When being an athlete becomes your job

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At the World Champs in Eugene a number of athletes were competing as professionals for the first time. British international Verity Ockenden explains what happens when your sport becomes your living

Leading into this year’s World Championships, much of the gossip in Track Town had not only revolved around the usual speculation over record-breaking medal prospects, but increasingly the post-NCAA flux of collegiate signings along with a late-season surge in new athlete-brand partnerships.

Indeed, some athletes were competing in their new sponsor’s shoes for the very first time on this prestigious world stage. For a small proportion of them, despite having been conducting themselves with workmanlike dedication for years in order to reach this level of competition, they have been making – or are about to make – their debut as a professional athlete this season. 

Personally, at the grand age of 30, I have reached the end of my first year of paid sponsorship. It has not been my best year in terms of performance, but there is a satisfaction to be had in having navigated Season One of being a full-time runner. It is a coming of age, a blooding, a seat at the table at which I have already learned a lot.

For some, it is a rite of passage, the only career they have ever known, particularly for those who have been successful in the sport since junior levels. Some are quite literally born into it, benefitting from the wisdom of parents who were world-class athletes themselves and know the mechanisms of the athletics world inside out. 

Since this wasn’t the case for me, I spent a lot of time finding the right agent to represent me. It was longer still until we were ready to approach potential sponsors at the opportune moment – when my recent performances were most impressive and the markets open to change.

Verity Ockenden (Mark Shearman)

Most of the companies we approached needed to take stock of their annual finances before outlining how many new athletes they would be prepared to take on. You might assume that once conversations begin a deal will soon follow, but the negotiation process can last for months.

Although, at the end of the day, an athlete is always the CEO of their own career and where that takes them, taking the time to get a long-term contract right helps maximise that potential. I paid attention to detail and ensured that I was well-advised on industry standards as I examined my options. 

When I finally signed an official contract, it was both a strange realisation and a relief. Running has long been viewed as a sport that is simple and accessible to all but, at an elite level, like most sports, the pursuit of success can get expensive.

Doing the right thing for your body all day every day, training in the best places and travelling to the right races guzzles money at a rate of knots. Now, for the first time, I had a predictable income with a fixed yearly salary that would last for the next four years of my career. One hundred per cent of my time and effort could be focused on running.

It was such a dream that I found adjusting to my new lifestyle challenging initially. It took time and reassurance to convince myself that I belonged in a world where a company really believed in backing me for what I could do, and that what I was doing counted as a real job. 

As with any new job, I wanted to show up on my first day at the office and prove my worth. Unfortunately for me, my debut coincided with an early-season injury and my subsequent performances were far from the firework show I wanted to celebrate with.

Instead it has been a slow and decidedly unglamorous path back to fitness, by no means reflecting the kind of racing for which my sponsor signed me. Of course we both understand that injury comes as part of the territory and I am fortunate that, in On Running, I have signed with a company who continue to support me through that. 

Knowing that it is my job to perform well could certainly feel like an additional pressure in this kind of situation but one that, if embraced consciously and healthily, can help fuel my motivation. This season I am at least mastering finding balance as a professional. 

Though it is now possible to dedicate every single waking hour to the job, I know how important it is to switch off and remember that running is not my whole identity, despite my official job title underlining that aspect. Carving out time and rules for when I am at work and when I am not in athlete mode will be key to avoiding burnout in the long-term. 

READ MORE: Verity Ockenden’s AW magazine columns

Fortunately, finding a new team to belong to is a constant source of energy. Since joining my sponsor, my network in the world of athletics expanded almost instantaneously and I have had the opportunity to work with my newfound global team-mates wherever I go. 

To be invested in the performances of people of every nation all over the world because we all chose to wear the same vest and the same spike with the same desire to win is a powerful thing. It is both humbling and inspiring to be a part of a business who want to do big things, to watch my colleagues do things I am still dreaming of. 

I could easily get caught up in comparison traps, or I could step up, observe and learn from them first hand how to be better. They motivate me to pull my weight, to contribute to a shared goal, even if we all train in separate groups and sometimes even compete directly against each other… and that is a great feeling. 

» This article first appeared in the August issue of AW magazine. To subscribe, CLICK HERE

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