Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The After-life...a guest-post from Jo Mersh

I was a World Championship Bronze medallist, a former British Record Holder, ex-adidas pin-up girl, and I even performed my own songs on stage to Lord Coe and Daley Thompson. I Modeled for Stella McCartney, and played football with David Beckham. 

My name was Jo Fenn and I was a somebody. 

But 16 years after beginning  a career in track and field, it all came crashing down ...


The after-life

My career in track and field started when I was 14 and ended when I was 30.

I say ended because it was taken from me ... in spectacular Liam Neeson fashion.

I didn’t choose to end it, it chose to end me. I was dumped after dedicating my life to the sport..

How many walk away and do the dumping? 

Last month, I met some recently retired athletes in a Shoreditch roof top garden. Fresh from hanging up their spikes, they told me what they were doing with their lives. I came to realize that they are reinventing themselves. They have been smart enough to use sport to create new opportunities

One of the athletes - an innovator in a new sports venture - has moved out of her home city to set up in London because she feels there are more opportunities and like-minded people.  

The other has taken a PT training course, and is currently working for a gym chain with the intention of building up her own client base. She is also juggling working in an office part time, coaching, and working in vintage fashion. 

Both former athletes realize that they need to get out there and make it happen. They need to take initiative. Nothing is going to fall into their laps. If every athlete had this proactive personality, I think there would be more ex-athletes translating their skills and learning new skills to step into the business world.

My last competitive race was in 2005 at the World Athletics Finals in Monaco. I remember buying this hot pair of heels with my prize money, and when I look back, I feel sad that at the time I didn't know that Monaco would be my last race. Would I have bought a £300 of heels? Hell yeah!! Was I aware that my career was ending and had I a contingency plan in place??

Kind of ... but I was out of my comfort zone.

In my head I was just beginning my road to world-class ... or so I thought.

So what went wrong??

My 7th operation? A divorce? A new coach? A mis-diagnosis of an injury and then a mis-diagnosis about how long my recovery would take? 

Perhaps ... 

In any case, my inability to recover mentally and physically from a hideous knee operation forced me to finally accept that I was finished. 

Cue ... Retirement

... so now what?

I decided that I needed to gain experience in an office environment. I was determined to use my Marketing and Communications degree. Luckily, I had thought it a good idea to study during training - just in case I needed a plan B.  

But working for a living hit me pretty hard. Commuting on London Underground from St Albans to Tottenham Court Road every day for 6 weeks took its toll. I was running at 6am, tubing it in at 7.30am and in the office by 8.30am. Busy deadlines and meeting after meeting until 6.30pm then home and another run - I was eating dinner at 10.00 pm. 

Yes - I was still training even after retirement...not really accepting reality. 

I was burnt out. I’d become a regular punter on the underground - nobody special - no stage to show off on - and no superhero status. 

Just another stranger on the train. 


Where had that somebody gone? Why wasn’t I warned ? When they handed me my World Indoor Bronze medal on the rostrum, why hadn't they whispered in my ear “this is not going to last - enjoy it!”

The hardest thing to accept is to go from somebody to nobody. Adapting to civilian life is extremely stressful, depressing, and very mentally challenging.

James Cracknell - one of Britain’s finest Olympic Rowers believes retirement brings a void where the comfort of a training routine once was:

"If they're honest many sports stars haven't grown up that're institutionalized in that you're told when to be at training and what to eat, etc. I think that hand-holding routine can lead people to feeling lost when they retire, so they need to find something to replace it." 

Other Sports stars that have struggled to adapt and have suffered depression - including Frank Bruno, Freddy Flintoff, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ricky Hatton, John Kirwan, Kelly Holmes, Neil Lennon. There are many know who you are.

