Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill is one of the greatest British track and field athletes of all time. A specialist Heptathlete, the pinnacle of her athletic career came in 2012, when she claimed Olympic gold in London and captured the hearts of a nation in the process. Jessica won three world titles (2009, 2011, 2015) and was European champion in 2010. Displaying extraordinary resilience, Jessica won the heptathlon world title in Beijing, just fifteen months after giving birth to her son Reggie. Jessica was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to sport.
On her retirement from athletics in 2016, Jessica turned her focus to creating a new business – Jennis – an app that helps women optimise their hormonal health and fitness through smart training programmes at all stages of their life journey. Jennis has since teamed up with experts from the world of women’s hormonal health, to create programmes that empower women to truly understand their bodies and hormones, and then shows them how to train, eat and sleep for optimised hormonal health. In her own words, “through tech, science and female physiology, we’re on a mission to change the game.”
In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill about what it takes to become an elite athlete, how to build your physical and mental resilience, and why she’s now on a mission to transform women’s health & fitness with her new business, Jennis.
Q: How did athletics become such a central part of your life?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: From a young age, my mum and family would always say I was quite active and sporty, but I’d never really tried any form of sport until I was around 9 or 10. My parents took me to a summer camp in our home-city of Sheffield. It was at the Don Valley stadium which was built for the university games. It was an amazing experience- and being in a stadium of that magnitude was inspiring. That was my first taste of athletics. I loved that competitive element, loved being active and loved challenging myself. I started to train- and everything ramped up from there.
Q: What was the role of physical and nutritional health in your life?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: In relation to sport, it was essential to keep on-top of my physical health and nutrition. I had to understand everything I could about those two elements, how they came together and how to make the most out of them.
When you take this to an everyday perspective- it’s about realising that success doesn’t come from one area of your life, it’s about looking at the whole picture- and taking everything into focus.
Through my career, I had a lot of trial and error. I tried different ways of training, different supplements, different nutritional approaches, and eventually worked out what was best for me to get the most out of my physical performance on the track.
Q: What has been the role of mental resilience in your journey?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: I studied psychology at the University of Sheffield – and specifically looked at the psychology of performance and being at your best regardless of what field that is. You can have athletes that are at their physical peak but without the right mental resilience and approach, their performance will not be where it needs to. I’ve focused on that a lot through my career- learning through experiences and trying to keep a perspective on what I’d achieved previously, what I was going to achieve, and how to get the most out of communication with the people around me.
You need mental resilience to go out, take on the track, and perform the way you have to.
Q: How do you get mental focus as an athlete?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: For every sportsman and sportswoman, there is a focus and determination you have to achieve but you also have a lot of noise and distractions around you.
The key (for me) to be able to block out distractions and focus was my set-up. I had a team around me… my family… and kept consistency with that team from when I was a junior athlete right up to the peak. I felt that the stability and consistency of those people made a huge difference. Having great people around me also allowed me to keep perspective of what was important so that I wouldn’t get distracted by the bright lights of money or success and would focus on the basics of doing what I needed to do.
In my event (the heptathlon) you have 2 major competitions each year, the world championships every couple of years and the Olympics every 4 years. It’s easy to lose focus in the gaps in-between and so I had to make sure I focused on short-term goals and the process. I was very impatient and so this was particularly hard. Having those smaller goals to focus on, and to progress towards, was essential for me to maintain my drive to constantly get better and improve.
Q: How do you bounce back from failure?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: Failure is hard, whatever the context. There’s a couple of cases in my own life where I’ve had career-threatening injuries. I saw them as huge failures and had to change my thinking, my whole process, and how I saw and moved-towards goals. There are also failures where you feel ready and at the top of performance- expecting to win gold- and it doesn’t happen. You have to look at the whole picture… was it something external or internal? After every competition, whether I was successful or not, I would sit down with my coach and team and go through every element. Even if I’d just achieved a new personal best- we would break everything down and see what could have been done better and what was a learning. Ultimately, you have to fail at some stage with whatever you do, to get the successes that you need in the end.
Q: How did entrepreneurship come into your life?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: I retired after the last Olympics (2016) and had been thinking for some time about what I would do next. Until that point, athletics had been my whole life. I had been competing for another 2 years after having my son, and that also made me delve into the psychology of performance, mindset and behavioural styles. Retiring also made me reflect on the opportunities I’d had to be able to become a mother whilst still competing in the sport I love and being successful. I had a fantastic support network including my physio, coach and others who had the expertise I needed to get me back to winning a world championship a year after giving birth. That whole journey made me think about all those women who may struggle to exercise while pregnant, postnatally, and the challenges they face. There’s so much information about how to exercise, what to do, and it’s confusing. I wanted to create something that would offer help to as many women as possible whether generally, during pregnancy or postnatally. I want to help them optimise their training through understanding their bodies and hormones. It’s something I’m really passionate about, and Jennis is my chance to bring it to life.
