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Dame Kelly Holmes on finding purpose, staying motivated, and overcoming adversity

Dame Kelly Holmes is a British sporting legend whose successes are hard-won. Having spent her early life in care, and overcoming depression at the peak of her career, she fought through numerous injuries to win two gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Retired from athletics since 2005, she still holds the British records over 600, 800 and 1000 metre distances.

Since retiring, she has spoken candidly about her mental health struggles. Through her charity work she has become an advocate for young athletes and young people facing disadvantage across the United Kingdom.

The events of 2020 have disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives. In such uncertain times, finding and maintaining motivation can be a challenge for anyone. For the first edition of the Groundswell digital marketing festival, organised by The Trade Desk, Dame Kelly spoke to Lynn Lester, managing director of global events at The Drum, about setting and achieving goals, and not giving up in adversity,

Register here to watch the full interview.

Dame Kelly’s Ingredients for Success: Potential, Purpose, Perseverance.

“I always had the potential to be a good runner. My P.E. teacher when I was at school was one person who really believed in me, and sometimes that’s all it takes. I found my purpose getting inspired by the Olympic movement, by runners like Sebastian Coe.”

And perseverance? “I believe people give up too early. They stop just before the changing point. Because the struggle is the learning, and improvement comes from that struggle. So you should keep trying unless you have proof you can't succeed – and in that process you improve your abilities.”

Finding purpose starts with believing in your own abilities.

Dame Kelly says that self-belief is vital to a fulfilling career. “You have to look at yourself and realise how good you actually are, how good you can actually be, if you believe it. We are all good at something that other people aren't.”

“I wasn’t academic, and I left school with nothing except running. To build a career after athletics I had to think about my transferable skills. I realised I was good at teamwork. I'm an individual runner but I had a whole team around me in order to make it work. And my time in the army gave me leadership skills, the ability to plan ahead and strategise.

“If you look back at your own life, your own journey, what are the things you have learnt along the way?”

Don't underestimate the power of thinking on your feet.

Not all the biggest career moves are the result of reflection and careful planning. Recalling a charity event where she met then prime minister Gordon Brown, Dame Kelly spoke about her unplanned pitch to be national school sport champion. “It was the year after Athens, and I felt I was in a position to inspire young people. I went up to him and said I'd like to discuss an idea to inspire children.”

It led to an impromptu meeting and a new role in which she served three years, which in turn shaped her 12 years of charity work through her foundation. “Don’t worry about having the professional skills, or think you need an education to open doors. Sometimes you have to think with passion, your head and your heart.”

Managing mental health relies on openness and understanding.

Just a year before her Olympic gold medals, the 2003 world championship silver medallist was having what she describes as a breakdown. “I didn't think it was something that would happen to me, as a soldier and a resilient person.

“I was standing on the podium, and nobody knew. I couldn't talk about what I was going through mentally, so I reached out to physiotherapists, my training partner, even my doctor, in an attempt to cover up the emotional pain I couldn't talk about.”

She acknowledges that mental health discussions in sport are becoming more open. “When it comes to mental health, education is key. “

Her tips for managing mental health in the day-to-day? Exercise has, unsurprisingly, a starring role, as well as reaching out to dedicated organisations. But where possible, she advises relying on people you already know. “Don't think that you are a burden. If you didn't tell someone, and they found out what you were going through, they would be distraught.”

We're always told to do things a certain way, but there's nothing wrong with being unique.

Dame Kelly admits she has worried about being pigeonholed in the latter stages of her career, because of being an athlete or because of her background. “I've worried what people have thought about me, although it has become less important with age.

“I’ve been turned down for board positions because of the way I spoke and came across, and I was told I wasn't a good fit. Being in the public eye, people say a lot of lovely things about you. So hearing these negatives really made me think, and I could have taken it very personally. I began to feel very disappointed.

“In the end I wrote a letter to the person who turned me down, with an itemised list of answers to the questions she had asked, and you know what, I got the position. I had the guts to go, I'm not giving up. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there.”

She adds that finding happiness in what you do is vital. “If you're always taking on other people's perceptions then you're not really living your life.”

This is the first edition of the Groundswell Digital Marketing Festival, brought to you by The Trade Desk. Register here to watch the full interview.