Jess Ennis-Hill on Hitting Reset and Striving for Success
Looking for inspiration in 2020? Feel as if there are multiple hurdles to overcome before you reach those goals for the year? That’s why the medal magnet and former heptathlete has put together a “M.A.P.” just for you. That stands for: “Maintain” fitness, set “Attainable” targets and perhaps the biggest one for Jess: physically write down a “Plan”.
“What I’ve found since retiring is that it’s much easier to maintain a level of fitness, than to drop off, try to build back up; drop off, try to build back up,” says one of Britain’s greatest sports stars. “If you can find a way of exercising that you can enjoy and maintain a steady level of it through the month, then it’s much easier to stick with it and not fall away.”
The 33-year-old Olympic Champion is also a huge fan of setting attainable targets: “Realistic goals are something you can work towards; you will hit a brick wall if you set something that’s unrealistic. You’ll fall at the first hurdle. It’s about having goals that are achievable.
“And then, personally, it’s all about planning. It’s having some way of sitting down and organising what you are going to do to make positive changes in the near future.
“Also when something’s written down, it makes you physically commit to it. I write on a calendar that I’ll do a circuit on a certain day, and then do it. That’s because it’s there; it’s written down. That helps.
“My whole athletic life was about planning, organising and having a plan to follow. Know what you’re doing. It helps you to peak at certain times. It’s taking that [elite athlete’s mindset] and putting it into this life now.
“I always had a training plan and would document everything that I’d done. And I would have a goal I wanted to achieve, even from being a 15 or 16-year old. I still have bits of paper I’ve kept from when I was a child that said: ‘I want to make the English school championships’ or ‘I want to be an Olympian.’”
BALANCE tells Jess it’s as if she was doing The Secret before The Secret was even a thing. This is news to Jess. “The what?!” We explain the concept of Rhonda Byrne’s controversial bestseller, and Jess is intrigued. But, no, she was merely making a promise to herself. “It feels like you’ve committed to something. When it’s in your head and floating around, you can always find reason not to do it and veer away from whatever you’re trying to achieve. When you write it down, it’s more real.”
During her medal-winning peak, this method would prove vital. And she adds: “If I was really tired or had an injury, I’d be, ‘But it’s the plan! We’ve got it written down! We have to follow it!’
“It comes down to your personality and I am a very organised planner. If you have a hard copy of what you want to achieve, it makes it a lot easier. I always had a diary with all my programmes inside, and would write on the days what I was going to do and then write how it went with results and times.
“Maybe I asked the universe.” She laughs. “It’s just having a physical copy of it makes it harder to deviate.”
POWER OF POSITIVITY
BALANCE has met Jess a couple of times, and it’s not just on the track where she is an inspiration: it’s in her discourse. Anyone who’s read personal development books will know the importance of the language that’s employed: using positive words helps keep us in the good place; negative words and the opposite is true. With Jess, her sheer positivity is life-affirming. “Enjoy”, “lucky”, “fortunate”, “passionate”, “fantastic” are all part of the Ennis lexicon throughout our chat together.
Many sports stars call time on a career and subsequently struggle to find a place in the world. Thanks in part to launching fitness app Jennis – thereby finding fresh purpose and meaning – the Sheffield star has radiated pure sunshine since hanging up her spikes following the Rio Olympics in 2016. Hitting “reset” – one of the resolutions that many people will be trying to follow this year – was relatively easy.
“I was really lucky because it was all done through my own choice,” says Jess. “I wasn’t forced into retirement through injury and there were no external factors. I wanted to get to Rio and then my motivation was retirement. When you’re motivated by the need to retire, that’s the time to say, ‘OK, I’ve done all I wanted to do.’
“It was a massive relief to retire and I’ve really enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong; my career was incredible and I have fantastic memories, great experiences and had a lovely team with me, but that’s what I miss the most: the team environment.
“I did all I wanted to do in sport. I enjoyed it and made the most of it. I’m now in a different phase and am enjoying that now.”
