EXCLUSIVE: Lizzy Yarnold on sport, wellbeing and her advice for young athletes

Sarah Eversfield joins Sevenoaks Sport & Wellbeing with a series of her Full of Fire interviews and kicks off with one of our most loved local Olympians, Lizzy Yarnold OBE, where she offers her advice for young people on sport and wellbeing.

Lizzy Yarnold is a former British skeleton racer who joined the Great Britain national squad in 2010. With consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2014 and 2018, she is the most successful British Winter Olympian ever.

Lizzy grew up in West Kingsdown in Sevenoaks and enjoyed a variety of sports at a young age, loving athletics and working hard at the heptathlon in particular. She talks about her focused, purposeful attitude even as a young child.

A reasonably late starter to her Olympic sport at the age of 20, Lizzy first started participating in skeleton after applying for the UK Sport Talent ID Campaign, Girls4Gold, where she was spotted as having huge potential in the sport. Despite having never done it before, Lizzy fell in love with sliding, worked incredibly hard to fulfil her Olympic dream and has never looked back.

Lizzy speaks about her childhood, her journey to the Olympics, working hard, dealing with setbacks and finding your ‘why?’.

What was Lizzy the child like?
I think I was always the very determined, bossy kid. My two sisters would come in and say, Lizzie, can we play ‘It’? Can we play games? And I’d say, No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t wanna play games. I was very purposeful. Even then if we’d go out and do a sport – tennis, lacrosse, cricket, rugby, whatever – I’d go and play the sport, do the session, and come back home and chill out.

We grew up in Kent on a farm, we were always very physical, always playing outside. There was something that my mum did from a very young age which was before dinner, she would say that we’d have to run around the garden before we came in for dinner. So I’d obviously try and beat my sister Katie. There was a hedge halfway round, which was a perfect hurdling opportunity as well. Our childhood was very active, very busy and my independence certainly was quite a strong characteristic even then.

And were you also imagining yourself competing at an Olympics at that stage? Was that something that went through your head?
It was a dream; it really was something which caught my imagination, I watched Denise Lewis in 2000, I think it was when she won gold. I read her books and I loved the story, which I had assumed on TV was a clear path to success. She seemed this powerful character, this strong woman, a capable athlete and was the best in the world. Then through reading her book and learning more about it, I got to know that she was strapping her ankles up and hoping that it was going to get through that next event, and actually, it wasn’t always a clear path. She won bronze four years earlier and then went on to win her gold. So I did see that and I thought, right, heptathlon, this is me. I loved athletics, I could run, I could turn my kind of hand to anything very quickly. So yes, the dream was there. But it was very much a dream.

And how did you get into athletics? Did you join a club? Or did you do it at school?
It must have been actually at prep school, and I was getting ready for the National Championships in high jump and long jump. So we’d obviously gone through the rounds of regionals and everything, and I had my place at the nationals. I went down to where the high jump was set up, to practise every lunchtime with the PE teacher and we just practised, practised, practised, and I actually remember there was a moment where I could hear the other kids in lunchtime play shouting with joy and everything and my reflection in that moment was that I prefer to be at the high jump.

The same thing over and over again, repetition, and just becoming that little bit better. I knew I wasn’t going to win the national championships. Obviously not, I was just glad to go, to be a part of it. But I wanted to be there doing something that was purposeful.

How did sport develop for you as a teenager? It’s a time when girls can sometimes drop out.
Yeah, it’s something I was definitely aware of when I went to a grammar school, which was a train ride away. Not many kids on the train would have sports kits with them. I would go to the athletics track or go to the gym every single night after school. That was me – my after school activities were really my priority. I did think it was sad to see other people not continue with sport, especially when I knew that they were good at sport and that there were so many sports out there.

But I didn’t really know what the answer was. I was aware that it might be not being able to shower after lessons or not being able to dry your hair or other barriers that was stopping students from carrying on. I’m so glad that I’ve never cared about my hair and I didn’t seem to mind showering in front of other people. I loved sport so much that I didn’t want to miss out on it.

How did you get into skeleton? Presumably you don’t just find a skeleton sled at your local park. Can you talk us through how that happened?
Yeah, I always feel like I should explain the skeleton to anyone. Not many people know about it, and I didn’t know about it for a long time. So it’s a winter sport on the same track as the bobsled. It’s this mile long huge ice flume really, and the skeleton is a sport where you lay on your chest headfirst feet behind you and you’re holding on to this sled with your hands and your shoulders tucked into the sled and you’re trying to keep an aerodynamic flat form. You just keep your eyes focused ahead trying to remember which way the track goes. So it’s a very odd sport!

So after training in athletics every single night after school, going to competitions every single weekend, by the time I was 18, I realised I wasn’t good enough and facing up to that at 18 when I’ve given so much of my life to it was horrible. I couldn’t have tried any harder. I just wasn’t quick enough. I wasn’t good enough.