Q: What are the challenges women face when it comes to fitness?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: In 2012, I was put to the forefront of people’s eyes during the Olympics. It was the first time I’d been on the cover of a magazine- and it wasn’t about being a size-zero or really-skinny, it was about being strong and promoting what healthy looks like.
There are so many times we see women offered fitness opportunities to look good. It’s the bikini guides and all those other things… In reality, there’s so much more to understanding how women exercise, what helps them train effectively, and why exercise matters during key stages in life such as pregnancy.
There’s so much data that’s been collected around fitness, but a lot of this has been based on male subjects and isn’t always right to apply to women. Having been through the journey myself, I want to help more women become body-literate and motivated to enjoy exercise.
It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information out there- most of which is quite trivial, faddy and superficial. As a woman, you have to delve into this whilst also deciding whether to train while pregnant, whether to train in a certain way when you are at different parts of your hormonal cycle, whether to train a certain way after giving birth… it’s so confusing and often leads to people putting off training or sticking to routines that aren’t effective or helping them.
You need to find what’s right for you, what motivates you, and what you get the most out of. You need realistic goals, and to understand that fitness doesn’t happen overnight- it requires patience and trust in the process.
You don’t need loads of fancy equipment to train- you just need to understand the basics of how- and when- to move your body and what works for you. With the Jennis app, we try to get as much feedback from as many women as we can to continuously improve our offering.
It’s not about training hard every day and pushing yourself in every session- it’s about knowing the right training, and knowing when to have a rest, recover and get the most out of your exercise.
Q: How did you handle the career transition from athlete to entrepreneur?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: Entrepreneurship is a completely different world for me, and it’s been really nice to delve into something which is unfamiliar in some ways, but familiar in others.
The learnings I had as an athlete about communication and motivation- and even how we worked with companies and brands- really have helped me in this new journey but most important has been the realisation that I have to stay true to myself, and find that same passion and focus in entrepreneurship as I did in athletics.
In the same way that I had that close team around me in sport, I have a team around me at Jennis. They know what I want to achieve, and we work as a collective to get there, keeping each other focused and on track. So, I take all those learnings and all those experiences from the elite world of athletics, and I’m trying to apply them to this new world of business which is exciting.
Q: How do you choose the team you work with?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: When choosing a team, the first thing you have to go with is your gut. I put a lot of value in speaking to people and trusting how I connect with them. In today’s environment this is hard- we’re seeing each other behind screens and can’t have the same face to face contact….
Gut feeling is something you should always take with you when you’re forming a team. The team I had around me during my athletic career were extremely passionate and focused… they were driven by being amazing in their field… and we had great communication and understanding between each other. There was no mistrust.
Even though I was performing alone on the track- I had that team behind me to get to that point- to coach me, provide physio and nutrition, psychological and performance support…. It was invaluable.
Q: Have you ever faced impostor syndrome?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: Although everyone saw me in 2012 as this young athlete who came out of nowhere and won Olympic Gold, it was a gradual process year on year to get to that point. I must say though… crossing that 800 line in London… it was an amazing feeling of excitement and joy. I was also relieved that it was over, and I was able to deliver, but also I felt this complete disbelief. I couldn’t believe you could spend so much time working for something, without knowing it would happen, and then it happened. I came off track and remember looking around thinking someone was about to tell me that I’d been disqualified or that it was an error- I just couldn’t believe that everything had come together, and I’d won that medal. Even talking about it now, 8 years on, it still feels surreal.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Jessica Ennis-Hill]: It’s hard to think of legacy when you’re in the moment but having retired from athletics, I’ve had some time to think about the impression that I want to leave on the part of the world I was involved in. I hope that I leave the impression that I was always trying to be the best I could be, and that I gave athletics my everything. I want people to remember me not just for specific great performances, but because of the grit and determination it took to get there. I never for one moment imagine I’d have the opportunity to compete in a home Olympics, never mind being chosen to be the face of the games. I never thought I would have the opportunity to be part of a moment in history.
Post athletics, I want to help as many women as I can to feel fulfilled with exercise and fitness. I want them to share my journey, experiences and the amazing people I’ve worked with. If I can get more women and young girls to have a great experience of exercise, that would make me very happy.