I was actually a bit of a walking cliche... have a list of challenges that athletes face upon retirement. Reading this was like ticking the boxes of my life over the past 8 years:

Denial - check
Divorce - check
Financial Loss - check
Physical Loss - have knees that sound like tic-tacs when I squat
Lack of purpose and significance - check
Depression - check
Anger and bitterness - check
Loss of Structure - check
Isolation - check
Drinking and drugs - not yet!

All of these unexpected and overwhelming challenges make sense to me. I now know I am not alone ...

Acceptance is like being reborn. You can reinvent yourself and not be afraid to learn.

After my internship, I knew how to write a letter, how to send an email, print a fax, make a round of teas and how to hold a conversation that wasn’t about me or my sport. I finally learned how to be a team player. It was a hard apprenticeship but I came through it - and suddenly was on the other side of Sports. I was now the servant of the athletes - not the special one anymore. Strangely I still felt connected to the sport and I felt that I was ready to go out and get a proper job. 

“Sports is the only profession I know that when you retire, you have to go to work."
- Earl Monroe

I began working for UK Athletics in the Marketing and Commercial department. Having a Media degree definitely helped, but I had to start from the bottom. A junior salary with a good athletic profile but hey - it was a job and I gave it 100% and worked really hard to gain the respect of my colleagues - who once had been writing my selection letters and organizing athlete appearances for me. 

I was now organizing athlete shoots and sticking up signage and branding for events and on occasions, wiping the bottoms of spoilt athletes. Oh the irony.

I remember working at the Birmingham Indoor Grand Prix which was my favourite track (I broke the 1000m British Record there). It was extremely difficult watching fellow competitors on the track in the 800 metres with admiring fans screaming out their names. 

I was now in the wings of the stage, and would have to get used to it.

I remember going to the loo to sob for half an hour because I wanted to be out there, I realized that I hadn't got over my career even after nearly three years. Was I ever going to move on?


I did - but only when I started being praised for my work at UK Athletics and being accepted into a new family. 

I have worked in a couple of marketing agencies, and am now back singing and songwriting.  I also am enjoying public speaking for the 21st Century Legacy Programme - founded by legend Sir David Hemery. 

Speaking is therapy - it’s self-indulgent and appreciating. 

Kids love an ex-Olympian, and luckily for me, I still fit into my 2004 Athens tracksuit! It feels good. 

My message to the kids is that Sport is made up of moments. I had maybe two or three magical moments in 16 years that I really felt proud of ... and that was enough.

8 years on - and I am a mother and in a happy, loving relationship. I think about track and field every day but it doesn’t hurt anymore. I am a supporter now, and when a random athletics fan asks for my autograph - I smile inside, act completely surprised, and bashful and sign with kisses.

Then I wipe the snot from my toddlers nose and go about my day. 
There is an after life.


If you enjoyed this post, please share it on Twitter or Facebook...thanks!

Jo Mersh is a former Great Britain Olympic Athlete who won a World Indoor Bronze Medal in 2004 and broke the British 1000m record in the same year. Jo was plagued by injuries with a total of 7 operations in her career. 

Known by the British press as the singing athlete, Jo continues to perform and write songs and is currently working on a new album. Today, Jo works for 21st Century Legacy - be the best you can be - Programme speaking to young people about the journey of an athlete.

Give Jo a follow on Twitter.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Getting called up to the majors...

In March of 2010, I moved to the UK to work with sprinters, jumpers, and throwers at one of two High Performance Training Centers (Hi-PAC) that were a part of UK Athletics new two-Center ‘Centralization’ scheme.  Needless to say, I was pretty excited to be making such a move.  I would be leaving the relative comfort of Canada and the United States - and the cultural insignificance of amateur sport, and stepping into the big-time.  

The annual budget of UKA in 2010 was more than that of every NGB I had worked with in Canada and the United States combined for the previous quadrennial. So, although I had enjoyed some pretty good success on the western side of the Atlantic, I was a little nervous to see how I would stack up in Europe - where they actually care about amateur sport, and fund it accordingly.   Even more than this, I was now stepping back into a big-time ‘competitive’ sport, rather than the relatively small-time worlds of speedskating, bobsleigh, and skeleton that I had become extremely comfortable with.  

