Sarah: Hello and welcome to the Tough Girl Podcast, which is all about motivating and inspiring you.
I'm your host, Sarah Williams.
Today I've got an awesome guest with me. I've got Isobel Pooley, who is a great British high jumper. She's 22 years old and has already broken the British record which has stood over 32 years!
Isobel, welcome to the Tough Girl Podcast.
Isobel: Hi, thanks for having me on.
Sarah: You have had an absolutely incredible start to your career from winning silver medal at the Commonwealth games back in Glasgow from breaking the record that I mentioned when you jumped a staggering 1.96 meters.
I'd love to discuss that a little later in the podcast, but what I want to do first of all is to take you back to when you were younger, back to your childhood and how you first got involved in sports and athletics.
Is it something that you've always been passionate about.
Isobel: Yeah. I remember enjoying sports at school. Equally vividly I remember being hopeless at most things, to be honest.
Team sports weren't really my things. Tactics and ball skills were never something I really got through in my head. I certainly thrived off being active. I was always an outdoorsy type person, so even if it was things like just walking the dog or being in the garden and out in the countryside, that was what made me feel good about myself.
I felt very healthy when I was just out and about rather than being such and such sitting inside doing video games. I was never really that kind of child.
I got my kicks from sport but I was always last to be picked for teams and stuff. Then athletics really appealed because of its individual nature. I could just find my own way and do things my own way and I wouldn't be letting anybody down or relying on anybody else. It was just about me and achieving my own goals.
Sarah: The high jump is a very individual sport, obviously, it's just you going out there and jumping.
How did you first get interested in the high jump, what was it about it that appealed to you?
Isobel: We used to jump in the garden, me and my sister, just over homemade obstacle courses really. We'd just re-create them in the garden and just run and jump over them ourselves and see how high we could go. My mom one day actually said, "You know you're not meant to actually run up straight, jump over forward, you're meant to run this curve." She did the scissor technique over the bar. Me and my sister looked at each other and looked at her and thought, you're talking nonsense. Just never thought anything more of it until actually in PE we learned that she is right all along and actually you are meant to run a curve. You can go a lot higher if you get your body out of the way rather than just try and hurtle it straight on.
My mom's sporty, and dad is too. We're from a sporty background but my parents never pushed me into it, it was almost by accident that I discovered the high jump is really the perfect one for me. It combines my personality and my physical ability in one sport that really I just enjoy doing, I absolutely love it to bits.
Sarah: I've read that your 6 foot 3. When did you really get your growth spurt?
Isobel: I would say 13 because my sister actually, my younger sister is taller than me by far. She is now 6'5 and has stopped growing, but she was much taller much younger. On the marks on the wall where we put our height, we both overtook our mom who's 5'10 almost before we were teenagers, which was crazy. Equally within our house, us girls are still daddy's little girls because he's 6'10.
Really, it's all relative. Depends who you compare yourself to.
Sarah: How did you cope when you were younger, because I think a lot of girls when you're 13, 14, all you want to do is you just want to fit in, you just want to belong. You're automatically going to stand out because of your height, because it is so unique.
How did you cope with that?
Isobel: Tell me about it. Growing up was pretty difficult to be fair, but I think it's difficult for everyone. You're always worried am I normal, do I look like everyone else?
You just come to the realization that you're not going to look like anyone else. That's the beauty of it. If we all looked the same we'd live in a very boring world. There would be nothing that would set us apart and make us unique.
Being tall is one of the most glaringly obvious differences that you can have because there's nothing you can do to hide it. If you're short and self conscious, you can wear heels.
They make these amazing shoes for men nowadays with a concealed wedge heel. If they feel insecure about their height, which I think is a bit tragic that society makes men feel they should be tall, because society also makes girls believe that they ought to be small or at least smaller than their boyfriends.
People say to me, how are you ever going to find a boyfriend? I think, what an awful thing to say, but they mean how are you going to find a boy who's taller than you? I'm thinking, why on earth does he have to be taller than me, where did this misconception come from that the man has to be the big and strong one and the girl has to be small and vulnerable and be looked after?
There's absolutely no way in the world that I'm going to be this little weak one in the relationship. I don't see why I should have to be. I don't expect a guy to be the big tough one either. It's only when you realize that it doesn't make sense that you can just stop caring.
Sarah: Also, you've learned this lesson much earlier on than some of your peers. You maybe don't realize that until much later on in their life.
Actually, the person you're going out with doesn't have to be taller than you. Is he a nice person, is he kind, is he considerate, is he thoughtful, does he love you?