UK Sport do talent searches every two years and they were finding athletes who have physical and capacity for loads of different sports.
There was a whole list of sports and skeleton was at the bottom and I basically went to this Testing Day with my best friend Gemma. We went to the sports hall and did all the height and speed testing, all the basic stuff.
A few weeks later, I did get a letter back, it said you’ve made it into the skeleton, the next stage of the skeleton, and I was like, what the heck is skeleton?!

It came with a video that had someone going down the track and talking about the sport and it caught my attention I guess.

So, from that day, through to me actually being on the talent team and having a go at the sport, was six months. We did more testing, they whittled the group down and then I waited to hear again and again, it really was like the X Factor, trying to make it through the last 10 and instead of going on some nice camp to sing, we were sent to Norway and thrown down this ice chute!

Going on it the first time was so overwhelming; the noise, the vibrations, not knowing where I was going, not knowing how to steer. I probably screamed in my crash helmet! I got to the bottom, I stood up and I burst straight into tears. It was emotional and I didn’t want to do it again. It was hard and I hit the walls and it was horrible and cold.

We went back to the changing rooms and I sat down thinking, “Okay, that’s done, I’m off home”. But everyone else walked out the door and picked up their little sleds and laid down and had another go.

And that was just a flat-out choice. What am I going to do? Go or stick? The first few days were very, very hard and very nerve-wracking, but slowly I realised, okay, I can recognise corner three, I’m getting a tiny, tiny, tiny bit better. I’m hitting the walls harder, but I’m also getting a bit better, and that control versus fear? I was going in the right direction.

You’ve clearly had some very dark moments but seem to have found the positive in every single situation. How do you do that? What is it that you think made your brain tick in that way?
I remember when I was in Year 5 and we had a test (and I hated tests, I always wanted to do well, but I never did) and my dad said “All you can do is your best.” And he was someone who wasn’t academic, probably dyslexic and I thought, Oh, that’s a relief, all I’ve got to do is my best. All I can do is my best. And it just gave me the empowerment. I empowered myself to think I’m just going to do my best and whatever happens happens. It was the same with skeleton. All throughout my career, I have only focused on three things. That’s all I can think about – everything else doesn’t matter, because that’s all I can focus on. I can’t get everything perfect, I can’t get it all right. So the ability to give yourself a bit of a break has helped me deal with those big scary things in life and to know that it’s not going to be perfect. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty, but I’d rather do it and know then, and take that opportunity, than just sit here and be comfortable all the time.

You’ve spoken about how Amy Williams was a great role model and mentor to you. How can young people find mentors?
I think you kind of pinpoint who you might want to learn from and if you go and ask someone for a coffee, or just have a chat, you know, no one says no…I think there’s so many opportunities out there that you can just say, Can I just grab you for five minutes? Five minutes turns into half an hour. I think that anyone can do that. whatever age you are, and I’ve done it with Kelly Holmes, with Kate Richardson-Walsh – with some amazing people!

What do you value in coaches and teachers?
I value honesty, I think, the honesty to be able to tell you you’re not quite there yet. I appreciate honesty and respect, but that’s just my personality type and being pushed as well, when someone criticises you, I really appreciate that. When you receive good feedback and stuff to work on, it’s really nice that they’re taking the time out to do that for you and I know that I can improve from it, so I’m trying even now to give more feedback.

How do you think young people can prioritise their mental health?
Sometimes, what I’m going to say might make us feel uncomfortable, because if you’re not used to talking about your mind and your mental health, then it’s sometimes a bit strange. But when we talk about a broken leg, you know, it’s a great analogy, if I’ve broken my leg, we can see it, I know I need it fixed, so I’m going to go to the doctor and get it fixed so I’m not gonna keep running around on a broken leg, and if your mind isn’t quite right, so for example, when I get really overwhelmed with things, I’ve got loads of jobs to do, I do start feeling down I start getting worried and anxious and those emotions, you know, they’re not helping me today, they’re not helping me tomorrow, I’ve got to kind of talk about them, or deal with them somehow.

So I think just having a discussion, whether it’s with your parents or your friends, about anything that’s going on in your mind, anything that you just need to get out there, just talking about it does take the pressure off and it’s kind of on that road to treating yourself to looking after yourself.
Talking is always key, and that could literally be a WhatsApp. I use journaling, so I often write down how the day’s been or what my three gratitude things are from the day, to try and keep in a positive mindset.

So there’s a couple of things, whatever personality you are, whether you’re someone who likes to write or whether you like to talk, you know, there is something that you can do that will keep you thinking about your mental health and yeah, just little things every day I think can give you that energy, same as going for a walk or doing some exercise.

If you could go back and give 11-year-old Lizzy some advice, what would it be?
I think it’s easy to give the obvious answers to that question – to believe in yourself, to follow your own path, but I would tell my 11-year-old self to enjoy it, because the best days in your life will be over before you know it. So take photos, enjoy it and try not to take things so seriously.

And do you think she would have listened?
Nope! She would have said “Go away – I’m going to get on with my purposeful practice!”

• You can listen to the full interview between Sarah and Lizzy by searching for Full of Fire on all major podcast platforms.