Combining professional sports with professional services

Sarah Smits, Belgium

Diversity and Inclusiveness (D&I) is a top priority at EY. However, although the immediate association one makes with this topic tends to be “we need more women in top functions,” D&I is so much more than that.

It is about anyone stepping outside the “norms,” and this is exactly what Sarah Smits, Belgian Volleyball Player of the Year 2013 and 2016, has been since she started at EY. A career in professional sports can help progress a career in consultancy, and Sarah regularly gives lectures and coaches others with that idea in mind. A most rewarding experience, but also a life full of commitment, perseverance, and making choices. This article dives deeper into the challenges Sarah faces, how she manages to overcome them and of course, the reason why someone would complicate their life to such an extent for volleyball.

It was in the newspapers recently: if you ask primary school children what their dream profession is, amongst the astronauts, surgeons and teachers, you’ll find that a very significant bunch of kids says “professional athlete”. Well, I did manage to make my dream a reality. After years of hard practice and a lot of won and lost matches, I was selected to join Belgium’s national team, and in 2013 and 2016, I was awarded the National Volleyball Player of the Year title. I cannot even begin to describe what an amazing experience this has been and can only be thankful to EY for giving me the opportunity to go through with it.

The truth is, experiences like this are not a lucky coincidence, like winning the lottery, but the product of hard work. However fantastic I feel when winning the Belgian Championship and Belgian Cup, the dominant feeling in my life is probably “guilt”. New mums will recognize this feeling: you feel guilty towards your employer because the baby has shifted your focus in life completely, and you won’t be able to do those late evening meetings anymore. And you feel guilty towards your baby, because you still want that career. And you feel guilty towards your husband, because suddenly he comes last in your line of attention.

Similarly, I often feel guilty because I – and if I may say so, successfully! – manage to combine my two careers. My team practices 25 hours per week, but I only do 10, and compensate the rest with home exercising. On a bad day, I’m sure some girls in the team might consider that unfair. And as supportive and enthusiastic as my clients have been, they must have grumbled at times when I had to decline a late meeting because of training. As to my attending our EY Advisory team meetings … well … I can’t really dial in while hitting balls over the net. No one has (openly) complained so far, but as every professional sports player needs to display dedication, conscientiousness and perfectionism, you will understand that my life is often a struggle in that regard. And don’t even get me started on spending time with friends and family.

It’s in the small things and in the bigger things. Fifty percent of my vacation days go to European volleyball competitions, and I usually come home more tired than I left. Believe me, it’s worth it when you win yet another match against a Russian team, but hearing “were you again on vacation, how many vacation days do consultants have” (especially if we lost) makes my teeth clench. Breathing techniques enhance your physical performance, and they also help at times like this. But it’s small things, such as the simple fact that by the time I get home, the shops are closed, so I have to do all my shopping on Sunday (Saturdays are filled to the last second with volleyball); I also cook (healthy, obviously) meals for the entire week, after which there is so little time left for fun and relaxation.

As a consultant, I sell knowledge, and I train my brain every Saturday by memorizing and studying tactics. The rest of the team does this throughout the week by training, but because I train a lot less, I learned many of our game tactics by simply memorizing them. You’d think that being a professional sports player is just play, play, play, but there’s also a lot of TV watching (videos of competing teams and of our own performance); I also exercise my social styles and versatility skills during post-game responsibilities with sponsors and fans.

Combining professional sports and professional services in one career is a fantastic experience which I would recommend to anyone with the right degree of perseverance, and a small to medium death wish. I am busy every single minute of my life and do not have the time to get bored or to worry about things that do not matter. The feeling of zen is never far away. But there are sacrifices to be made, and they will not make me rich or famous. What does not kill you makes you stronger, and the team atmosphere, as well as the sport itself, teaches the important values in life.

Whenever I am tired or have a difficult moment, volleyball gets me through it. Without doubt, this also positively influences my work at EY. And the recognition, I must admit, is a confidence boost that you will not find anywhere else: being a role model for young players, winning the cup final, winning championships…


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