Sally Gunnell: What I’ve learned about mindset, resilience and achieving your dreams

Sally Gunnell is an Olympic Champion, winning the gold medal in the 400m hurdles in 1992. She is also the only woman to hold the World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth gold medals at the same time.

Sally Gunnell
Sally Gunnell

If there’s anyone who can teach us all a thing or two about achieving our dreams it’s the Olympian and champion track athlete Sally Gunnell. 

After breaking world records and winning a series of medals including gold in the 400m hurdles in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Sally retired from her elite career at 30 and has since worked as a TV presenter and motivational speaker. She also works with companies to improve performance and wellbeing in workplaces.

Here Sally shares her career journey, and her tips on achieving your goals.

When did you realise you wanted to be an athlete?

At 14 I remember watching the Olympics and just loved it. I’d joined a club when I was 12 and right from a young age I had that dedication. I went to visit my coach in Crystal Palace three times a week, and that was about an hour, an hour-and-a-half away.

Sally Gunnell (Credit: https://www.seven.video)
Sally Gunnell (Credit: https://www.seven.video)

I wasn’t thinking ‘this is it I’m going to go to the Olympics and this is my job’. But when I got to the sixth form I had to make choices after that. I must have been 17 or 18 that I decided I wanted to get a part-time job to see whether the athletics worked out.

I was lucky, I had supportive parents. I used to work in a bar at lunchtime so I could train in the morning and afternoon.

I never gave up, I just kept going. I really wanted to see how good I could be.

There were lots of people saying you should get a proper job, you will never make money out of this, but not the people closest to me.

What is it like to be an athlete day-to-day?

I managed to get sponsorship from an insurance and accountancy firm. They allowed me to go off and do my racing while I worked in a research job. That really helped. I worked for that company all the way up to Barcelona in 1992.

I was training twice a day. Five or six hours a day. It was gym work, running on the track, lifting, hill work and all sorts of different things.

Why did you decide you wanted a career in sport?

It was finding something I was good at. I was not particularly academic. It gave me a place to shine.

I loved that feeling of being good at it and that feeling of winning. Seeing how good I could get at something.

What have you learned from your sporting career?

When I look back now I think the lessons that sport taught me for everyday life was about winning and losing, picking yourself up, the mindset, all these sorts of things.

I think you have to stay very positive. When things got tough and you get injured there is a positive in that. It makes you much more determined. I think it gives you time to reflect. When you do achieve at the end of it, it’s quite rewarding because of what you’ve come through.

Sally Gunnell
Sally Gunnell

It’s about getting up and having a positive mindset. There were a lot of times I had to talk myself into races. That is the thing that holds so many people back. I had to learn to tell myself I have trained as hard as everybody else, I deserve it.

You still have to work hard and put a lot of effort in. But there are a lot of people who train hard but have not got the self-belief.

How do you get that mindset?

You have got to learn it. It is about learning. And it’s about how you bounce off other people.

It is surrounding yourself with positive people. Taking yourself away from situations if someone is draining you.

I worked with a sports psychologist but there are some great books out there.

The mind is an untapped performance tool. It is such an important part of who we all are.

What is your career highlight?

It has to be the Olympics, it is the pinnacle. It was the thing I dreamed about.

The first real major medal, the Olympics of ‘92, it was the four years leading up to it. There was a lot of mental preparation. You know if you don’t do it then you will never do it again.

Sally is now a public speaker, sharing her experience and achievements as an elite athlete

I rehearsed it so much in my mind that when it happened it took quite a while to sink in, to realise it wasn’t a dream.

I started putting myself down, thinking do I deserve this? Then it is the pressure of staying at the top. It is a mind game.

How do you cope with the pressure?

It goes back to mental preparation. I probably got myself into a state of meditation. I did a lot of deep breathing when I was on the warm-up track.

It is about rationalising it. I did not say this is the biggest race of your career. I thought ‘your family will still love you and do the best you can, you’re in great shape, just go out there and see what you can do’.

You have got to learn to love fear. I learned over the years to embrace fear.

How do you decide what’s next when you’ve achieved your dream?

It is always about setting new goals. I am someone who is driven by knowing what you want to achieve.

Right from a young age, I thought ‘what do you want to achieve’?

Can you tell us what it was like to leave your elite racing behind?

I see it as two chapters of my life. I retired when I was 30. I did exactly what I wanted to do in athletics. It was not just being the Olympic champion but being the best I could be on the track.

Sally in her Sussex home which she shares with her husband and three sons (Credit: https://www.seven.video )

I had new things I wanted to learn, I wanted to have a family, follow up work opportunities I had been given, learn new sports.

It helped me to have a vision; what I wanted to be in five years or ten years. Some things worked and some things didn’t. I learned a lot of lessons along the way. I am still learning.

Tell us a little bit about what you do now and what drives you to do it.

I do a lot in motivation and performance. The wellbeing side naturally came off the back of that. Resilience, how we have to look after ourselves. What I had to put in place when I was running. We do a lot with organisations and wellbeing programmes.

What we trying to do is be the best version of ourselves we can be. Asking for help, looking at what you’re eating, how you’re sleeping and exercise. It is just realising how much that plays a part in helping you to be who you are.

Sally Gunnell
Sally Gunnell

If you could tell your teenage self one thing what would it be?

Do not take yourself too seriously. I was always very focused and dedicated. I think I needed to enjoy it more. I don’t mean going out and partying, it is about celebrating it and not being on that conveyor belt. And don’t worry about what other people think of you.

If you could give other young athletes one piece of advice, what would it be?

It is not about having success overnight. It takes time. It is a very instant, constant world. We give up too easily. When we want to chase something it does take time. Be patient.

To find out more about Sally Gunnell, visit: www.sallygunnell.com

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