Former British No.1 Anne Keothavong recently swapped her tennis racket for a microphone as she announced her retirement and immediately joined BT Sport’s burgeoning team of expert TV commentators.
I have known and worked with Anne for many years. She defied two horrible knee injuries (five years apart) to put together a career any athlete would be proud of. It included becoming - in 2009 - the first British woman in 16 years to break into the top 50; seven WTA Tour semi-finals and 12 straight years of representing Great Britain at Fed Cup. Along with Elena Baltacha, Anne set a successful precedent which paved the way for younger British players like Heather Watson and Laura Robson to flourish.
As satisfying as it must be for a retiring professional athlete to have an impressive competitive CV and strong legacy, retiring at just 30 years old comes with challenges. The question of ‘what comes next?’ can hang over the last few years of an athletic career like a building thundercloud, bringing with it inherent pressures to perform before time runs out. That’s why it is important to prepare for the transition well ahead of time.
The options are there for most athletes, including coaching, sports management and public speaking, but the move into media is the most common. Those who enjoy the smoothest transition into a broadcasting career are the ones who have begun to build up their experience and contacts while they are still competing.
We advise athletes to begin doing more media in the latter stages of their career for two reasons. Firstly, it builds their profile, engages their fans and gets them noticed. Secondly, it allows them to develop their media skills as they go along and use every interview they do as an opportunity to focus on putting some of the tips we’ve given them into practice.
Broadcasting on TV and radio isn’t easy, however simple some of its more established commentators make it look, and there is no guarantee that an excellent sportsperson will instantly be a natural on the airwaves. I know from my own broadcasting experience that, like any other skill, it takes time to develop and build your confidence. Sue Barker, Andrew Castle, Mary Carillo, Gary Lineker are just some of the ex-athletes who have made hugely successful transitions from the field of play to studio or commentary box. I’m sure all of them of them would admit that it took time and plenty of hard work to find their voice - both literally and figuratively.
One of the keys to success is to become comfortable talking about other athletes and their performances, which is a huge part of sports media. We proactively seek out opportunities for our players to comment on events, news stories and generally establish themselves as a voice of reasoned opinion. This can also be done by tailoring the content of Twitter and Facebook to include more focus on the sport as a whole or emerging stories.
As an athletes skills and confidence develop, we can then drive opportunities for them to be studio guests, take on guest commentary stints and do pieces to-camera. This nurturing process has to be managed around training and competition so that performance isn’t compromised.
With the right advice and support, an athlete can then make a smooth transition from their first career to their second.