After enjoying a successful sailing career that included competing at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, Penny Clark is now helping to develop the next generation of Olympic sailors. Here, she reveals how and why she made the transition from athlete to coach.
Penny Clark made her international sailing debut in 1990, aged 15, and raced for Great Britain in the Laser Radial class at Beijing 2008. But after narrowly missing out on selection for London 2012, she began to reassess a career that had seen her rise to world number one in the 470 class, and decided that she was ready to use her experiences to help younger sailors forge their own Olympic careers. After retiring from competition in 2013, Clark became a coach for the British Sailing Team’s Podium Potential Programme, and is now relishing her new role. Here, she offers her advice to other athletes looking to follow a similar path.
From mentor to coach
As well as being a competitive sailor, I’m a fully trained engineer and was a naval officer as well. I always assumed that I’d return to that career post-sailing. But after London 2012, when we began a new Olympic cycle for Rio 2016, I soon realised that I was becoming more of a mentor for the young British sailors than I was a competitor. I was getting more enjoyment, pleasure and reward from seeing my team-mates improve than I was from my own sailing, and that really made me start thinking about moving into coaching.
The next steps
I’d been a leader and instructor as part of my naval career, so I already had those skills within my armoury, but it was important for me to get my coaching qualification. I was fortunate as well because UK Sport offers a specific “Athlete to Coach” programme, so I enrolled in that along with other ex-athletes who were looking to become coaches within a number of different sports. That was a year-long course and it was fantastic for fast-tracking me from an athlete to becoming a coach, and understanding what the difference was.
Learning to adapt
Thinking of someone other than yourself isn’t a natural way for an athlete to think, and I quickly learnt that being a successful athlete doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great coach. It isn’t necessarily about the knowledge that’s in your head; it’s about how you use that knowledge to influence other people and to help them on their journey. It’s not about telling an athlete to do this or do that; it’s about encouraging them on their learning process. Simply having the knowledge in your head is not going to make you a great coach; it’s how you utilise that alongside the whole coaching skill set.
Passing on your experience
Being a coach with a background as an athlete does have its benefits though, because sometimes your athletes need someone who’s more than a coach. That’s where I can be a mentor. I always avoid saying things like, “This is what I did, and this is what you must do.” But sometimes athletes will ask me, “Did you ever encounter this problem and how did you tackle it?” That’s when my experience as an elite athlete really comes to the fore.
Enjoying the rewards
People have asked me before, “Which is better – winning a race yourself or watching one of your athletes win a race?” It’s a very difficult question because it’s a very different feeling. I am driven by challenges, and sometimes working with these athletes and helping them achieve their potential can be amazingly frustrating, but that is what makes the reward greater in the end. It’s a different feeling from winning for yourself, but it is still immensely satisfying when you’ve got athletes who succeed in their own journey. For me, the real reward comes from when you are working with an athlete who doesn’t believe they can do something and you can see as a coach that they have the potential, and you work with them and you build their confidence. You help them through their struggles. And then watching their face when they realise they can do it – and their self-belief and their confidence grow – is absolutely brilliant. That’s the real reward and what drives me as a coach.