This week saw me speak with the Director of Design and Facilitation at thinkbeyond and Beyond Sport, Radha Belani. Radha has had a whirlwind of a sports career, working with the likes of the Premier League, Women in Sport, Euroleague Basketball and much more. Radha goes in-depth about having a variety of skill sets compared to focusing on a niche, how far Sport has come to supporting those with mental health struggles alongside how to kickstart your sports career journey.
Q1) Radha, it’s an honour to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Could you share with the readers how your sports career began?
I went to Loughborough University to study sports science as I played in a tournament there when I was younger, and it felt like heaven due to the fantastic sports facilities they had. I always knew my career was going to be in Sport and my family were very supportive of me studying what I loved despite it being so different to what other Indian girls into the broader family were doing. Unfortunately, I got injured in my first year at Loughborough, which left me worried about what I do next. However, I found myself running for Athletic Union President there, which saw me elected. It made an enormous difference to my career relating to the skills I wanted to use. I often sat with the Director of Sports Development, who was a remarkable role model for me because of his assertive nature, calm and open presence. From there, I was approached by the British University of College Sport (BUCS) to support them whilst they had a member of staff seconded for Athens 2004. It was initially a short-term role which saw me manage their marketing and communications, and their annual conference, which led to a permanent position as a programme manager where I was in charge of a real mix of sports such as sailing and rugby five’s, as well as hockey and other more traditional sports. I learnt that I wasn’t great at event management, but I enjoyed working with National Governing Bodies and understanding sports’ role in the world.
I soon moved onto the Football Foundation, where I stayed there for seven years under four restructures. I started as a small grants project officer, and I ended my appointment as Head of Communications and Corporate Relations. The role was based on how does Sport fit into supporting wider communities which were right up my street; I had the fascinating opportunity to work with the Premier League, the FA and governance. The Premier League soon took their community programmes in-house which saw me choose to move on.
I moved over to Women in Sport, where I was the Head of Insight and Innovation as maternity cover. This role focused on drawing insights and translating them into impact for people working out in the community. I learnt lots around people management styles while working with some incredible people.
As maternity leave ended, I knew this wasn’t the place for me. At this time, London Sport was being established, and I had a mutual connection there with someone I worked with at the Football Foundation. We both had synergies in our skill sets, and he asked me if I’d help him out for six months as their Director of Business Development. I ended up staying for two years. It’s fair to say we did the unexpected there, which included a big focus on sports tech. I also set up a partnership with Beyond Sport. In this partnership, there were some similarities with the skills I had and what they needed, which saw them offer me a role as their Director of Strategy, for both Beyond Sport and their consultancy, thinkBeyond. My role has evolved in that time, and I am now Director of Design and Facilitation for both of these businesses.
Q2) What I find remarkable about your sports career is that it’s very varied. You’ve worked with the British Universities and Colleges Sport, Football Foundation, Women In Sport, London Sport and now thinkbeyond! How beneficial has it been for your sports career to have worked at so many unique organisations?
It’s been an excellent opportunity to learn where my real skills and interests lied. The start of my career was domestic, but the latter has been very international. I’ve had a ‘wiggly’ route into the industry, and what I mean by this is I have a broad set of relationships, and I’ve never felt institutionalised. Plus, I haven’t been caught up in funding cycles and infrastructure. I admit I’ve been a bit too challenging at times when moving into positions as I have various perspectives on how an organisation can move forward with the times. I’ve also spent lots of time working in the charity sector but while maintaining a corporate mindset. Helpfully, this fits in well with my ethics, politics and belief in utter excellence.
Q3) I understand there’s been a strong prominence of marketing involved during your sports industry story. From my perspective, it’s the one area of the sports industry that has evolved most rapidly as is the most influential element of representing your image. From the BUCS days to your more recent positions with Beyond Sport, what have been the most significant changes you’ve seen in marketing and how have you adapted to them?
It’s come down to learning on the job rather than me having any specific marketing training. It’s a similar analogy to deploying how the mind works; learning by doing.
Marcoms has grown into a new ball game as we’ve become our own marketers. Because of this, we need more strategic decision making and more substantial outcomes. Its also become more liberated and democratised, which opens an opportunity for all organisations and individuals to make noise that they couldn’t conceive of before. There’s still old fashion ways of marketing that still work, but it’s essential to keep up with the times.
