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Changing the game, staying true to yourself: meet Emma Atkins, Director of Sport

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Em Atkins, Director of Sport at Oaks Consultancy

Meet Oaks Consultancy's new Director of Sport, Emma Atkins (Em).

She's an advocate for the incredible power of sport to positively impact peoples' lives, and heads up the expansion of our services in this sector. From tennis-mad girl, to leading coach, to charity CEO, Em shares her professional journey and a few of the tips, tricks (and stories!) she’s picked up along the way.

Let’s start with your upbringing. Is sport something you have always been passionate about?

I come from a very sporty family. From the moment I could walk, I had a tennis racket in my hand - my Mum was a fabulous player, and we would spend hours playing ball against the wall in the kitchen.

Throughout school I played a lot of competitive sport. I wasn’t fussy about what it was, I would have a go anything! Doing it as a career didn’t really occur to be at first – I had a bad knee injury when I was 18 which ended any dreams of becoming a professional athlete. The only other option I knew about at the time was to become a PE teacher, which wasn’t what I wanted. After finishing my A Levels I began a degree in law. However, I soon realised this wasn’t for me, and transferred to sports science and leisure management. I hadn’t passed any of the sciences at school, so I had my work cut out for me!

University was where I discovered my love of coaching. I found I really enjoyed being able to use my skills to support other athletes, and I qualified as a basketball coach and a tennis coach while completing my studies. Initially, coaching was a way to support myself financially, but before long, I was hooked: going into schools using sport as a tool to help with numeracy and literacy as well as working closely with wheelchair players – I learnt a lot about the power of sport for good. After graduating, I took on my first role as a sports development officer for a local authority in Leicestershire. It was the first-time sports development officers had been appointed (which shows my age!) and the local authorities didn’t really know what to do with us, so they put us in the planning department. It was an amazing experience because we had to learn as we went, so it was a lot of listening to people and finding creative ways to solve problems together.

What have been some of the major milestones in your career so far?

Back in the day there was the National Coaching Foundation. The government had invested lots of money into the foundation to make sure every governing body in the country was training and supporting coaches properly. If you were passionate about coaching and sport, working at the NCF was the place to be.

By that time, I had been at the local authority, had a baby, tried setting up my own consultancy (far too young, by the way!) and had a lot more strategic experience under my belt. When the job came up at the NCF as a regional manager in the East Midlands, I went for it. I was meant to stay for eight weeks… and ended up staying for eight years. Over that time, the NCF evolved into sportscoach UK (now UK Coaching) and became the leading educational provider and forum for coaches that it is today. It was a brilliant place to work, and I developed so much from my time there.

In 2008, I was approached regarding another potential job opportunity by the wonderful Julie Whelan, now my long-term mentor and a great friend. I wasn’t looking for anything at the time, but it had sounded interesting on the phone, and I went along to hear what it was all about. She explained that Dame Kelly Holmes wanted to set up a charity to help sports people who were feeling lost after their competitive careers, which also enabled them to give back to society. Kelly herself had experienced these feelings following her retirement from athletics, and she strongly believed that professional sports performers everywhere could offer so much to support young people. They had no cash in the bank, just a vision and a draft plan, and I had 24 hours to let her know whether I wanted in. I still remember the conversation with my husband about it – he listened (as all good coaches do), watched me get really animated, and then said, “Well, what have you got to lose?”.

That’s how Julie, Louise (our brilliant Commercial Director) and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in the middle of the city of London, on the day of the financial crash, forming the business plan for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. We felt like the three musketeers embarking on this monumental project at a time of such uncertainty. But, we focused on what we did have rather than what we didn’t, and what we had was the best sport brand at the time and all-round great person - Dame Kelly Holmes!

Cycling from Paris to Geneva for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, 2016

We had countless knockbacks over the years but learned to be resilient and keep pushing. It was tough, it was emotional, but wow was it worth it. Eventually, we were able to secure some significant injections of funding, which enabled us to support almost 1,000 athletes to give back to over 350,000 young people.

A few years in, Julie decided to make the leap from her role as founding CEO to go to the land of the rock stars – literally - as CEO of Nordolf and Robbins. I decided it was now or never and put myself forward for the big gig as CEO. This would be my first experience as Chief Executive, and it was a massive learning curve. For a role like that, you’ve got to have endless energy, huge amounts of positivity, and thick skin. We were lucky to have a great team too, which is half the battle. I think my key takeaway is when times get tough (and they did!) you stick to your values and remember the “why”.

Em Atkins and Judy Murray, UK Coaching Conference, 2018

That “why” is what eventually led me back to UK Coaching to become Director of Coaching in 2017. Integral to my journey in sport has been a series of inspiring coaches, and coaching will always be a cause that is close to my heart. During my time there, I was proud of the work we did to provide a modern approach to learning and development and highlight the importance of duty of care to both athletes and coaches.

When the pandemic hit, I had to lean on the resilience I had built during my time at Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, and focused on what we could do to help people during this period. Many had lost their livelihoods almost overnight, and we had to work together to stay positive and provide emergency support to coaches who were struggling to make ends meet. It was an eye-opening experience and really demonstrated how the sporting community comes together to support one another when times are tough.

As a female leader in what can often be a male-dominated industry, what have been your experiences and learnings?

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some amazing women throughout my career, which has made a huge difference. During my time at the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, I was also very lucky to be put on the Women in Leadership Programme, which offered lots of opportunities for mentorship and development.

Being able to mix with and learn from the likes of Baroness Sue Campbell and Liz Nicholls was an incredible opportunity. Everyone was so supportive of each other, and we really looked up to them: they inspired so much confidence in the people around them. Ultimately, as my good friend and mentor Pauline Harrison always used to say to me, ‘Just be yourself’ and walk into any situation with your head held high. You might not always feel confident straight away, but you can always be your authentic self, and people will trust and respect you for it.

Em Atkins and Isa Guha, British cricket commentator, former England player and founder of Take Her Lead, at the 2023 Ashes series

Your last role was as Chief Executive at a leading environmental charity. How are you planning to take your passion for sustainability forward into the work you do now?

I am a worrier, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But I do think it’s important to be concerned about the environment so we can bring about real change. What sport is great at is facilitating behaviour change, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how we use that to make a positive difference in the future.

I’m quite an action girl and want to make sure that any policy changes or strategic developments are making a tangible difference on the ground. That’s why I’m excited to support leaders who might be feeling overwhelmed with all the changes and regulations coming into place. I can share some of the things I’ve picked up over years of testing and learning and help them take positive steps forward.

What are you most excited about in your role at Oaks?

What I really enjoy about being here, is that even though I’m focused on the sport side, there is so much crossover between my role and the work going on elsewhere. I think it’s great that we’re able to look outside our own channel and learn from the fantastic work going on in the charity and education sectors. In sport, we’re often guilty of keeping our heads down and concentrating solely on our own discipline, much less looking at what’s going on in other sectors. But here, we have a much wider lens than just sport, and I think that’s really positive. I’m excited to get stuck in, use my skills and experiences to help the sport community, and enjoy the journey with this great team.

Want to learn more about our work in sport? Check out our new and improved Sport Page.

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