Odette Hornby is a former international fencer who spent over a decade in professional sport.
Passionate about the mental side of athletic performance, Odette completed an undergraduate degree in sports psychology three years ago. She then finalised a Master’s degree in sports psychology and is currently undertaking a PhD in sports psychology with a focus on the link between extreme sport and addiction.
Odette has put her knowledge and experience into play as sports psychologist with the Welsh netball team, supporting the squad through the 2022 Commonwealth Games and in the run-up to the 2023 netball World Cup.
In October 2022, she teamed up with Athlete Career Transition as the company’s Performance Psychologist. The role involves helping athletes to navigate the complex pathway from sport into business environments.
We spoke with Odette about her background and her work at Athlete Career Transition.
Can you describe your own transition out of sport?
I was a fencer, competing for England and Great Britain. Prior to starting university, I moved out to Paris and trained full-time with the French fencing team. I spent the year in Paris alone, away from family and familiar working structures, but the experience was amazing.
Unfortunately, I got stress fracture injuries. The injuries got worse when I returned to university in England because I went from training with the best in the world to training with more limited people. I ended up being out of sport for quite a long time, and then Covid happened, so training became even harder.
I made the decision to get stuck into studying and work, but leaving the physical side of athletic culture was very difficult. I went from gruelling full-time training to doing very little, and that’s one of the primary hurdles all athletes face.
Competition culture was another hurdle. As an athlete, if your training has gone well, it will show in competition. If it hasn’t, you can establish areas you need to work on. Those kinds of answers don’t exist if you don’t have that competition as a testing ground.
For me, the biggest challenge lay in the fact that I’m conditioned to give 110% in everything I do, no matter what the task is. I always felt it tough being surrounded by people who don’t share that mindset.
With ACT, I’ve been able to apply myself fully to working with athletes and helping them to reach their best, so in that sense I’m still very much involved in sport and the elite performance environment. All my past experiences are relevant and being drawn on today. I’m really looking forward to helping more athletes to achieve their goals.
How do your experiences as an athlete inform the work you do with athletes at ACT?
My experience helps massively because I know what it’s like to operate in that high-performance athletic environment, and I fully understand the emotions athletes go through when they retire. I am familiar with the processes and I have complete empathy with those going through them.
My backgrounds give me a unique insight into the psychologies of retiring from sport. I know how it feels to leave that sporting domain where your life is timetabled for you, from meeting coaches, to doing warm-ups and multiple training sessions, etc. If you’re going into a nine-to-five job, when and where assigned tasks get done can largely be left to the individual.
Athletes are products of a very competitive environment; they’re used to pushing themselves 110%, so if they go into a job they will still want to put that level of effort into their duties and responsibilities.
In the “normal” world of work, some employees push themselves, others less so, and some might even do the bare minimum. Athletes are never really going to understand these approaches. I help to prepare athletes for these new settings so that they know what’s going on and can operate to their best.
Describe your current role as ACT’s Performance Psychologist
Today I create resources to facilitate athletes in their career transitions. This is a broad range of tools that will help athletes to go through positive reflection when they are on their own or not having direct support with me.
I select key themes that impact on athletes when they retire from sport, based on conversation sessions I have with athletes. This might be a short video on how to regain personal identity, post-sport – just a two-minute clip that reinforces points made in discussion sessions. If they are having a difficult day, athletes can benefit from having
that extra reassurance.
I had created these kinds of resources for my netball team. Off-season, athletes can be away from competition for long periods. In that down time, speaking to psychologists isn’t always an option, so I devised ways of providing support where and when individuals need it.
In what other ways do you help athletes with their transition journeys?
Primarily, I give support through one-to-one conversation sessions to help athletes navigate their transition so that they eventually get placed in a new job.
We cover everything from building confidence and understanding life after sport, to identifying the many transferable skills that athletes have as high-performance individuals. We look at how these skills can be developed or directly applied to success in business.
Often athletes don’t realise how skills-equipped they are. Even if they don’t have direct experience of a new job, the knowledge they leverage as an athlete can be even more valuable. Part of my job is to remind athletes of this reality and support them through the process of adapting to new contexts.
How have athletes responded to the support they receive through ACT?
The athletes do really well and they enjoy the processes involved, particularly in terms of getting stuck into something new. A lot of it is about giving athletes the opportunity to invest everything into a fresh start, and removing their ability to dwell on their departure from sport.
Those who have chosen to retire can often find the process easier because they’ve had more chance to prepare. For those who may have been forced into retirement through injury, that transition isn’t anticipated and it can be a shock to the system.
Why is it so important that athletes receive this kind of support?
In retiring, many athletes may have moved countries and lost the sense of community that is so much a part of who they are. They may have departed social circles that held them together, lost friends and colleagues. So, stepping away from sport is a huge deal – it’s so much more than leaving a job.
My role is to enable them to locate support systems that will expedite the transition. They may need assistance getting into new workplace routines – a task that throws up physical as well as psychological challenges. A person can go from training full-time, day-in, day-out, and suddenly they’re sitting behind a desk for eight hours per day. People don’t realise the impact this has on the athletic mind and body.
It’s primarily about lifestyle changes. Athletes go from an environment in which they’re completely safe, to something new, and that can be very lonely. Besides many other issues, that feeling of isolation can negatively impact your own performance. So, it’s hugely important to make this change as smooth as possible.