This is meant as no affront to these sports - it is simply the reality of the situation: everyone the world over grows up running, jumping, and throwing.  Athletics events are one of the first movement skills that kids are taught, and they are practiced by every country in the world to some extent.  Speedskating, bobsleigh, skeleton, and a whole host of other sports that attract more niche populations are simply not as competitive.  They do not attract as many athletes.  Very few countries have organized systems, and fewer still have developmental plans.  Only a handful of countries in the world even have the necessary facilities to compete in these sports.  

So I saw getting back into track and field as a step up.  It was an opportunity for me to test my coaching skills against the best in the world.  It was an opportunity for me to learn from some of the best coaches, athletes, and support providers that sport has to offer. I saw the sport (and still see it, incidentally) as the pinnacle of athletic achievement, that which requires the the optimum in athletic expertise.  

I was expecting to immerse myself into the culture of sprint coaching.  I was expecting to be blown away by the professionalism, and the expertise of the world's best athletes, coaches, and programs.  I was expecting to gain some insight into exactly what the secret recipe to speed exactly was.  

Trouble is, I never found out...

Let me explain:

I spent over a decade in Calgary working with some of the smartest coaches and sport scientists in the world, in an environment that was challenging and professional and yet allowed for unbound creativity.  Isolated from the rest of the world, we were pretty much limited only by our imaginations as to how and what we thought were the necessary ingredients in developing the high-performance athlete. We were given virtually unlimited access to hundreds of University and National Team athletes  every year.  If we had bosses, they trusted us to get on with it (I drifted in and out of the ‘system’, but remained in close contact with all within it throughout). Creative and passionate in their own fields, leaders like Dr Steve Norris and Dr David Smith helped to create a passionate group of young sports scientists and strength coaches that - in my mind - remains unrivaled anywhere I have seen and been (unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the Center’s sports medicine and sports nutrition, which has been an unmitigated disaster from the start, and was a big motivation for my move abroad).

The freedom that we were given served to feed our passion for what we were doing.  It fueled our creativity, and made us dig deeper in our quest to find the Holy Grail of optimal athletic performance.  We started a Strength and Conditioning Practicum at the University, and brought through the next generation of S&C professionals, who in turn served to drive us forward even more.

It truly was a high performance environment.  Great people.  Great athlete population.  Great facilities. And the time, space, and freedom to explore ...

A young coach really cannot ask for much more.

But it was missing something.  We were doing a great job of working with these young athletes in these ‘non-competitive’ sports.  While we were producing multiple Olympians and Olympic Champions, they were not in the ‘competitive’ sports: those sports that are performed everywhere.  By everyone.  Track and field being - in my mind - the ultimate.  

So I bounced ...

... off to the UK.  

And, after spending three years there, taking two sprinters to the London Olympic Games, having had the tremendously fortunate opportunity to coach three of the country’s greatest ever sprinters, having coached at the London Olympics, two World Championships, dozens of Diamond League events, and numerous other high-level competitions where I mingled with some of the greatest athletes of all-time, and having taken the last few months to process and reflect, I have come to the following conclusion:

They’re all clueless ...

All the coaches, the support staff, the management teams ...
that surround these ‘world’s greatest’ athletes were horrible.

Well - maybe not all

In the UK, I was lucky enough to belong to a truly professional organization, led by a management team that I can honestly not imagine being any better (especially Charles Van Commonee, Neil Black and Simon Nathan), that employed some of the best service providers in coaching, nutrition, biomechanics, and sports medicine the world had to offer.  I am truly grateful for the opportunities I enjoyed to spend time with  - and learn from - nutritionists Glenn Kearney and Matt Lovell, therapists Andy Burke, Gordon Bosworth, and Gerry Ramogida, coaches (and coach educators) Dan Pfaff, Kevin Tyler, and Derek Evely, apprentice coaches Steve Fudge, Jonas Dodoo, and Hayley Ginn, sports Docs Paul Dijkstra and Rob Chakraverty, biomechanists Paul Brice and Deborah Sides, and most of all athletes Greg Rutherford, Steve Lewis, Goldie Sayers, Junior Ejehu, Rikki Fifton, Mark Findlay, and especially Marlon Devonish, Dwain Chambers and Christian Malcolm. 

