As a water polo player and senior lecturer, Katie Hesketh has had great success in the water polo, both nationally and internationally. At 28 years old, she’s already accomplished much – representing Great Britain and playing for the City of Liverpool water polo club.
To Katie, water polo is more than just a game. It’s a passion that fuels her and drives her sporting achievements. Her drive and determination are inspiring and have underpinned her sporting achievements winning the British Championships in 2022.
Despite her busy schedule as a University researcher, Katie manages to balance her commitment to the sport with other important aspects of her life. “It’s all about prioritising your time effectively,” Katie explains. “I make sure to set aside time for my personal life to get the most out of life.”
The Challenges of Losing Funding
Katie’s journey in water polo has been marked by highs and lows, triumphs and setbacks.
One of the greatest challenges she faced came when the funding for the G.B. Senior Women’s Water Polo team was cut in 2014. They appealed against the decision, but without success. Katie was devastated. Water polo was a huge part of her life, and the sudden loss of funding meant a massive change in her plans. But rather than giving up, she and her team continued to train hard towards the European Championships in August 2014, which they were still training for..
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Katie, who had come into the sport as a junior member in 2012, hoping to have more opportunities to contribute to GB team’s success. “I felt like I had a wasted opportunity,” she said, “not getting the full experience of being an professional athlete.”
After the funding was cut, Katie and her team were offered support to help them transition out of professional sport. But Katie felt that she could cope with her own support network, and she didn’t want to burden anyone, so she did not take on the offer and suffered through the transition in silence. In retrospect, she understands that the provision of mental health support was an important opportunity missed.
Looking back, Katie believes that a culture of acceptance around seeking support would have been helpful, with the club recommending that everyone attend at least one session. “I think it would’ve been very helpful in the long run for me to process my emotions,” she said.
Reflecting on the experience, Katie felt that there was insufficient communication between the GB team and the clubs after losing funding. She wished that the GB team had communicated with the club level to ensure that they understood what was going on and the type of support that the athletes may need and should be provided with at a local club level. Although she never asked for it, she believed that it would have been helpful if she had someone, who understood what she was going through, to talk about how she was coping.
Finding a New Path
Katie’s journey in water polo took an unexpected turn when she lost her funding. As she continued at University and settled into her new routine, she realised how big of a change losing her funding was. People at University started asking her about her changed routines, which forced her to explain her situation. She found it difficult to talk about, saying, “Every time I had to talk about it and explain why I wasn’t training anymore and could attend all classes in person, I would start welling up.”
Moving in with her grandparents, who lived near Liverpool, where she was studying, provided her with a stable and supportive environment, something she didn’t know she needed. Focusing on her studies, she put all her effort into her degree, now that she wasn’t playing polo professionally anymore. But she found comfort and solace in staying involved with the sport in other ways. While some of her former teammates decided to fully leave the sport, Katie remained passionate about the culture and support network that surrounded water polo and continued to be involved by coaching and refereeing, as well as training and playing, locally. It helped her cope with the changes in her life, and she found that every time she went to train or coach, her brain was able to switch off from the stress of her career and studies. She felt safe and supported in the water polo community, saying, “I knew everybody in the environment and I felt really safe. It was a time where I could feel genuinely confident and good at something.’
Navigating the Transition: Katie’s Advice for Young Athletes Beyond Professional Sports
After navigating her own transition from professional sports, Katie is determined to make a difference to the future generation of athletes. Her experience has given her a unique perspective on the challenges of facing professional athletes and the support that is needed during this time.
Katie’s advice to young athletes is to embrace the opportunities within and beyond being a professional athlete. There is so much more to gain and contribute to the sports community through coaching, officiating and sharing knowledge gained from their experience. As Katie herself has found, staying involved in the culture and community of the sport can be immensely beneficial and fulfilling.
But more than that, Katie emphasises the importance of asking for help, especially during the transition process. It can be difficult to admit that you need support, but it is the first step towards a successful transition.
“I guess from, from an athlete’s perspective, it’s very alien to ask for help.” Katie says, “but the only way to continue to grow is by asking for help.”
Through her coaching and involvement in the water polo community, Katie has found a sense of purpose and joy in her post-professional sports life. However, she also recognises that there is still work to be done in terms of supporting underrepresented sports like water polo and providing greater recognition and funding.
As she looks towards the future, Katie’s story serves as an inspiration to young athletes facing similar transitions. Her determination to continue making a difference in the sports community, her commitment to mental health support, and her resilience in the face of challenges are all qualities to be admired and emulated.
Katies academic career and her personal life have also blossomed. She is now Assistant Professor in Exercise Prescription (Research & Education), Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham. In early June, Katie will be getting married and we are delighted to be able to wish her everything of the best in the coming years.