A Day with Paula Radcliffe: Juggling the five balls of life

A Day with Paula Radcliffe: Juggling the five balls of life

It’s not every day that a world record holder visits our college but when Paula Radcliffe came to us during February there was obvious excitement. Before we go onto what Paula presented to students let’s just remind ourselves about Paula’s career achievements and gain further insight into her life.

Paula’s achievements include European Championships gold medallist in the 10,000m, World Championships gold medallist in the marathon, twice winner of the world cross country championships, winner of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award and she is the current world record holder for the Marathon.

In the Marathon she actually holds the three fastest times in history and her world record of 2 hours and 15.25 minutes astonishingly has not only stood for over ten years but, in a profession of fractions of percentages, is a full 2.2% faster than anyone other than she has ever run. (You’ll be interested to note that there is another person who holds the three fastest times in history for an
event, this event being the 100m - you may have heard of him - Usain Bolt, is only 1.1% ahead of the next fastest rival, Tyson Gay.)

Paula is a passionate believer in keeping athletics free of doping, sitting on the IAAF Athletes Commission advising the IAAF on anti-doping from an athlete’s perspective, juggling such activities with her running, being a mother and working for the BBC. And while she was building her athletics career, she was a student, just like students at MPW Birmingham. She had to revise for her A levels just like our students do and went on to university where she achieved a first class honours degree in French, German and Economics. She’s had her trials and tribulations along the way, just like some of our students do.

One of the things that students commented on regarding Paula’s visit was her humility. For such a successful athlete she came over as totally approachable and was more than willing to share with her audience both the high and the low points of her running career.

Relatively early on within her career Paula discovered the writings of James Patterson and was particularly taken with his ideas about how to gain a sense of perspective in life. Patterson said that we should imagine life as a game in which we attempt to keep five balls in the air. Each ball has a name: work, family, health, friends and spirit. Paula explained that at various times in her life she has been under immense pressure and some of this pressure she would have placed upon herself. Over time she learnt to put things into perspective and despite the importance that work holds began to cope with work pressures in a more constructive manner. Soon Paula began to understand that work represented a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered.

Paula was not advocating that work and study are not important. She shared her thoughts to reassure students that although they should always try their best and push themselves; whenever things begin to feel overwhelming they should step back and gain perspective. Paula realised that if there were occasions when she did not perform as well as she intended, eventually the rubber ball of work would bounce back. We must, according to Paula, never lose sight of the other balls because if we drop any of these then the consequences can be far more worrying. The key to life is to use your talents to the full within the workplace but retain a sense of balance about other important things. This way you are more likely to reduce your levels of stress, appreciate the company of those around you and look after yourself.