BALANCE tells Jess that when saying this, her shoulders have metaphorically dropped, to which she replies: “There is a lot of pressure on the shoulders of sports people! You don’t realise until you stop. Especially when you’ve got to the top.
“People expect you to perform all the time. You have to win all the time. You still want to do that and be the best you can. But it can become all-consuming and quite hard.”
Was the pressure ever too much? Especially in 2012, when the nation was behind her and everyone in Britain was desperate for Jess to win that Olympic gold in London.
“No, because at that stage of my career, at the London Olympics, I was at my absolute peak. Of course I was aware of the pressure, but tried not to let myself think about if things didn’t go to plan. I still had great people around me. They kept everything normal for me and I kept relatively sane.
“I still had bad training sessions or disappointing competitions and used to go home in absolute pieces.” She puts on a mock-emotional voice: “Oh my gosh! The nation! I’ve let down the whole country because I’m going to pick up a silver medal!
“But that’s how sports people think. They just want to be at their best and, of course, the pressure gets to everyone at some stage.”
So how can the non-athletes among us cope with pressure?
“The more you experience different pressure situations, the better you get at coping with them,” she says.
“Now I’m in a different world where I’ve done more public speaking. Recently I was at a web summit and had to do a talk on stage and got really nervous! It’s not something I’d done before. It’s about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone; when you do it’s exhilarating and you get more confident. With sport it’s the same thing.
“You have to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Put the worries out of your mind and focus on the outcome you want.
“You have some athletes who think, ‘What if this happened, or that happened?’ And they try to rationalise it and put it right in their mind. It’s a dangerous spiral. ‘What if I fall over that hurdle? Oh my gosh, everything is done! That camera there is feeding all this to millions of people watching!’
“You can easily get yourself worked up. You’ve got to stay relaxed and take humour from things and just go with it. Of course that’s a lot easier said than done sometimes.”
ANYONE FOR JENNIS?
Ah, yes, humour. When she was an elite athlete – picking up one Olympic and three World Championship gold medals and much more along the way – cracking gags during interviews wasn’t exactly on her list of priorities. But across two chats with Jess, BALANCE is in gales of laughter. Take Jess on her new app, Jennis, which as been a massive success since its launch in 2019. While anyone can use Jennis, it’s mostly targeted at pre- and post-natal women.
“We’re well on our way,” she says. “We’ve had really good pregnancy feedback [from users]. It’s nice to see women and their workouts. There have been bursts of babies that have come since [we launched the app]… Obviously they were going to come anyway!” And then Jess is in hysterics at the very thought of the Jennis app – rather than copulation – being the reason for pregnancy.
She admits that there was even humour when giving birth to her two children thanks to some playful squabbling with her husband, construction director Andy. “There was lots of comedy,” she beams. “The first time [with son, Reggie] was really long; 19 hours. It felt like forever. Endless pain. And then with [daughter] Liv, it was much quicker.
“I remember Andy wanted to get back and watch Strictly. He was making loads of jokes and trying to bring a bit of humour to the situation.
At the time though, I was getting really annoyed. ‘Can you be quiet?!’”
Before we go, we ask Jess if she’s ever been tempted to pursue reality TV. She obviously doesn’t need the work, but might enjoy the challenge. When it comes to I’m A Celebrity, it seems an approach was made, but as she reveals: “I said no! It would bring out a really bad side of me. I just could not do those challenges and I’d probably get challenged every week.”
And this is the beauty of Jess: she’s a shrewd head on toned shoulders. During competitions she was always focused on the sport, rather than controversy. As she says: “I don’t think you can get drawn into the politics of sport because it’s a distraction. My coach taught me: I can’t control what other people are doing. I can watch them but can’t have an influence. I can only influence what I’m doing. ‘Winners focus on winning; losers focus on winners.’ That’s one of my favourite quotes.”
Wowee! Is that one of hers? Again, more laughter. “I think I saw LeBron James put it on Instagram, but it’s one of my favourites because it’s true.”