Sally Gunnell: ‘It’s about being the best version of yourself’

Welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from Today’s guest is Sally Gunnell, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former professional athlete.

We discuss the move from sport into business and how older business owners can take care of their wellbeing.

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Sally Gunnell podcast transcript

Hello and welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from I’m your host, Anna Jordan.

Today we have Sally Gunnell – entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former professional athlete.

Born in Essex, Sally actually started out as a pentathlete and long jumper at her local ladies’ athletics club. Over time her talent for hurdle events became apparent, winning her gold medals and championship titles across the world. In fact, she’s the only woman to hold World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth Gold medals all at once.

After retiring in 1997, Sally became part of the BBC Sport team and was a regular on athletics broadcasts in the early 2000s. Since then she’s appeared on breakfast television shows as well as A Question of Sport and Total Wipeout.

These days she runs Sally Gunnell Corporate Wellbeing to encourage wellbeing in the workplace. She also runs Optimise Your Age, giving health and wellness tips to the over 50s, alongside her husband Jon.

We’ll be talking about moving from sport into business and how older entrepreneurs can take care of their wellbeing.

Anna: Hi there, Sally, how you doing?

Sally: I’m very well, thank you. Yes!

Anna: Great!

The first point I want to talk about is you moving from sport into business. So how did you come to that decision? What kind of challenges did you have going from sport into business?

Sally: Yeah, I mean it’s always a difficult one when you retire and I guess it’s difficult when you’re only 27 years old. You’re young and you’ve had one career and it’s probably the career that you’ve had all your life, and then you think, “What do I do next?” So I guess I sort of did it in a way that I would have done with my athletic career. I had to know what I wanted to achieve out there. I had to have aspirations for new things, I had to learn new things. So I planned it, almost. But yeah, I mean, I look back now and I think it was a bit of a gamble. You’re not quite sure where you were going with it. But actually, it made me realise just how much I’d learned from my athletics days and my achievements, and how much of that it helped me to that next stage of my career, but be able to pass that on for others. And I think that that’s what came out of it. And that’s what helped to make it as smooth as possible.

For a lot of athletes, there seems to be a progression from sport into business. What kind of things did you take from the track into business?

Sally: I think so much of it is about, yes, you’ve got to work hard, but you’ve got to work smart. A lot of it is about the sort of things that seem so insignificant, almost, for businesses or whatever, but it’s about being the best version of yourself. What you eat, your sleep, how you exercise, it’s all about your own performance, and whether that’s performance in the workplace or performance with yourself at home, and how that can give you the confidence ,give you the ability, and all those sorts of things. They were sort of like the real area, and I guess a lot of it was about self-belief as well.

That was probably the turning point for me, because I probably wasn’t the most confident of people when it came to athletics and performing at that high level, but I overcame that. And I think some of the lessons that I learned and who I chatted to, and how I work that into myself, which made the difference becoming a high performance and to be able to give people the confidence to be able to go out and achieve what they can all achieve. That’s really where it came from. I think it really helped that I achieved at that high level. So, you went through so many ups and downs, and I learned so much about myself, and I think that really helped to be able to share and explain that story to people.

It surprises me that you said that you’re not confident because you strike me as somebody who is very confident. How did you develop that going into the business world?

Sally: A lot of it is about mindset, it’s about what you believe. I think it’s very easy. I think as a nation we are, especially women, we’re very quick to put ourselves down and think that everybody else looks good, or “I’m not good enough.” That’s very much how I was, like probably lots of other people, but I’m working with sports psychologists and understanding how the mind works. Confidence comes from within. You’ve got to find confidence, you’ve got to shut the demons up and override it. A lot of that becomes part of visualisation. It’s part of mentally preparing yourself, work that you do day in, day out to be a better version of yourself. It doesn’t just click overnight.

I think it was that the power of accepting that we do lead stressful lives and running at that top level was stressful, but it sometimes can be a good thing and to use it as a motivation as well. Just so many key areas that correspond and I think the synergy between performing within the workplace and being the best person you can be is so similar to that that sports field of achieving when all that often seems like everything we do – so many odds against you.

Oh, 100 per cent. I can imagine there would be some kind of challenge between performing individual events on the track, and then having to work as a team on business all of a sudden. How did you cope with that?

Sally: Yeah. Even though I was very much an individual on the track, it seemed like it, it was very different to a football field or whatever else or my relay or being captain of the women’s team. Actually, there was an amazing team of people behind me: nutritionists, sports psychologists, physiologists, coaches. That was the difference of the four years from coming fifth in the Olympics to winning was building this amazing team around us. Lots of people have different goals within their teams, and that’s the same in an organisation. It’s about knowing that you need their support, you need their help, you need their skills to get the best out of yourself and the business that you’re doing, to achieve what you’ve set yourself. So, it’s no different in that respect. Even though I was the one on the track, there was an amazing team of people that got me to that start line.