It was a great three years - three years where I probably added more to my overall coaching repertoire  than I had in the previous ten.  But almost none of this came from where I was expecting to gain the most: experiencing, being with, watching, talking to, etc. those that were responsible for the greatest athletic achievements in the world.  

And for a guy who’s driving philosophy in acquiring knowledge is learning by doing, this was a little disconcerting.

Because, quite frankly, those guys just didn’t seem to have the first clue of what they were doing.  

Where I was expecting world-class technical understanding, there was nonsensical cueing; where I was expecting elaborate and professional support teams, there was often none; where I was expecting in-depth knowledge in nutrition and supplementation, there was Kentucky Fried Chicken and Gatorade.  

I saw some horrendous coaching, even worse therapy input, and as we have all seen over the last few weeks now, some truly disgusting nutritional and supplemental ‘expertise’.

Frankly, it is just not good enough

By placing their trust in us, we owe these young men and women our greatest efforts.  It is our JOBS to become as good as we can at what we do.  Professional coaches should not only know their event inside and out (mechanics, specific physiology, programming, etc.), but have at least a working understanding of the entirety of the inter-disciplinary nature of the development and optimization of an athlete’s potential.   This takes effort.  It takes years.  We need to actually read books, stay up to date on research in the relevant areas, go to Conferences, develop key relationships with other coaches, mentors, and apprentices, to not get bogged down in dogma and tradition, to spend as much time in and with the related disciplines as possible.  

To become a great coach - to actually deserve the trust of these young men and women - is not a passive process!  I simply cannot understand those coaches who’s day is done when they walk off the track.  That is NOT coaching.  That’s when your day should start!

A coach who has actually taken the time, and put in the effort, would never ruin an athlete’s career by allowing for willy-nilly ‘trust’ in charlatan therapists and/or ‘anti-aging specialists ... if you were doing your job, there would be no reason for your athletes to seek out their so-called ‘expertise’.

Rant over...this is my conclusion

Where I thought that moving into a more ‘competitive’ sport would mean a step up in coaching and support service expertise, it actually showed the opposite.  It was significantly worse than what I was used to.  

But this makes no sense, you say?

Actually it does ...

... a few conversations I had in Monaco over the last few weeks (especially so with Lauryn Williams - one of which I documented on the blog a couple of weeks ago) spawned an idea:

The more talented (i.e. ‘competitive’) the athlete, the less he or she needs to do to succeed ... the less that athlete’s coach needs to do for the athlete to succeed ... the less important nutrition, supplementation, sports medicine is for the athlete to succeed.  And without this necessity, there is no impetus for the athlete, and the coach, and the support team, to do anything different.  There is no motivation to drive forward - to seek out more information - to search for optimization of the nutritional plan - to devise the perfect regeneration strategy - to reach out to the best therapists, etc.

The best track and field athletes in the world were generally the best athletes at every age-group they ever competed at.  Used to being the best, there has been no reason for their coaches to expand their current knowledge base.  ‘I’m already coaching the city’s/region’s/state’s/country’s/world’s best - I obviously already know what I’m doing - so why should I change?’  And this is a self-sustaining system - the more success that athlete has, the more athletes that coach can recruit, then the more different managers/agents and shoe companies come knocking - further feeding their mis-guided confidence in their own abilities.

So what?

