Pitch to Podium...
Strength and conditioning coach - Masters student - Aspiring athlete - Former professional footballer
Previous clubs: Nottingham Forest, Boston United
Tell us a little about your career to date within sport...?
I spent 10 years within the academy ranks at Nottingham Forest, with the last three being full time with the club. I left Nottingham Forest in 2010, and then spent 2 years playing semi professional football, before leaving the sport and taking up sprinting. For the last year I have trained in a professional environment at Loughborough University, training 5 days a week, following a similar training plan to the GB sprinters pursuing a career in athletics.
How did you first get involved in sport? And when did the opportunity come to join a professional club?
I first got involved at a very young, around the age of 4 or 5, following the footsteps of my Dad. At that age we played in the garden quite often and he later took me to train with a local team. I had a few sessions in the Leeds United Academy before moving to Nottingham, which is when I signed for Forest at the age of 9.
Interestingly, you have a famous family name within football, tell us about the success you and your family have had?
My Dad had a decent career in the game playing for Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur, Leeds United and Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League. With a couple of these teams he experienced European football and was also lucky enough to represent England at U21 and B squad levels too. His brother, Wayne, also had a playing career, having played for clubs like Notts County, Mansfield Town, Chesterfield and Scarborough. Finally, my older cousin, Ben, like myself went through the Forest ranks, playing some first team games before spending time at Notts County and teams in the lower divisions. So, it is fair to say that there’s a strong connection between football and the Fairclough name!
Some great household success for the Fairclough's its fair to say! What was it like, to grow up training and competing within a professional sporting environment, with and against some of the country’s brightest talents?
I count myself very lucky to have grown up in such an environment, especially one of the calibre, history and reputation that surrounds a club like Nottingham Forest. At the time it was just the norm, and I didn’t realise how lucky I was, but in hindsight I can appreciate that it was quite special. We had some of the best coaches, in top quality facilities and played on some of the best pitches in the country. I played with and against some great players growing up, which was amazing, because it always reminded me that there is always room to get better, and more work to do! Some of those players have gone on to fulfil high profile careers in the game (Karl Darlow, Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, Andros Townsend, Tom Ince, Jordon Mutch, Fabian Delph to name a few). But unfortunately a lot of others didn’t for many reasons. It is quite surreal though to watch some England games knowing that I’ve played against some of them growing up.
Fantastic. So to date, what’s been your biggest sporting achievement?
It’s hard to choose, but there’s two in fairness that stand out:
The first was during my last season at Forest where I was involved with the first team for most of pre-season. This included a training camp in Portugal, being on the bench against Sporting Lisbon, coming on against Burton Albion and being in the squad again for early Carling Cup matches against Bradford and Middlesbrough. I know it’s nothing huge, and I didn't get much playing time, but for me it was more the experience that meant a lot to me. Inclusion in the first team was a reward if anything, and an acknowledgement for my efforts, hard work and commitment in the off-season to stay in shape, and my application during pre-season. Looking back, it was amazing to be given that exposure to the first team environment and a firsthand lesson learned that hard work pays off!
The second sporting achievement arguably might not have happened if the first one didn’t. Having already been rewarded for hard work and dedication, I kept that mind set when training as a sprinter which once more paid off by finally breaking the 11 second barrier in the 100 metres with a time of 10.76 seconds. This qualified me to be invited to compete at the British Championships. As single days go, that to be fair, was my best day in sport. The whole atmosphere, being around the best athletes in Britain, seeing an array of GB athletes, TV cameras, big screen replays in the stadium, having your name called out on the starting line with the camera in your face, everything was top drawer….The thing I loved the most though was the moving camera on the side of the track which followed us during the race, I just remember hearing this “vvrrrrrrr” noise as it was moving next to me haha!
Great to hear. So you have since left professional football and have recently completed a degree. At what point in your sporting career did you make the decision to go back into education, and how did you combine the idea of elite sport and education?
I’m giving sprinting one last “proper” season as I study at Trent University as a strength and conditioning coach. The course is similar to a Masters, so I am left with enough free time to train 5 days a week as I did during my degree. I think the big decision will come if/when I get a full time job or start a career. I don’t think I could ever stop training fully, but there will definitely come a time when a career comes along which may unfortunately mean I cannot commit to training 5 days a week with the same consistency and quality as I have in the past.