You always forget that there are so many people behind an athlete. There’s also this rush to compare yourself to direct competitors and other entrepreneurs. I understand it was in the Tokyo Olympics where you were doing the hurdles, and you’re on your way to the gold, and you got distracted by one of your competitors and it threw you off, and unfortunately it cost you the gold medal. How did you feel in that moment? And what kind of lessons did you learn from that?

Sally: Yeah, I mean, I think I learned enormously. I was obviously massively disappointed, because I could have won that. And I think that’s when it made me realise that I didn’t win because I was worrying about things that are out of my control. I didn’t have that sort of real confidence in my own ability. I guess that the whole mental side of it only really came on a year before those Olympic Games the following year. So, that was a World Championships in Tokyo, and literally 12 months later, I’d spent 12 months addressing that doubt. And boy! I always say that we’re all born with that inner voice and it’s always a voice that sort of says. “She looks good over there in that lane” and “She’s won the European Championships.” That’s how I did and of course, you’ve got to have massive respect for your competitors. That’s the same in the corporate world. Yeah, you can learn certain things, but I can’t change those situations. So, why spend that energy and that worry and trying to change something that you can’t? You can only control the controllables, so it was about blocking out all those sorts of things.

That is when it comes back to knowing what you’re trying to achieve out there and having clarity in your thoughts so that when you’re on your path, and you’re not going to get distracted by over here, and  what you’re going to stick to and what that end result is. Once you have that in your mind then those other distractions are able to be blocked out during those times. So, yeah, it was about spending time doing that. It doesn’t just happen. I would spend five minutes each day just sort of going through what I wanted to execute on that day, what was that perfect race and different scenarios – if things went wrong, if it was raining on the day or it’s a difficult lane. It’s just familiar in the mind, really, and I think sometimes in different organisations or within sport, you think it sounds like a negative, but I think you have to have every option open, but you know what it is that it’s going to actually to take to achieve that higher level.

I think that’s part of goal setting as well. It’s knowing what you want, but with flexibility. In this case, it is a literal ‘sticking in your own lane’ when you’re competing.

I think that mental health and its importance to performance has become so well recognised. I’m sure throughout your career, and especially now looking back. It’s the same case in business as well as you’re very well aware through helping companies with their employee wellbeing programmes. Tell us a bit more about what makes a good employee wellbeing programme.

Sally: I think a wellbeing programme has to be one which is very much put together for the employees’ needs. It’s not just a one-size-fits-all, it has to really recognise it in what the issues are within the company, whether that’s retention or whether that’s making people present in what they’re doing. Maybe there’s some health issues or whatever it may be. So, I think it’s really about finding out what they do, that scoping work at the beginning, and really finding out what the issue is and what people actually want.

Then the programmes that work are the ones that are led from the top down. It’s no point in just doing a wellbeing programme for one part of the company. They have to be able to see the top managers being part of it because they need it just as much as everybody else and to be part of that programme. Then it needs to be consistent. It’s not good enough if you’re just going to do it once a year or a couple of times a year. The programmes that really work are the ones that are consistently being put in and information and help and support is regularly there and people know where to go. They know where to tap into it and to be able to ask for help as well. I think they’re the programmes that really work.

I think that with all programmes there’s so many different issues that people can cover within wellbeing. I know that at the moment, it’s very much around mental health and putting First Aiders in, but people have all sorts of different issues around wellbeing. I think it’s about addressing lots of different areas, whether that may be financial, whether that may be physical, there are just so many areas and I think it’s making it right for that organisation.

In your experience of talking to organisations and employees, what areas do you feel are overlooked, generally, in these kinds of programmes?

Sally: I think the ones that the programmes that for a lot of companies we come across, they haven’t got a programme, they literally may just tick a few boxes, through HR or whatever else. But a lot of people within the organisations don’t feel like they’re being supported, they don’t know where to go, if they have got mental health issues, or whatever it may be.

I think with what’s happened in the last two years of the pandemic, people working from home or talking about the mental health issues, the confidence, and I think, a lot of organisations people working from home, it’s finding ways of being able to reach out to people. It is about building resilience, but when you build resilience, you want to make sure that you’ve got the pieces in place to be able to help people build that resilience, whether that’s work or whether they’re in their own life, as well. For a lot of organisations, it’s sometimes building that resilience piece is hard – if there isn’t a water station nearby, or there’s not a park to be able to get out to, or they don’t feel as though they can just take a lunch break, all those sorts of things are just so important for people’s wellbeing. That’s why it has to be led from those top and that information is there and support.