Those are things which are more important than is he 2 inches taller than you and you've got the perfect height difference or such. Thank you for sharing that. I was actually reading your blog earlier about when you get on a plane and you have people coming up to you saying, "How tall are you, how tall are you?" Does that still happen quite a lot when you go out and about?
Isobel: Every day. I definitely get asked about my height every day. I was out with some friends I hadn't seen in a while and they said to me things like, "I forgot how much people stare at you." Or, "Is this guy for real when he comes up, he just goes, damn, she's huge or hell, she's massive." You just think, massive, huge, since when was that an acceptable thing to say about someone within their earshot?
I get in a huff about it but I think it's just funny that people at the end of the day are so ignorant about how rude they're being. They don't mean to be rude, they don't think. They just don't think.
Maybe they just assume that everybody knows that it is a gift to be tall and that you couldn't possibly take offense or be insecure about it. Unfortunately that's not the case. It reminds you that you do stick out and you're different. I used to really really want to be shorter, but now that high jump's caught on, it's a huge advantage to be tall. I'm really proud to be one of the tallest female high jumpers on the circuit and be doing so well with it. It's the challenge to be tall, but in the end, the long run, the benefit is so massive.
Sarah: This is an amazing gift that you've got, this height. It is taking you to incredible places.
You start doing the high jump at school, your mom told you about the scissor technique which you weren't really sure of.
Who spotted your potential and was like, "Actually, do you know what Isobel, you need to focus in on the high jump." When did that start happening for you?
Isobel: My PE teachers caught on pretty quickly that I should join athletics club, but actually when I went along for the first time they told they I didn't have a high jump coach, but if I wanted to do athletics I could hang around and do some other training for a while and see if a coach became available. I wasn't to be deterred and did a year of sprinting training with another group at the same club, which I was awful at. Still fairly slow, hesitant in my running because I'm just so long. That was pretty unpleasant to be the last one crossing the line, but I was repaid for my perseverance when the high jump coach came over and said, "Do you want to jump with us on a Tuesday night?"
That was really once I had my foot in the door, I was there any time that he asked me. He gave me the privilege to be invited along.
I just wanted to do as much high jump as my body can take ever since. It's just fun, it's liberating I guess to fly over a bar and get the absolute most out of your body. It's really great ambition to just try and be better every day and to have so many people around me to help me do that and to have such clear goals of the Olympics.
I'm just focusing my passion in on the high jump, because I found something I'm so passionate about. That extends to other areas of life. It doesn't matter what you're passionate about, it's just the fact that you're passionate that makes the difference.
Sarah: I think everyone needs to have some sort of passion.
Isobel: Yeah, I think that is a challenge to expose people to enough opportunities that they will find something that they are passionate about and that suits them inherently, but then also to empower them to make that choice to follow that path. It's not always easy, it's not like I feel like I've had a fairly easy road.
If I look back on it, there have been major obstacles. It's come down to really how much I want it, how much I really believe this is the journey that I want to be on. I want to commit to the path.
Maybe it's social prejudice as well, like some girls still find there's a stigma about doing certain professions in science or engineering or math.
There are these connotations that are completely outdated. That may be why people aren't following their passion, because they don't think it's going to be accepted by others around them.
Sarah: I think you made some really really fascinating point there.
Going back to your career and moving things along, when was your first big competition?
Isobel: I remember getting invited to my first international competition and getting the letter that says you've been selected to represent Great Britain in the high jump. I've always been really patriotic and I can't put my finger on where that comes from. I'm a bit obsessed with the Union Jack, I love Englishness, Britishness, that sort of thing.
When this massive box or kit arrived on my doorstep, my two best friends were over. We did a fashion parade where I tried on every piece of GB kit that they had given me, including the hat and the socks. We were just in heaven.
It didn't really feel real that I had risen to the top of our nation in my age group. It absolutely blew my mind, to be honest. It's such an honor. At the same time, I had never aspired to be Britain's best.
I was just focusing on the day today, jumping, having fun, loving what I was doing, enjoying life. I never aspired to be a sportswoman, which is a funny thing. I wanted to be a vet. I think I basically just wanted a challenge but I hadn't quite found one that fit. Once I did, all the other stuff fell into place.
Sarah: Were you training full time now at the high jump?
Isobel: I am now, but that's only recently. I graduated from University in January of this year. I study animal science at Nottingham. I've been a student athlete my whole life until this year where I've now become full time professional athlete, which seems still to be crazy. I'm loving it so far.
Sarah: The University must have been like, yes, we've got Isobel on our team, we're definitely going to win this competition.