Elite sport has helped me massively during my University education. Bringing up my biggest achievements in sport above: Hard work pays off! That mentality was quickly adopted when returning to study. I made sure I attended all lectures, did the recommended reading, asked for advice from lecturers and tutors, woke up early to revise or complete coursework and stayed strict and professional treating my studies as I have my sport. I do not believe I would have this mindset if it wasn’t for my exposure to elite sport, or if I did have them, I wouldn’t have the commitment and consistency to continuously keep applying them through good and bad times. I also think elite sport has given me the ability to deal with the pressures of deadlines and exams and to trust myself that I have done the right work to prepare me for anything. Similar to standing on the starting line and trusting I have done all the hard work in training and I am ready to race!
The transition away from elite sport must have been difficult? Looking back, what were the main challenges? How did you manage the change? And what support or guidance helped during this time?
Leaving Forest wasn’t difficult as such, but it was definitely strange going on trial to different clubs. Being at Forest for 10 years, I had long forgotten what it was like to be the trialist, to not know anyone in the club or to be in unfamiliar surroundings. I managed the change by simply “getting on with it”. As easy as that sounds it’s all I could do in that situation. I watched a lot of Eric Thomas’ inspirational/motivational videos and kept myself busy training in my own time, doing SAQ, gym and ball work. Knowing I was doing the right things to keep in shape and to stay sharp on the pitch kept me going. I think I was lucky to have support and guidance already in place. My family were there, understanding and supportive. I had friends and teammates in similar positions to me who I spoke with regularly and occasionally trained with too. Also, Nottingham Forest’s Education department, in particular Sean England, helped me through the transition by talking me through education options, helping me fill in application forms, UCAS documents and student loan sheets; basically helping me do all those paper work bits which I knew nothing about! I’m grateful for all that.
Now as a strength and conditioning intern for Sport 981 at Nottingham Trent University, what do you do and how did you get involved?
I heard about the course through an athletics friend of mine who had completed the same course a few years earlier, he spoke very highly of it and thought it would definitely suit me and help me get to where I want to career wise. It was a simple process, completing an application and then attending an interview. The role includes overseeing and coaching the strength and conditioning sessions with the university sport squads. Throughout the season I will work alongside the male and female football, rugby, hockey and lacrosse squads.
Elite level sport builds individuals with skills, competencies and behaviours that can be taken in to all types of working environments. What do you think your time growing up within professional sport has given you, which you can now apply in other walks of life?
The first is one that I have already mentioned: hard work. Knowing that the hard work and effort in what you do can bring great results is easily transferrable into any walk of life. This also creates patience and commitment to the work I am doing, whatever it is; I know it can take time to achieve good things, goals and targets, so patience and commitment work hand in hand with hard work, something I have learnt from an elite sporting environment. Another couple of skills I believe can only really be experienced in elite sport are dealing with criticism and external pressures.
The football environment from a young age has exposed me to real criticism from myself, teammates, managers and fans. Even on a good day on the pitch you will always do something wrong, so the
ability to overcome mistakes and sometimes costly errors is a massive asset to have. I also think that not many environments can compare to a Saturday afternoon with a couple thousand fans all wanting and expecting a good performance and a win, so having experienced this with Boston United I feel other pressures that I have experienced during education and work, are less brutal and much easier to deal with.
On reflection, how important has education been throughout your time within professional sport?
Education was always something I valued, and something I was keen on maintaining. I was lucky enough to be enrolled on a B-TEC and NVQ whilst playing at Nottingham Forest, so that kept my academic side ticking over for 2 years, and it also sparked my initial interest in exercise physiology. On top of this, working with the strength and conditioning coaches and sport scientists also captured my interest and helped me expand my knowledge of the human body, questioning why we do certain exercises and how they help on field performance. The latter being the main reason I wanted to study Sport and Exercise Science at University. I had a taste of how sport and exercise science can enhance performance and I wanted to take that even further. During my degree, the knowledge I was gaining was sometimes directly transferable to training and competition in athletics. I was understanding the “how” and “why” of training principles and how the body worked and reacted to exercise which was amazing for me, helping me learn and understand my body and my new sport even more; I loved it.
And finally…What advice would you give to professional athletes who are leaving their sport for whatever reason, who are going to try their hand in education, within the sports industry or something completely new?
It was the best thing I have done, so I would advocate it to anyone. Don’t worry about how family, friends or fans will react to your choice to step away from professional sport, focus on the reasons why you’re doing it and remember you’re doing it for yourself, your reasons and your own happiness. It made me feel more self fulfilled than playing football ever did because it was a decision I made all by myself, for myself. Just go for it! Adding to this, use the professional mindset learnt from sport, be meticulous in your work as you were in training, stay as dedicated to achieving success as you did in your sport and enjoy the new journey!