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Sam Smith - Tennis - Autism

✍️ To mark the start of #Wimbledon, this week’s Neurodiverse Sport blog post features an article written by Olivia Rae @ollierae14, about former British Ladies number 1 tennis player, Olympian and current tennis broadcaster, Sam Smith.

Sam Smith is a former British Ladies number 1 tennis player, Olympian and current tennis broadcaster. Sam isn’t afraid to be different and defines herself as a person who comes back time and time again. She was always destined to be an athlete; it was just a case of which sport.

Before a tennis match a coin-toss takes place to decide if you serve or receive first. You’ve got a fifty percent chance of making your preferred choice. It’s luck.

As we go on a journey through Sam’s career, there are times where luck played a part- and, just like there are two sides of the same coin, there are two potential ways to view Sam. Some might say Sam Smith’s journey is one of RECKLESSNESS, DIFFICULTY and DISRUPTION. Yet, if you flip the narrative there’s another story beyond this- a journey of DISCIPLINE, EASE and CALM.

Sam tells her story in the back room of a studio, she shuts the door to block out external noise, asks for the music to be turned off and moves away from the sun as it gets too bright in her face. She’s assertive of her needs - she’s powerfully kind and considerate. A feeling of calm in the room helps us all. So, we begin… “ask whatever you want” Sam says.

Sam reflects on how she was always very sport orientated and a huge part of this was channelling her HYPERACTIVITY. In the early days she felt much calmer when she was with her sponge ball hitting it against the bedroom wall. And, later, as the conversation moves to broadcasting, she explains how it made her feel calm the very first time she did it. So, Sam’s relationship with tennis started and continues in the same way, by providing a sense of CALM.

“I found it much more difficult in a group situation. I was much more likely to run off the court”.

Sam’s storytelling is captivating as she describes her tennis moving from her bedroom wall to the garage, and then to more structured tennis classes. It is here Sam explains some of the challenges she had. Challenges which led to those around her viewing her as DIFFICULT. Running off court and being unresponsive to the coaching styles in the group setting.

“She just trained me in the perfect way for me.”

To Sam, her tennis career is a miracle featuring a string of serendipitous occurrences. She sees how a coach, who was connected through her friend from school, developed her talent. How it happened was not systematic, she simply feels it was a great piece of LUCK that their paths crossed- just like when you call heads and the coin lands tails down. Her family were expecting the coach to say she was difficult, but it was the opposite of that. The partnership was a DREAM.

The reality is, Sam thrives in a one-to-one coaching environment, and with a coach that understands her. With this new coach, she was not reckless- she was DISCIPLINED. The visual tool of utilising a picture book to help her learn, and understand tennis technique, worked so well.

“I need a place to recharge, and a busy house is not it.”

Sam’s tennis playing continued to be the main feature of her life and going to an academy in America after her A-levels was a huge opportunity to play tennis full time. Unfortunately, it ended at a BREAKING POINT. Managing life outside of tennis and living in a busy house where rooms changed every time you came back from a tour, was tough. Her time management, organisation skills and her overall well-being proved too DIFFICULT to maintain. The ease and calm she felt with her coach, and the discipline she had kept with her tennis, FELL APART.

Like the difficulty of being coached in a group when she was younger, and wanting to run off court, Sam needed a place to get away from the overwhelm of being surrounded by too many people. There are distinct environmental conditions that help her thrive- that help her play her tennis with EASE- but America was not the optimum environment for her.

“I just need a manager.”

As the conversation flows, Sam talks about how the Olympics were better and the structure and support helped keep her ON COURT. Players got transported from place to place, and they had a team manager. It was the same on tours, she didn't have to think too much about her self-care, which helped her FOCUS almost solely on tennis. But tennis full time was not just Olympics and tours, and the bits in between took its toll.

“I was about a hundred in the world. I've just been to the Olympics. You don't give that up... But I wasn't okay.”

Decision making is something Sam does a lot in tennis, from the coin toss to deciding what shot to play at any time. Sam made a huge decision to return from America, quit tennis and go to university. The people around her could not understand why she was giving up something she was clearly talented at. Except one KEY person.

Supportive words from her “miracle worker” coach helped Sam. Sam recalls how she spoke to her about how she was feeling and told her she couldn’t continue with her tennis anymore. Her coach simply said, “well, don't.” To have that support and backing to make the choice she wanted to make, from someone she respected and who had been there for her, was GAME CHANGING.

“I got myself into a good place and I just thought I'll give it a go for a year.”.

University, tennis free, worked well for Sam - she could practice social skills in an environment with no pressure. It really helped her get back to finding her CALM. Being in one place helped her RESET and SETTLE. Unknown to Sam at the time, she was recovering from burnout. After a year the desire to play tennis came back and she played with the university team. The plan was to give it a go and see what happens… little did she know that the best of Sam Smith was still to come.

“I was happy where I was living, where I was training…my coach was very much still

involved. Everything just sort of was right.”

The conversation with Sam is gripping and heartening as she talks about her next phase of tennis. She was happy with where she was living and training and her ‘forever coach and mentor’ was still very much involved, working in the background with Sam and her official coach. You could say Sam was operating in her OPTIMUM environment and it is at this point where she achieved a career high of breaking into the TOP 100 and a career high world ranking of 55. This incredible milestone means more to her because she had quit tennis, and she was never going to play again. Sam continued to go from strength to strength and 18 months of CONSISTENT training and performances resulted in her beating a former champion and top 10 seed at Wimbledon. Sam Smith comes back time and time again.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Yeah, everything made sense.”

Sam’s career came to an end due to injury. Unknown to Sam, and those around her, she was navigating the world as an undiagnosed autistic person. When she finally got her diagnosis, it was hugely positive for her, and everything made sense. Any self-criticism she might have internalised during her struggles to manage herself, or any remnants of viewing herself as a difficult person, went away. Sam now knows she is Neurodivergent. Sam thinks, learns, and relates to other people in a different way from the perceived norm. This was particularly evident in her tennis career. As we saw from her coach, a little understanding of the individual goes a long way.

“I'm finding I recover quickly now. So, I'm not utterly depleted all the time”.

Sam has always found a way and now, with the help of an Autism specialist, she can really maximise her time and energy. A key thing for Sam is being strategic with her recovery and downtime. When she gets back from heavy periods of work as a broadcaster, she gives herself two days to recover. In this time, she shuts the doors, turns everything off, won’t speak to people, and she will avoid phones or digital input.

There are different ways to view Sam Smith’s journey, just like there are two sides of the same coin.

Sam may have run off the court during group sessions and diverted from what was expected of her at various points in her career, so you could say she’s RECKLESSNESS, DIFFICULT and DISRUPTIVE, yet Sam also worked well one to one and responded well when she had the off-court responsibilities taken away from her. When you seek to understand Sam’s experience of the world, get to know Sam as a person, and what approach she needs, you can see that she’s DISCIPLINED, performs with EASE and is a CALMING presence.

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