Isobel: It was amazing actually to be supported through the university enthusiastically, because the school and the educational system has such a big role in supporting athletes or sports people at every stage of the journey. It was really nice that continued through into university, which is quite a challenging time because you can really invent yourself and define yourself the kind of person you want to be and the kind of lifestyle you wanted to have.
It was really nice that they were there to guide me through that. Aspects like giving me a sports..... there were years where that was really crucial to me being able to continue doing the level that I was doing it. The University of Nottingham has really excelled. It's really ambitious. It wants to be a lot better at sports, it wants to be rivaling those big universities like Loughborough, Sheffield and London Universities in the league tables. It's really doing a really good job there. That comes from supporting athletes.
Sarah: Which is absolutely fantastic.
How did you balance, everyone knows what university life can be like. It can be a lot of socializing, a lot of finding yourself and going out and meeting new people, having an awesome time.
How did you balance that?
Isobel: It was an interesting time, the first year of university. In the end I found myself very isolated from the people who I was around in the halls. I felt quite lonely and quite unhappy, only because I realized that lifestyle wasn't for me. It wasn't for want of trying to join in.
Then I realized that, there's this whole other social circle at the track who were all highly driven, highly motivated ambitious people who were mature for their years. This was the world of the sports person.
I'm not saying we're all perfect, but there are certainly personality traits that make it a really exciting atmosphere to be in. What I lost in the Uni social life, I gained far more from being around sports people at Loughborough, which was clearly one of the highest most prestigious sporting places there is in the country.
Sarah: You've touched on some really interesting things actually about being isolated, being lonely, being unhappy because you hadn't found the people around you, either your support team or your tribe or the people who understood what it is that you were wanting to do with your life.
I think there are a lot of girls out there who don't necessarily know where they belong or where they fit.
It is all about finding those people.
You obviously found that in Loughborough which is fantastic, I'm so happy for you.
You've graduated from university, you're now training full time as a professional athlete.
Isobel: Each year there is a focus, and the focus for last year was twofold. The Commonwealth games and the Europeans. I didn't even make the team for the Europeans. I really was very put out about that, but it wasn't anybody's fault but mine.
The Commonwealth became the only thing that I had to justify myself that year in a sense. When it came down to it, it was just an enormous amount of fun.
The stadium was just a sensational experience just to be inside it, let alone have the opportunity to capture the attention of the entire crowd, most of whom were massively in sport of the English girl.
Get them all clapping, get them all on side, and then break my personal best in front of them, and share that joy.
For me it all comes around to joy. I don't think that I would do it if I didn't enjoy it. I don't feel like anyone forces me or twists my arm to make me train or make me commit to the lifestyle of a high jumper, because I want to do it. It all becomes obvious when I just think, okay, is it going to make me jump higher?
If it's a day to day mundane decision, is it going to make me jump higher, yes or no. It just makes life a lot simpler, if that makes sense.
I was there at the Commonwealth games and I just decided to have a good time. After all the training I put into my body, it actually knew how to do what I wanted to do, which just left my mind free to have a good time. I was smiling, interacting with the crowd. It was a whole load of fun.
Two weeks later, my body hadn't even shown me the start of what it could do, it seemed. I broke the British record in those two weeks following with the Commonwealth. I think that was my last ounce of frustration about the European disappointment was going, you know what, I can jump that high. I don't know whether 1.96 would have put me with the Europeans, but it certainly justifies my belief that I really should have been at the championships.
It was really nice this year that I automatically quantified for the world champs. I got two standards and broke the British record at the trials, so the selection competition. I put my selection woes behind me this year, which is nice.
Sarah: Actually want to take you back to the stadium. Can you just explain a little bit about the process? You get three goes ...
Isobel: You have your warm-up jumps, and then you have to select which height you're going to start at in the competition for real. You can choose a higher or lower height at the Commonwealth.
Obviously we have to wait for the bar to go up to the appropriate height as everybody else is jumping to, so they just go up in increments. You have to wait to come in if you choose to go at a higher height.
At the Commonwealth I just wanted to get on with it. I wanted to be involved from the offset. I came in a little bit lower just so I can have that extra couple of jumps, because I was so full of energy. I really just wanted to get it cracking.
Then what it comes down to is you have 3 attempts at each bar, but clearing it on the first attempt is much better. Not only do you conserve energy but you also keep your scorecard it's called, your scorecard clean. If there's a tie, they look down at the next height and see if you cleared it on the first, second or third attempt. That's how they separate out medals in the event of a tie.
