Building a resilient approach

We were delighted to welcome back alumna, and former GDST Alumna of the Year 2012 winner, Claire Bennett to speak to our Senior School pupils on ‘Peak Performance – Building a resilient approach’ as part of our 2021 Lecture Series.

Claire’s wealth of experience as a former member of the GB women’s foil fencing team, and a qualified and well-respected performance life coach, made her the obvious choice to deliver a session designed to inspire and equip pupils with practical strategies for the year ahead – and the rest of their lives.

In her role at the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, Claire supports elite athletes to transition successfully in their lives beyond sport. She is also passionate about progressing women’s sport and is a Trustee and the Director of Programmes at the Women’s Sport Trust.

Claire has represented Great Britain in European and World Championships since the age of 14. As captain of England, Claire won individual Bronze and Team Gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Fencing Games.

During her presentation Claire shared her athlete story and reflected on the highs and lows of her elite sporting career. She shared tools and techniques to help build a resilient approach, overcoming disappointment and dealing positively with failure. She also reflected on her transformative years at Sydenham High. Claire clearly has fond memories of her time at Sydenham High and told us that she still has a strong network of women whom she met whilst here. Apart from that, it is where her fencing career began, aged 10! Claire found that she could transfer the skills she learnt from fencing (concentration, focus, discipline) to her academic studies and her schoolwork also benefited. Her fencing coach lit the spark of passion in her and started her journey which saw her travel to over 35 different countries, but it was not without its difficulties and sacrifices.

At the start of her sporting career, Claire missed many events at school and university as she was away competing, and later had injury setbacks as well as developing negative perfectionism. However, she highlighted the importance of seeking to “surround yourself with positive people who are going to lift you up and bring out the best in you” and maintaining a positive mindset with that strong support team. Claire had a stress fracture in her left foot prior to the Olympic qualifying season and not qualifying for the 2012 Olympics was heartbreaking for her. She felt like giving up on trying for anything she really wanted ever again but since then she has re-assessed and realised that she committed herself to it, gave it her all and firmly believes that “if you never give less than your best, you never have regrets”. It was fascinating to hear about how she transformed pain into possibility. Claire taught us that we should always view setbacks as opportunities for growth and that this allows you to gain strength from the experience. She is happier than ever now, and loving being a mentor to disadvantaged young people, a TV commentator on Eurosport and running her new consultancy venture, Perform Be Happy, where she aims to empower others.

To conclude, Claire talked us through the IDEO curve and discussed several important ideas, including:

  • Re-frame (Challenge yourself to replace negative thoughts with positive self- talk)
  • Develop a strong support network
  • Embrace change
  • Flexibility is an important part of resilience
  • Remain positive and hopeful about the future 
  • Develop problem-solving skills, focus on the solution not the problem
  • Keep working on your strengths, learn from others
  • Nurture yourself, self-care is important
  • Commitment
  • Perspective – enjoy the journey and understand that every setback leads to a better outcome

Claire encouraged us all to be the best version of ourselves, for ourselves and closed her presentation with the following words of wisdom:

You really are so lucky to be part of an incredibly inspiring , caring warm family community for life. I still carry a huge sense of pride to be a GDST girl. So make the most of this outstanding education and enjoy your time at Sydenham. Try to stay focused during these uncertain times, have confidence in yourselves that you are all high achievers and that you are part of any incredible team; a team, by the way, who believe in you, who are proud to be standing next to you, who are going to lift you up and bring out the best in you.

Pupils from Year 7-11 asked some insightful questions in the virtual Q and A which followed. A selection of her responses are below.

Q&A with Claire:

  • You talk a lot about the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people and having a good support network; how about if you don’t have those people in place? How do you go about looking for them, especially in the current situation?
    CB: “If you don’t have the support team around you, you should go out and choose your ‘team’. Don’t be afraid of knocking on people’s doors – you will be surprised who is willing to help you. I was a self starter and went to the BBC studios in London, without an appointment, and pitched myself and my career to date to the receptionist, asking if the BBC would interview me on the news – and they did. From that exposure I gained two lifelong sponsors.”
  • What do you really enjoy about your work now?
    CB:d”I am lucky to do many different things now. As a performance coach, I support and help others to be their best and I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I never thought I would be able to get back that passion, but I have. I am probably happier now than when I was competing.
  • How old were you when you started fencing?
    CB: “I was ten, and at Junior House (now the Prep School) when I started fencing at an after-school club and fourteen when I went to my first international competition. I was a bit of a ‘tomboy’ and liked the idea of being a swashbuckling pirate!”
  • What is it about fencing that makes it unique from other sports?
    CB: “Fencing is the oldest sport in the Olympics and steeped in history.  Fencing is a mixture of aerobic strength, and mental agility.”
  • Was competing internationally, or for your country, terrifying? If so, how you calm and focus, before (and perhaps, during) an important round?
    CB: “I often suffered from nerves, especially in front of large crowds and used a mixture of techniques such as visualisation and breathing exercises to help myself stay calm.”
  • Has being a woman in fencing ever been a barrier for you and if so, how did you overcome it?
    CB: “It was a challenge at the time. When I was fencing, there were no female role models in fencing and there was not as much funding available for women’s sport, so I had to go and train with the men’s team in North London. Luckily, nowadays, that has changed and women’s sport is given a platform and a higher profile.”
  •  What did you do to re-motivate yourself when you questioned your ability or lost your momentum? Did you ever want to give up and do something else?
    CB: “It was difficult sometimes, for example when I started competing at 14 and losing, having given up so much of my personal life, but I was passionate about doing something I loved and recognised the transferable skills I had learned through fencing.  
  • What kept you motivated?
    CB: “There is extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. When she was competing, I was very extrinsically motivated, feeling rewarded by winning titles and medals. I wish I had been more intrinsically motivated, feeling rewarded by doing something for myself and that would have made me a better performer. In my work now, I love doing something I am passionate about, and watching the people I work with thrive.”
  • What one message would you like us to take away from your talk today?
    CB: “There is so much value to being brave and not fearing failure. You should go for it!”

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