Wellbeing lessons from a professional athlete

Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi MBE, on the wellbeing lessons businesses can learn from the world of sport

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Sep 10, 2019

Nobody understands the relationship between performance and health and wellbeing better than a professional athlete. That’s why Vitality appointed former England Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi to head up the team of world-class athletes leading its Vitality Champions Programme. 

At the recent Vitality Champions Welcome Day at Twickenham Stadium, she explained how her sporting career has given her valuable insight into how best to drive positive behavioural change among employees. 

“In sport, everyone has a duty of care to look after an athlete,” Alphonsi said. “Employers have that same level of duty of care in terms of looking after employees, which in turn helps them to be as productive as possible in their job and also outside their job. 

“The parallels with sport are obvious in terms of things like preventing, not just reacting to, injuries. But this onus is on everyone, not just the employer. It’s a shared responsibility.” 

Her position as Director of Vitality Champions involves hosting events such as the annual Champions Welcome Day at Twickenham Stadium, at which this year more than 80 UK companies pledged to encourage their employees to become 20% more active, as well as providing mentoring support to employers around the country. 

It’s an important part of Vitality’s commitment to get 100m people 20% more active by 2025 (globally)

“Having lived and breathed physical and mental fitness for as long as I can remember, I’m obviously really passionate about it,” Alphonsi said. “And Vitality are all about encouraging people to live a lifestyle that has a positive effect on the body and mind. So, getting involved with them just seemed like a natural fit. 

“As Director of Vitality Champions, I work with a team of Performance Champions - former Olympic and World Class athletes - who were all in attendance at this year’s Champions Welcome Day. 

“We follow up the Welcome Day with visits to companies throughout the year, helping them further motivate their staff by using examples from our personal athletic careers.” 

Alphonsi’s drive to help motivate people to use physical activity to lead better lives is born of her own experience. 

“I grew up in a council estate, from a single parent family,” she said. “I never really had a choice to be in my comfort zone. But being in sport continued to strengthen my resilience. I felt challenged all the time.” 

She has also learned from inspirational leaders who helped her boost her performance and find her path – a role she is now keen to play for others. 

“During my rugby career, I also worked for the Youth Sport Trust, which was chaired by Baroness Sue Campbell, now the Director of Women’s Football at The FA, at the time,” Alphonsi added. 

“She was a really inspirational leader and she helped me find my passion and realise that I wanted to help people.” 

Four key ways sport can help performance 

By building resilience

This is about not giving up: your “bounce-back ability” in effect. I’ve built up my resilience by facing more and more challenges and embracing failure. The same applies in a business sense. Employees should be supported to expose themselves to more difficult tasks and challenge themselves over and over again. 

By enhancing self-awareness

Athletes know their identity. They use terminology such as: “I’m an athlete” / “I’m strong at X. And X is the area I need to improve”. Ask an employee to describe themselves and they’ll probably say: “I’m an accountant” or whatever it may be they are doing for a living. In other words, their job defines them. But if that person enjoys a sport - running or cycling, for example - they should feel empowered to say so. 

By teaching teamwork

In a genuine team environment people use each other during the positive times and the difficult times. In sport, we all have fantastic strengths but also some weaknesses. Your team mates help fill the gaps. There’s also a certain gratification that comes from doing something well together. 

By creating balance

You need to give time to athletes to exercise but they also need to be granted time to re-energise. In business it’s the same. So many people sit at their desks and work during lunch. They should be encouraged to switch off for a bit: go for a walk, catch up with a friend/colleague. It’s all about balance. 

09/09/2019 | This article’s view is based on the law, practices and conditions as at the day of publication. While we have made every effort to ensure they are accurate, we accept no responsibility for our interpretation or any future changes. | VB O 0025

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