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Why we just can’t stop admiring Serena Williams and Hellen Obiri’s striking form

Kenya's Hellen Onsando Obiri wins the final of the women's 5000m athletics event at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 13, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Andrej ISAKOVIC

In our first installment of this two-part special report on sports persons’ welfare, we deconstructed a typical athlete’s sports contract.

We also discussed, at length, how successful athletes have avoided retiring into a life of poverty and ridicule after a high life in the sport’s fast and flashy lane.

This week, we are going on with the conversation to its logical end by delving into the back end of a successful athlete’s life.

The best of sport narratives involves a comeback that entails overcoming insurmountable hurdles. Take the case of Serena Williams, who by March 2018 following a long absence from the court, was not ranked in the tennis world!

After an illustrious career, it was unthinkable that she would fall so low; however, by September of the same year, she had clawed her way back to world top 20 and won the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Comeback Player of the Year award.

Tiger Woods, too, has had more than a fair share of problems on and off the greens – four back surgeries since 2014, including a spinal fusion operation in 2017.

In May 2017, he was arrested on a driving under the influence (DUI) charge and was ranked 1,199th on the official World Golf Ranking by the end of that year.

In April 2019, after 14 years without a golf Major, Woods staged one of the biggest sports comebacks in history; winning The Masters and end the year as world number six.

What does it take to make such turnarounds in one’s sports life? Is there a secret to a long and successful sporting career like the above two living legends have shown?

It takes more than just physical strength, luck and talent for a comeback on the big stage. It requires mental fortitude, a tremendous amount of self-belief and a great support network.

Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Felix Sanchez and Faith Kipyegon are examples of all these qualities.

Secrets to a successful sports life

So, what are the secrets to a successful sports life, and, should there be a major drawback, how does one stage an awe-striking comeback?

First, a sports career should be taken very seriously; much as it starts at a tender age when one is naïve and gullible; it’s short and intense and either way, has lifelong effects.

After providing for the physical attributes and talent, the biggest determinant of a successful sports career is the support network an athlete has; ranging from psychologists, nutritionists, financial advisors and of course the immediate family.

Hellen Obiri, the current world 5000m champion, owes the title to her husband Tom Nyaundi, who called to calm her down when race anxiety was getting the better of her hours to the race in Doha last October.

In their earlier years, whenever the Williams sisters were on the court, their parents were on the stands cheering them on.

Kultida Woods- Tiger Woods mother, was at her son’s side on February 19, 2010 to provide support as he apologised for his “irresponsible and selfish behaviour” and afterwards his mother stated: “I’m so proud to be his mother, period.”

“He didn’t do anything illegal. He didn’t kill anybody.” To err is human and to have a family support that helps you regain your humanity is priceless.

For the football star Emmanuel Adebayor, it was the professional support structure at his Tottenham football club that helped him through a tumultuous period when his family in Togo almost ruined his career.

After a series of financial blackmails and outright theft from his own family, in 2015, the football star stunned the world with a Facebook blast of his natural family for their greed and lack of gratitude.

Making a turnaround and subsequently a comeback is a combination of support structures, self-drive and financial position.

Sports psychologists

One of the first professionals a sports person needs in their support structure is a psychologist.

Sports psychologists not only train elite sports persons on mental toughness techniques that boost and sustain outstanding performances but also help athletes rehabilitate after injury, and deal with the day-to-day anxiety.

Since physical training is both strenuous and stressful, psychologists adopt performance routines to enhance and maintain consistency for faster reaction time and appropriate response.

Positive mental conversations (self-talk) are encouraged to enable athletes execute challenging tasks, while activation control strategies are needed to ensure their energetic state is at an optimal level.

Furthermore, mindfulness and other techniques are promoted to sharpen their focus and sustain both attention and concentration over long periods.

Therefore, by simulating the competition environment through mental imagery and conducting scenario assessment, the athlete is prepared beforehand to handle any eventuality.

These mental techniques if well practiced are very useful off field and in post-active-sports life.

Where a sports psychologist is not available, most coaches usually integrate the behavioural science principles in their training regimen to help support the athlete psychologically.

However, even where there is a sports psychologist, coaches and team managers should double up as mentors and chaperones to guide their athletes on how to handle training stressors, pre-competition anxiety, adversity that follows injury, how to be gracious in defeat and humble in success.

The celebrated Harambee Stars coach, the late Reinhardt Fabisch, used to bring in sports psychologists at his own cost to talk to the players before major matches; no wonder many remember his glorious reign in the 90s.

Much as having a good support structure is important, being self-driven and belief is key to thriving. This is because when all is said and done, it boils down to the athlete.

Self-drive and belief is supported by an athlete’s objective of getting into the sport in the first place.

Simplistic ambitions such as boarding a plane and being famous will not sustain you long enough.

For the greater good

The drive should run deeper than overcoming personal poverty. What makes elite athletes such as Eliud Kipchoge, Lewis Hamilton, Tiger Woods and Serena William remain on top of their various sports, is an ambition beyond themselves.

They are in sports not only for themselves but for the greater good of the society as they ably show via their Foundations and Charity organisations.

This selfless ambition will steer you through adversity and keep you hopeful for better days. When you face a stronger opponent, you will be more tactful and remain resilient throughout the process.

Since elite sport is not a recreational activity but a commercial venture, financial backing plays a key role in its sustainability.

During an athlete’s low moments (injury and undesirable performance), their financial welfare suffers greatly. Many of the above comebacks would not have been a reality were it not for the undying support of their major sponsors.

When all the sponsors withdrew from Tiger Woods, Nike never left him during the entire decade he was in the doldrums.

The financial support he received from the sports apparel and shoe company kept him going through training and treatment.

When San Francisco 49ers did not renew Colin Kaepernick’s contract because of his open support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Nike did not remove him from their list of sponsored athletes.

Nike came out fully to support his action through an advert feature to mark the beginning of the 2018/2019 National Football League (NFL) season.

From these experiences, the relationship between sponsors and athletes needs to be two-way affair.

The same way athletes give companies a second chance, they do deserve a second lease of life -albeit with strings attached, since no company has unlimited resources.

Finally, if the sad stories of African athletes dying in abject poverty are to end, they need to take their careers seriously, keep off destructive company, invest for the future and have a close neat network of authentic and reliable support crew.

Success is a team effort.


By Paul Ochieng’ (Dean of Students, Strathmore)  and Gerald Lwande (Medical Scientist and Researcher)


This article was first published in The Standard.