Have you ever dreamt of a career in sport?
Sarah Robinson, Leeds University’s sport performance manager spoke to us about her journey. From early sporting success in her adolescence to landing her first role as a full-time coach, Robinson dives into the past and reveals how one set-back can transform into a window of opportunity for a successful career in sport.
What does the role of sports performance manager involve?
Robinson explained that there are two key areas within her role. The first is focused on supporting sports scholar athletes and managing a task program tailored for them. The TASS athlete scholarship program provides athletes with additional support including physiotherapy, nutritional advice, strength and conditioning coaching and academic liaison support – “[A] bespoke package around the athlete.” The second is managing the relationship and working with the university’s sports clubs and societies in terms of their development plans and year-on-year progression.
What inspired you to have a career in sport?
Robinson initially began studying three dimensional design, yet emphasised that sport had always played a major part in her life. From the age of ten, she became interested in synchronised swimming at her local leisure centre in Pudsey, West Yorkshire. By the age of twelve, Robinson had progressed to national level where she went on to compete at the British Championships. After achieving various medal wins she pressed on and trialled for the senior GB team in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics. To her dismay, she was unsuccessful in the selection process, however this setback did not stand in the way of other opportunities. It was at this point, where she made the decision to transition into coaching.
How did you land your first job as a full-time coach?
From starting as a lifeguard at the age of sixteen, Robinson took on multiple roles at the leisure centre ranging from her job as a receptionist to a cleaner. But it was when she made the choice to go into coaching that her career took off.
She said, “I had no idea that it would become a career. When I was at university, I was coaching and training for a little bit and following that I was fortunate because there was legacy funding for sports like synchronised swimming. At the time, I was lucky because there were four full-time jobs open in the UK so I went for one of those and managed to get it.”
Robinson gravitated towards coaching because of her love for it and for “the love of sport”.
“Looking back both my parents played for England volleyball so I basically grew up in a sports centre which I think is why I wasn’t necessarily interested in the beginning. It was just so familiar and I wanted something different initially, they were both teachers as well so that’s kind of interesting and they’re both coaches. So, I think they’ve probably had a really strong influence on me and I was always surrounded by people who were sporty. Sport was always a normal part of life and placing sport as a priority was always the norm.”
Did you ever face any hurdles along the way? If so, how did you motivate yourself to overcome these issues?
“When I started in my first coaching job I was really fresh out of university and it was a big leap for me and everybody else because ultimately, it was a big step up and I had not anticipated how big of a step it was going to be, so it was like a baptism of fire. But, it was probably the best thing for me as I had to learn things extremely quickly. The challenge then was believing in myself. There was a lot of self-doubt for a good couple of years and I had to convince everybody else that I would be successful.”
Robinson told Leeds Sport that personal development has been a major part of her career growth. When she started off after university, she lacked the confidence to back her decisions and felt the need to change her attitudes about herself. So she took a risk and used her initiative to create a process regarding a vibrant new training plan.
“I had to develop my confidence to create a process because a lot of the time no process existed and there was no precedent to go off so I couldn’t just follow a plan.”
Essentially, it was Robinson’s passion for sport which helped her to stay focussed and committed. While she felt underqualified for her role initially, she knew she had the skills to execute her program successfully.
“In a sport without much funding, you are everything. You have to be able to educate yourself in nutrition, sports psychology and time management because you just don’t have the support services available ̶ which is what is so fantastic about Leeds because we do have that available.”
Robinson payed credit to her colleagues as helping her to stay motivated as well as receiving regular feedback from students. She also emphasised the importance of setting targets.
Who inspired you when you were younger?
“Someone who had a key influence on me was a coach called Heber who competed at the Olympics with her twin sister Sarah. They came over to Leeds University from Egypt to study and while they were here, they got in touch with my local club in Pudsey and offered to coach for free. They were such positive people as well as being amazing coaches – they really inspired my coaching.
Following this, I went on to Manchester and had another fantastic coach at the club also. After that, once I started my career as a coach, my manager was Adrian Hinchcliffe who coached Olympic divers like Chris Mears at Leeds.”
Do you have any goals for the future?
“At present, I want to keep developing my management skills so the next thing I’d like to do is complete some more qualifications around management to further develop those and continue to build on that.”
Robinson encourages anyone interested in sport to start as early as possible, whether its working as a lifeguard in your local leisure centre at sixteen or simply helping out at your local sports club. She also expressed that you should always challenge yourself despite feeling too underqualified when applying to new roles – self-confidence is the key.