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Dame Kelly Holmes: The overlap between sport and business

Frequent comparisons have been made between the worlds of sport and enterprise, whether it be leadership, teamwork or success. As such, Real Business spoke with double Olympic gold medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes to find out her take on the similarities.
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The career path of Holmes saw the now famous athlete first abandon athletics as an 18 year-old to join the army, re-join after thinking she could do better than those she saw competing on the world stage and then experience more highs and lows than any sports man or women could expect to endure before capping it all off with those two memorable gold medals in Athens back in 2004.

She’s now spearheading the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, supporting youngsters both in and out of the sporting world in improving their lives. Utilised by the charity is the ability for athletes currently transitioning from sport to serve as valuable mentors.

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Interested to find out where elite sports people and business leaders share skills, we put this question to Holmes first. She pulled out qualities such as being driven, showing commitment to a cause and focusing on a particular outcome as specific areas for comparison.

She also went into the valuable ability to get over barriers and set backs, using nous to work out the best possible way of doing this – of course supported by a ready, willing and able team.

On the subject of a team, and the cohesiveness of a successful one, Holmes believes it’s not so much a case of picking someone who has been in the job for a long time, but judging them on what they have achieved in that role. Long-time coach Dave Arnold was someone who understood her and was passionate about sport.

Holmes made the express point of separating out the role of a coach from that of a mentor. Stating that back at the beginning of her athletics career there wasn’t really the concept of a mentor, she sees a coach as someone how is there to tell you what you need to do in order to become better – while a mentor has more empathy and is there for the one-one-one.

“There were times that it didn’t go right, I had a lot of injuries,” she explained. “In the lead up to the 2000 Olympic Games I was injured early in the year and had to readjust my training as I couldn’t run. That’s hard for a runner, but I had to stay emotionally focussed.”

The team around her simulated what was needed to stay fit, and helped her through that tough time – making it as good as possible.


Moving onto the topic of what makes a great coach, Holmes revealed it is about understanding the situation an athlete is in. “It’s going to their level to know what developmental needs are required – it’s not one size fits all as we’re all different learners.

“It was really important for me to have it all written down, with timeframes and outcomes expected. If i had a training schedule I would do it as otherwise I would feel like I’d let myself down. Without one, it was easy to wonder. So while its a case of writing it down and being direct, equally as a coach you are there to improve skills. As such, you need to be better equipped than the person you are training.”

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Back from the brink

Holmes overcame big injuries time after time, with the most notable example being the time she suffered a stress fracture in training just before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics but still competed in both the 800m and 1500m. In an instance of running through pain and definitely being out of her comfort zone, she learnt how to deal with adversity and use it as a guide for success later on in her career.

One of the particularly interesting comments Holmes made was the tendency to only work on strengths all the time when it comes to coaching or management – while the aspects needing work are neglected. Getting the best out of people means taking them out of their comfort zones, she added, changing up environments.

Her period in the army “made her who she was” as an athlete, she told us. “The army was all about respect, discipline and motivation – pushing yourself against normal comfort areas. In the army it was real cut and dry as to what you had to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rank is there for a purpose, and the higher you get the more responsibility you have. This is the same for business, with rank comes responsibility.”

Mentoring was a topic Holmes frequently came back to, unsurprising given its core role in the work of her charity. Bringing together well-known athletes such as Abi Oyepitan, Andrew Steele, Daniel Caines and Hayley Yelling-Higham, the charity helps them make the most out of their skills and experiences to find “new and rewarding career paths”, as well as using their history in overcoming adversity to help other youngsters make big life decisions.

“We work with people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we want to get them back into employment or training,” she explained. “We use sports people as they have a great rapport with young people, who have a roller-coaster ride of a life. These athletes might also have come from the same environment and situation.”

Holmes explained that the mentors understand the young person they are working with, establishing a friendship and building rapport and trust. “Moving that on it becomes how do you get the best out of yourself, making sure there is aching in attitudes and behaviour to be a better person.”

Her criticism of mentors in the business space is that they don’t necessarily know the difference between being a mentor and being a coach. “There is definitely need for development there. In sport we are doing this, mentoring is boom a lot more popular and utilised. After all, coaching is more on the professional side – getting the best out of somebody.”

Using the skills she has acquired in her career in sport to better inform the business community is UK Challenge, a corporate team building event taking place in the Lake District which challenges teams intellectually, strategically and physically. The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust is the fundraising partner for the event.

Away from these kind of business-orientated initiatives Holmes’ work is driven by a desire to give something back, see young people turn their lives around. “We find there is stereotypical teenager that is dismissed. They come in and have hoodies on, grunting,” she said.

“But each and every one of them have ability to make change – every one has a hidden talent. I find it very fulfilling that we are able to draw that out, and by the time they leave the programme they are sanding on stage, looking smart and speaking articulately.”

Holmes might just be doing for mentorship what she did for British middle distance running on those famous two nights in Athens.

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About Author

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven is the editor of Real Business. He is also the editor of Business Advice, a title focused solely on a section of the business community currently underserved – micro companies. Alongside this, he is part of the team that hosts the Growing Business Awards, First Women Awards and Future 50 initiative.

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