Basically you want to clear things first time. If you're making silly little mistakes then that can come back and haunt you later.
My advantage at the Commonwealth was that I was jumping first. Out of each height, I was the first athlete up. I led the way and I ended up feeling very, I would say powerful. I don't mean to sound bragging but I just felt like I was in control and I had faith in my ability more than I ever had.
Sarah: Do you know why that was?
Isobel: I don't know really. I think my coach beforehand had said, "Your goal is to get a medal." I've never entertained the thought of getting a medal at such a big championships before. Once he said that, it kept echoing around my head.
I really came around to the idea over the course of a few weeks that I really could get a medal and that if things go right that I really should get a medal.
Then that just became a case of, okay, I've just got to do what I do in training. I train really really hard and I've done some really really good jumps in training. If I just relax a little bit when it comes to the competition and just trust that I have the ability, then I won't make those little mistakes that like I said will come back and bite you. I actually hit everything on the first attempt. including that PB height of 1.92.
I was more surprised than anybody because I had been so chilled out about it I really don't realize how high the bar was until I landed on the bed and realized I was in gold medal position at the Commonwealth games with a first time clearance. It was just mad. I think that's the power of having confidence in yourself.
I just remember having silence in my head and stillness and a sense of being in control, which was just a really pleasurable thing.
When it's going wrong, it's like a drum kit going off in your head. You're just panicking, where if there wasn't any panic, there was just pure enjoyment of the occasion.
Sarah: That's a really lovely way to describe it. One of the things I noticed when I watched the athletics is on TV is you have the high jump as you start clapping and cheering, getting the crowd going.
Does that work for you, do you need that extra energy that's provided by the spectators?
Isobel: I don't need it I don't think, but I enjoy it. I enjoy the fact that we have the opportunity to entertain the crowd. I realized, what I tell myself is they come to be entertained. Ultimately they want to see a world record or whatever.
You have to do whatever is going to get the best out of yourself as an individual performer. Some people like silence, some people aren't fussed about the crowd, but I'm a people person and I am fussed about the crowd. I want to know they're having a good time, because I'm having a good time. If I feel like smiling or dancing around, I'm going to do it, because who's going to say that I'm wrong?
I don't care. I'm having a nice time, I'm realizing my dreams. If people want to jump on the bandwagon and enjoy that with me, it's a case of the more the merrier.
I wouldn't say I need the energy, but it certainly is a mirror. If you give some energy to people, they multiply it and give it back to you. It's just a great feeling really need to have that power in your hands to get people clapping and to know that they're willing you to succeed.
No one's willing you to fail, really, they all just want to see you realize your dream, because we have a talent that not many people have. They enjoy watching that and they enjoy the devotion that we show to our sport.
I still find it amazing that so many people just watch sports just for the pleasure of seeing somebody else realize their potential.
I hope it empowers them to realize they can do their own dreams and they can make them come into reality just by committing to them, believing in their own ability.
Sarah: Absolutely. I love the way you described that, you're getting the energy back that you're putting out.
You touched on this briefly, but I just want to quickly go back to the mental aspect of when you're jumping.
You've obviously done the mental preparation beforehand and you've got these 3 jumps and you want to clear the first one. It must change in your mind when you don't clear the first bar and then suddenly you got attempt 2 and attempt 3.
How do you mentally prepare yourself every time you take the jump? Does that make sense?
Isobel: That's a very astute question, yeah. They are complete, they can be completely different in terms of how you approach them.
Jump number one is, okay, it would be great if I got this first time, that would be the ultimate ideal situation. You don't get it, jump number two, okay, I'm in a bit of a pickle here, but I've still got time, it's all right. If you haven't cleared up by jump three, you're thinking, oh my word, this is do or die because you know how it feels when you fail that third attempt.
You're out and you just feel like you've been cut off when you were in mid flow, or sometimes you're having such a bad day you're just glad it's over.
Sometimes the bar really just wobbles and then falls off and you think, I have the worst luck today. You already can be thinking about that worst outcome by the third attempt, whereas in the first attempt you're only thinking about the best outcome.
I think your chances of clearing it decrease the more negative you think. If you think positive, how can thinking positive create a negative result?
It's very clear how thinking negative can produce a negative result. I think I'm a bit, people think I'm a bit too optimistic because I try and put a positive spin on everything. I admit you can't always do that but you have to just go, okay, there were things that weren't perfect about that jump, but here's what I did well. Here's what I could improve, but ultimately it's only 99% good. It's just the 1% that I need to sort out.