I actually find this incredibly encouraging.  For from my standpoint, there is no reason why - with additional understanding and increased focus on the support services - elite  track and field athletes cannot continue to improve every year of their career.  Indeed, the optimal plan necessitates it - at least until the inevitable late career down-slide, as other factors begin to play a larger role (such as family, money, post-athletic career, etc.).  

If the truly elite track and field athletes are currently not maximizing their potential (as I believe), then it offers hope to those athletes that hit the early- or mid-career plateaus that are so common.   Increased understanding of the inter-disciplinary nature of the development of elite success will lead to the athlete making better choices, and an eventual weeding-out of the passive coaches who do little more than stand idly by, yelling their idiotic instructions and blowing their stupid whistles.  

Once again, it comes down to education.  We all need to do a better job of educating these young men and women, so that these ridiculous mistakes that continue to cost these athletes their careers are eventually eliminated.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Big Dupe...a guest-post from Matt Jordan

The following short guest-post was inspired by this ridiculous research that was published last week.  Regretfully, this garbage is about the general norm of the industry right now.  Stupid research being carried out by stupid people, making stupid claims.  

Matt Jordan is a PhD student in the Faculty of Medical Science at the University of Calgary.  He is also a Sports Physiology Consultant and Strength Coach for the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary, Canada, and is about the smartest strength coach I know.  He's worked in the trenches for almost twenty years, working closely with some of Canada's top winter sport athletes.  

The following is a short diatribe that was part of an email exchange that was inspired by the aforementioned crap...

The Big Dupe...a Guest-Post from Matt Jordan

Screw the 'science' of nutrition and especially screw the industry of nutrition.... it's all a bunch of crap if you ask me.  The only thing that makes sense is the simple concept of energy balance - i.e. you eat more than you burn, you get fat.... you eat less than you burn, you lose fat.  

If you use this as a rule of thumb, my bet is that things fall into place for 99% of the human population regardless of whether or not you eat carbs/abstain from carbs, eat breakfast/skip breakfast, fast/graze, eat gluten/snort gluten.  

The fact is we have access to way too much energy (calories) in the form of tasty processed sugars and grains (which makes us consume more than we should), and we are generally lazy and sedentary compared to our predecessors.  

Let's face it, an hour per day in the gym is nothing compared to the consistent level of physical activity in which past generations of humans would have engaged (including the cavemen...someone should write a book on that fat loss plan... it's all about getting off your ass, quit surfing the internet, and instead getting out and actually moving around for the majority of your day).  

But that's too simple, so we make it about whether your hour in the gym was spent doing a metabolic circuit or on a treadmill...the fact is it's just not enough activity to balance out the caloric intake and lack of activity in the other 23 hours of the day...I digress. 

I think the entire 'science' of nutrition / 'industry' of nutrition is about making money and duping people into thinking there is something that they're missing - when in fact the issue is: you eat too much energy and you don't burn enough energy.  

The nutrition business needs a gut check and a paradigm shift.

Until then, lots of people will make money, few will lose weight, and we will continue to watch the pendulum rocket from one side of the spectrum to the other with apparent randomness.  

In the meantime, our job as experts (hopefully) is to speak some truth and stay true to what makes sense.

You can contact Matt through his website, or give him a follow on Twitter.

Friday, 2 August 2013

on doping - part II...a guest-post from Brad Walker

If you haven't already, check out Brad Walker's first guest-post a couple of weeks ago on doping.  While training in Monaco recently, we spent quite a bit of time discussing the recent positives, and I asked if I could use Brad's post on the blog.  We also spoke about what I think is a pretty unique perspective into doping - one that is rarely discussed.  Brad agreed to write a second piece...

on doping - part II...a guest-post from Brad Walker

Some people will understand the context of this post, some people will not.  The main point is not to take a stance or an opinion for or against, it is to merely to look at a subject from a different perspective.  