Often what I find is that people are just lacking that information – they want to be better, they want to help themselves, they want to be fitter, they want to know what it is, but they’ve never had that sort of knowledge. It’s about giving people the knowledge and the support and how they get out, get that support from those organisations.

We’re talking online resources – or members of staff that they could speak to – where do they seek this information?

Sally: There’s all sorts of different outlets, depending on the organisation. We’ve got online programmes that we do, which are much more around podcasts that we can roll out to different people. But as people are getting back in the organisation, they want to see face-to-face, it’s helping and supporting HR to be able to deliver that information, because every organisation has different ways of delivering it. It might be that it’s a site that sits on your intranet to information in the toilets. That it’s just finding what works for that organisation.

A lot of the programmes that we’re doing, we have been doing for the last two years, have been obviously very much online, they’re podcasts and they’re help and support. So, organisations can run them literally worldwide to every single person within that organisation, thousands of people because they have to, they can’t just support one group, it has to be able to roll out. So, that’s really helped us as an organisation to be able to reach as many people as possible. I guess, by doing that online and putting those programmes in sport, they have workbooks that they work to, and each month, we have a different subject depending on what that organisation may be. That might be around nutrition, sleep, finance, the physical side of things. That is designed around what that organisation needs.

Wonderful. This is a tricky one, because of course, you can measure things like turnover and your forecasting figures, but how do you measure the success of an employee wellbeing programme?

Sally: Well, that’s why we really want to do the scoping beforehand. We send out questionnaires to people so that we can get what people’s real issues are. Then at the end of a programme or six months through, we will then send out questionnaires to actually find out whether it’s reached the right people, whether it’s helped and supported them. We can then send back information to those organisations, because that is the biggest thing we’ve come up across. But we want to be able to see that change. By doing this, whether that’s every six months or at the beginning of a program, and then at the end, we can see how people have engaged in the programme, and whether it’s actually helped and supported them. Very, very key.

Of course, the boss’ wellbeing is as important as the employees’, especially as they get older. What kind of tips do you have for older entrepreneurs to take care of their own wellbeing?

Sally: Yeah, I think that it’s people realising that you can’t just keep going at 100 per cent. It’s fine if you’re in your 20s and 30s, but it does catch up with you. And it’s the same for all of us, isn’t it? So, I think the thing I’ve learned is that, yes, you have to work smart, and then how to work smart, then how nutrition and your sleep and the physical side of it can affect your performance. That’s about thinking clearly, not having that dip in the afternoon, not being off ill, all those sorts of things.

I think the thing I learned from sport, and that I try and pass on to whoever really, in an organisation, whatever age you are, it’s those little increments that you think are so insignificant, but actually, they play a major part in being able to work day in, day out.

I think with so much of stress and burnout, but stress is part of people’s lives, but it’s learning how to manage that. I think as we get older, it’s about understanding that, actually, you need to get out of the office or get out of, you’re at home, and taking that lunch break. If you need to go home and go to your kid’s sports day, or whatever, it’s all those little things, which seems sometimes so insignificant, are actually things that really play a major part in being able to work. And that’s where it has to be led from the top, it’s good to go off to the gym at lunchtime or to go for an exercise or walk with somebody, to be able to chat with your colleagues or whatever it may be. It’s just allowing people to be able to think that that is the norm. And that’s what it’s okay to do.

Yeah, absolutely. At this time, especially with what’s happened over the past couple of years, I mean, it’s, it’s a prime opportunity to really make those changes, because the way that we work has fundamentally changed.

Sally: Totally. I think now an organisation has to look at wellbeing, it’s so high on the agenda. I think it’s more than ever and it’s giving people the confidence to get back into the office. I think that sometimes the younger generation, they’re in and they’re fine. But as we’ve all got used to working from home now, it’s having that confidence, and that sometimes comes from support from the organisations to be able to do that. That comes under HR and wellbeing at the same time and knowing that you’ve got a great programme in place with people that understand and an organisation that understands to help you to be able to support you.

Anna: Fantastic. Well, that seems like a great place to wrap up. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast, Sally.

Sally: Lovely, thank you very much.

You can find out more about Sally at You can also visit for more about workplace wellbeing. Remember to like us on Facebook @SmallBusinessExperts, on Twitter @smallbusinessuk (all lowercase) and subscribe to our YouTube channel, linked in the description. Until next time, thank you for listening.

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