High jumps really, basically it's an exercise in taking disappointment and trying to turn a situation around. If you get down in the mouth about one failure, you're giving up before you've even got it going.
When I jumped the British record 1.96 last year, I had 7 failures in that competition before I went over that record-breaking height. If I had let that negativity into my psyche, there's no chance I would have got that record, no way.
It's because I chose to see the positives that I continued to allow myself to enjoy the experience and see an opportunity for success rather than an opportunity for disaster.
Sarah: Very wise words that people can take away from listening from this conversation, to their own life and what's happening.
Are you taking out the positives, are you continuing to learn each time that you do something, or are you repeating the same mistakes over and over and over?
Isobel: Yeah, that's what my coach says. You can have 3 failures, because everyone does it sometimes, just don't have 3 of the same.
If I fail in 3 different ways, in a way that's great. I've worked out 3 new ways not to do it. Eventually I'll only have the right way hopefully in the trial and error.
Sarah: It happened for you when you were jumping that 1.96, a record which has stood for 32 years. It's one of the longest records ever to have been stood, and now it's yours, which is amazing because you have been on this journey since you were 13 and you've constantly been learning and refining and developing your craft and your skill.
One of the things I want to talk about is your training. Do you just do leg training all the time? Is it squats, is it box jumps, how do you train?
Isobel: Yeah. You've kind of got it right there in terms of lower leg, lower body is the focus. We don't do any sort of upper body really because we don't need it. What people do forget about is the core.
Your core muscles actually protect your back, which in high jump as you can understand is a very vulnerable area. With the contortions that we do over the bar, and lifting heavy weights in a swap requires a lot of core strength, otherwise you risk damaging your back, and then you're pretty much useless.
We do a lot of core work, we do a lot of lower body strength work.
Then a lot of what we do is actually skill. It's knowing which positions to put your body in, and to get the timing of putting your foot down really quickly.
You're not just strong, but you're fast. Also you're in the right position to take advantage of the physics ultimately which are going to get you over the bar.
It's not just about being strong, but it's about being able to use that strength. That's where drills come into it. We do a lot of movement patterning, just repetitions of really high quality movement so that we've almost auto-programmed our body. In the split second that it takes to do a high jump, our body naturally flexes itself into the right position that you can ping off the ground.
Sarah: It's actually really fascinating when you say that. It's that repetition, it's doing it over and over and over again so actually you don't need to think about it, it's pure muscle memory.
I really like when you said it's the high quality work. One question I do want to ask you, I do a lot of weightlifting.
When we have leg day and Bulgarian split squats, single leg squats and all these things, I have serious trouble the following morning walking!
How do you best recover? You must be doing a lot of training during the week. How do you recover quickly, do you have any tips on that?
Isobel: I always say that high jump or athletics in general is not a job in a traditional sense, because you can't leave it at the desk. You can't ever just go home and switch off completely because you know that actually you have to recover in between sessions.
It's not just about smashing out the sessions, but it's about making sure you're going to be ready to smash out another one the following day. That comes down a lot to nutrition, feeding your muscles the correct things, trying to get some high-quality protein in soon after the weight session that you've done, and having a healthy diet in general.
I feel my body is pretty robust, it's a pretty well oiled machine in general, so in terms of immunity as well.
Strength and power training can reduce your immunity. If you don't have a good diet or you don't have the correct supplementation, you can get a lot of coughs and colds. That makes your life, takes the quality of life away a little bit. The training quality drops off too.
A really healthy diet is what I would recommend. Also, taking your rests seriously, because I think recovery is the missing link in a lot of training programs.
People try and train 6, 7 days a week, and actually if they trained 4 or 5, they would get much better results because it's all about give and take with your body. If you ask something of it, give it time to give you the results.
Don't just smash your poor muscles constantly. Going in the gym, give them the stimulus, that's great, but then give them time and fuel to give you the results and actually to rebuild.
In terms of the skill that we do as well, it's almost like you have to go away and think about it a bit. High jump is amazing.
In the long term, the women at the tail end of their careers often go away, have kids and come back a year or two later even better than before they left. You can't say that their bodies are any better, but their mind has processed. It's like dreaming, shuffling all these experiences that you've had, physical experiences and actually finding those little golden nuggets of technique that actually are the key to high jumping. It's very skill-based. I would say that it's actually the time away that's almost as important as the time spent in the gym or on the track.
Sarah: Really good advice. Isobel, you've got the Olympics, you're going for Rio in 2016. Is that your plan?
Isobel: 100%. I can't believe it's next year. It's on, it's really on now.
Sarah: How are you feeling about it all?