactly the right time.
“Hannah could have won gold in Daegu,” said Holmes. “It’s just about her confidence and self-belief and that’s started to emerge since she won silver. In a way it was maybe a good thing she didn’t win gold because now she can see she’s got room to progress, instead of having to live up to everyone’s expectations.”
England is, in Holmes’s words, now a “proficient international athlete”, but should the doubts ever return, she knows that all she needs to do is to ring her mentor for extra help. Whatever problems or challenges she may face in the future, there’s no better mentor to turn to than Dame Kelly, who knows personally just how difficult it can be to pick yourself up off the canvas when things go badly wrong or injuries strike. She personifies determination, and was justly rewarded with two gold medals in Athens in 2004 at the age of 34.
Holmes may have gone the long and painful route to Olympic glory, but as a mentor she believes all Hannah England needs to do is “carry on doing what she’s doing” in order to write her name into the history books at the Olympic Stadium in August:
“Hannah doesn’t need to change too much. The key for any athlete is just to keep their head and not try to change things dramatically from what they’ve done before.”
England is not the only female British 1,500m runner with a world silver medal and a desire to succeed in London. Lisa Dobriskey, who came second at the Berlin World Championships in 2009, is fighting fit again and hunting an Olympic medal, while 22-year-old Scot Stephanie Twell is hoping to return from injury and feature in a second consecutive Games. Both of these women have also benefitted from top class mentoring. Holmes believes that this healthy competition among female middle-distance runners within UK Athletics is a legacy of her success in Athens. She also argues that the lack of a recent male star could explain why there is no talk of a male equivalent of England.
“I hope that my two Golds showed British women that actually it is possible to be the best in the world,” she said. “Sometimes you need to see someone do it to convince you it’s possible, and we haven’t had that from a guy since the Eighties. I also wonder whether it’s about training ethics. I see guys train hard but I believe I see the girls train harder. There is so much depth in women’s middle-distance running in this country that they can’t afford to be complacent.”