One of the greatest benefits of my career has been seeing the world.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see clearly what pole vaulting is, and what pole vaulting isn’t.  Pole vaulting isn’t curing disease, it isn’t fighting injustice, and it’s not the most important thing in my life.  But what pole vaulting is, is a chance to challenge myself at every level, and it has taken me on a path that I don’t think many others jobs could have.  As long as I view my sporting career with that lens, pole vaulting has been an amazing ride.  It has created every aspect of the person I am today.  As I look back on my career, I am reminded of the quote “It is not the outcome that’s important, it’s the journey.” 

2005 was the first year that I really experienced major international travel:  I was on a bus driving to Belem, Brazil, and we were passing a pretty rough neck of the woods.  I was staring out at the deserted houses, their collapsed roofs and broken windows and my heart sank when I realized they weren’t deserted at all -we were just in the slums.  As we continued the drive, we passed a field and there was a bunch of children playing soccer.  It was that moment that I understood why soccer was the biggest sport in the world.  No equipment, and no money required, just kids and space.  

But more importantly, I realized that not everybody lives like I do.    

Pretty obvious, right?  

We all know there is an upper class and a lower class - 1st-world and 3rd-world countries - but I don’t think people really understand how that plays into a person’s decision-making process, as well as their moral and ethical behavior.  

We generally base all of our decisions and judgments from our own point of view:  if I am out for a leisurely drive, and someone gets on my tail, I get bothered.  Conversely, I also get bothered when I’m late and the ‘idiot’ in front of me is on his leisurely drive.  

It’s all about ME.  

So how does this relate to drugs in sports?  Let me explain...

We’ve all heard the question ‘Is it wrong to steal bread to feed a starving family?’
If I were to put myself in that position and see my children malnourished and starving, you better believe I would steal bread.  But is it wrong for a rich spoiled kid to steal a candy bar?  Yes, I believe it is.  

I live in an amazing country and have an amazing family.  I have a college education because my parents were willing to sacrifice to save up money and send me to school.  I have a certain amount of intellect that I can fall back on when my career is complete and feel confident about my ability to get a job and live a comfortable lifestyle.  In a sense….I’m a rich spoiled kid.  Not monetarily, but rich with experience, love, and support.  I can’t steal a candy bar because it is wrong.  

What if you lived in poverty in eastern block Europe?  What if your road out of poverty was in the form of a pill or a liquid?  What if the difference between living in the slums of Brazil and living with a proper roof over your head came in the form of a needle?  Maybe you could buy a real home for your parents, so your younger brother could go to school?  Is it wrong to steal bread to feed a starving family?  

Whenever we hear about drug cheats, we despise them in our sport.  Play fair, play within the rules, don’t cheat.  We are fine watching MLB sluggers hit home run after home run all juiced up, or the NFL linebackers crushing people for our entertainment but in Olympic sports it’s about finding true performance and we can’t stand a cheat.  Even if the person cheating came from Kenya and his one $10,000 win may enable him to get a better life for him and his family.  That person’s a dirty cheat.  

We are quick to judge, but slow to empathize.  

In a world where we overvalue the game, sometimes we loose sight of the bigger picture.  If you’re trying to be a hero for the fame, money and recognition, and you’re willing to bury people along the way, you will be demonized as a cheat and rightly so.  But if you’re trying to be a hero to your family by getting them into a better life, I’m not going to demonize you.  I won’t respect your sporting accomplishments, and I won’t be thrilled by your decision, but I can admit that at some level I can understand.  

The game of life isn’t the same for everyone and that is something I think we all need to understand.  

P.S.  Just for the record in case people think I am advocating the use of drugs, I am not.  I can’t cheat in a game of cards and be happy about the win.  I’ve tried as a young kid and hated it.  It was meaningless to me.  It is actually worse than meaningless because a guilty conscience is worse than a loss.  It’s the same conscience that recently found me sitting in my car at home depot realizing that the lady at the counter didn’t scan my router properly and I got it for free.  I was faced with the decision.  I could leave with a free power tool, or less money and a smile.  

I chose the latter.