It’s also vital to ask ‘why?’ when it comes to marketing, so you don’t get lost in the ‘Twittersphere’. Think about what the outcomes are that you want to achieve. It’s okay for it to be brand awareness as long as it’s creating a conversion such as more subscribers, higher engagement with young people or sales.
Q4) Moving onto your role at thinkbeyond, could you explain what your position looks like day-to-day (if there is such thing) and what the organisation represent?
There’s no such thing as a day to day role. I sit firmly between thinkbeyond and Beyond Sport. Beyond Sport is the global force for social change by bringing sports business and social change together to make a positive difference. This is accomplished through convening digitally and in person, through collective impact, bringing diverse organisations together and collectively making the boat go faster, and through celebrating and funding the very best of organisations that are using Sport to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We also focus on where Sport isn’t making an impact in areas such as STEM education, mental health, refugees or IDP camps and we then bring together the sports world to begin to use its assets to make a difference.
In 2014, lots of people were asking why and how we do what we do. Therefore, we set up a consultancy called thinkbeyond, which is based on shared value strategy development, activating strategies on the ground, as well as ensuring that our clients tell their stories in the best way, in optimum spaces.
I primarily create a design thinking process which consists of structuring conversations and workshops that take groups of people from challenge to solution in a short period. I also design and deliver a range of youth leadership programmes that are supported by some of the greatest athletes of our time, Michael Johnson and Bille-Jean King. The young leaders they support are remarkable, and it is a privilege to walk alongside them.
I’m also the voice of a lot of Beyond Sport’s work by hosting our events, panels and our Global Awards. Essentially, normality is far away during these challenging times but a ‘normal’ day for me was flying to Fiji to facilitate a workshop for the Commonwealth Games’ regional meeting or going to the biggest slum in Asia to open a space for an ESPN programme, to writing a strategy in our London office!
Q5) The work you’re doing with mental health is fantastic too! I understand you did a short-documentary with Euroleague basketball about mental health in sports this year. Could you discuss more how this opportunity came about and reflecting from that and your current work, what further support do you feel the sports industry needs to support their players, staff and consumers with mental health?
Euroleague Basketball has been a client of ours for a while. We support the development of their social responsibility programme and run their annual workshop. Their team asked me to facilitate a table talk relating to mental health in sports. I did this at the beginning of this year after taking three months of sick leave where I was in a residential mental health facility in the US. I’ve been through mental health struggles for a while, but I never realised it until I had therapy which indicated I was struggling. To be asked to facilitate a short-documentary on mental health soon after my rehab was unbelievable timing!
Facilitating the table talk was a privilege as it was at the beginning of Euroleague Basketball’s journey of really talking about mental health with players, coaches, and staff. The UK’s approach to mental health is getting better as it’s becoming more de-stigmatised at different levels. For example, financial services firm Legal & General have done so much to de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace as well as ensuring that businesses have tools to support their employees.
Beyond Sport also have an initiative in the US called ‘Stay in the Game’ which is about supporting the sports industry to sustain itself and those within it through promoting mental wellness and supporting mental ill-health.
Q6) You’ve achieved so many successes which have inspired me to chase my future potential, and I’m sure the readers can relate. However, would you mind sharing some of the challenges you’ve faced throughout your sports career? Also, how have these challenges moulded you into a more substantial asset?
I can look back now and understand how my mental health affected the ability to enjoy work. For that reason, I advocate for people to have a work-life balance. Plus, always tackle issues early on before they get worse.
I’ve experienced discrimination by being Indian, but I’ve been good at laughing it off as I’ve never felt safe enough to challenge it from an ethnicity perspective. Recently, this has changed, and I have got to grips with my own heritage; I can proudly say that I’m from a working-class background. My parents worked day and night in a small village shop to give my sister and I the opportunity to follow our dreams, and I am now able to challenge discrimination in ways I’ve never done before. But there’s still work to do.
Q7) Radha, reflecting from this discussion and your career, what is your killer piece of advice for someone wanting to pursue a career in Sport?
When you see someone who has the job you want, please find a way to connect and engage with them. For example, ask them if they have 30 minutes to share how their sports career unfolded. Plus, do something that gives you goosebumps and question whether you’re using skill sets that you’re already good at and if you’re working with people that can make you better and what you want to do.
What an unbelievable interview this was with Radha. She’s come so far throughout her sports career from her mental health struggles, working-class background and being a woman of colour. However, all of this has driven her to be proud of what she represents. Please take this away on your journey, no matter how tough times might be, or where you come from, you can still achieve amazing things through sheer hard work and determination.