Loughborough Alumni

Our alumni

Elesa Zehndorfer

Freelance Writer and Author

Elesa Zehndorfer graduated with a Ph.D in Sport and Exercise Science in 2006. Having worked in finance and as a lecturer, she now is a freelance writer and has had a range of books published on physiology and its impact on leadership and politics.

Why did you choose to study a Sport and Exercise Science Ph.D at Loughborough University?

It was always my dream to study at Loughborough as it had (and still has) the reputation as being the best sports university in the world. I was a Further Education lecturer at the time that I applied, with the view of researching the concept of how sports participation developed character and leadership, and to further my dream of lecturing at university.

I always loved lecturing and teaching (I became an aerobics teacher at 18) so I have spent a lifetime teaching in a classroom or in a gym, and exercise remains a lifetime passion for me.  Loughborough University is obviously a wonderful place for anyone that loves sports & fitness and I was no exception!


How has Loughborough University inspired you and helped you to progress in your career?

Studying a PhD at Loughborough Uni constituted 3 of the best years of my life. Firstly, it furthered my knowledge immensely. I picked up a real love of research philosophy & research methods alongside the core subjects associated with my doctoral thesis - sports and leadership theory.

Secondly, I made friendships that lasted a lifetime – three of my bridesmaids were fellow students who I met during my time at Loughborough! Thirdly, being a Loughborough graduate opened doors for me immediately that I feel no other university could have done for a sports grad. I am always so proud to be a Loughborough alumna. Finally, I learned to think differently – to question the notion of reality, of research, of critical analysis – which ultimately led me to manage the Research Methods stream for a degree programme, and which ultimately led me to the path of becoming a writer and researcher, constructing books that take a very unusual conceptual approach. I remain indebted to Routledge, my publisher, for always supporting my unusual (albeit highly academically-informed) approach to constructing my books.

Would there be one piece of advice that you would give to current or prospective students looking to study Sport and Exercise Science?

Do not stop reading. Do everything that is required of you, then add extra study whenever you can but critically do NOT limit yourself to your own field. The most valuable things I have ever found, or which have sparked a huge passion for me, have been in the cross-referencing of published research in seemingly completely disparate fields alongside sports/physiology, such as the effect of lunar or storm cycles reported in meteorology studies on one’s physiology via a noted effect on stock market returns, or in the consideration of physiology alongside the role of opioid addiction in political voting preferences. Having studied in a heavily social-science focused Institute, I always look at this kind of data within the context of social reality and theories, and considering the bigger picture is always immensely fascinating. It can tell a story and take a student or a reader on an amazing journey.

During my time at Loughborough I was introduced to the concept of systematic reviews – a kind of literature review – which was the first opportunity that I had to move across disciplines when I conducted secondary research. That really lit a spark for me and that spark will be there for everyone, but it sometimes takes a lot of exposure to research to find it. I’d encourage any student to find that spark by chasing ideas and not being afraid to alter and adapt them when they need to, and really pushing their own boundaries.

Ultimately, the learning curve was immense, and it was 100% worth it. It was the first time that I critically questioned the way that I thought, in a general way, and that ended up becoming a very powerful concept that drove my research, analysis, teaching and writing. I’d also say that there will be students from so many different countries from so many different backgrounds and everyone can learn from each other, which is another powerful fact to remember and to take full advantage of.

Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities during your studies? If so, how did this impact upon your Loughborough experience?

The Uni is such a fun place and I ended up getting involved in so many activities that I never thought I would have become involved in in a million years.

I ended up becoming the flyer for the university cheerleading team, for example, and we went on to win the national championships with the team. I was the Sport Editor of Label magazine and also a Features Writer for the magazine for a while too, which was great. There’s just a feeling at the Uni, I think, that anything is possible and it’s hard not to become a part of that.

Can you tell us about your career journey so far?

When I graduated in 2006 I took a year out of academia to help a boutique finance firm, Asymilate Consulting, establish a successful operation in London and South Africa. As much as I loved my academic career at Loughborough, it was intense, and I welcomed a brief break.

As Head of Operations EMEA, I helped the firm to build its London and Johannesburg operations, which was an incredible experience. Again, the learning curve was huge, and the experience left me with an enduring interest in the financial markets, particularly as I was employed within it during the run up to the 2007 US housing bust and the 2008 global financial crisis.

I then spent 3 happy years as a Senior Lecturer of Sport Studies at the University of Hertfordshire where I also led the Research Methods stream for the Sports Studies programme. One of my proudest accomplishments was significantly increasing the attendance and pass rate on the Research Methods module whilst simultaneously making the course more challenging by introducing research philosophy as a core part of the course.

I also became a Vice President on the board of the International Federation of American Football around that time, before being voted in as General Secretary – a position that I held for several years. I have also been the Research Officer for British Mensa since 2012.

After my years at Hertfordshire, I moved to London Metropolitan Business School for just over a year which enabled me to move into a Senior Lectureship in Leadership & Enterprise, where I lectured on PhD, MBA, pre-Masters and degree courses. This reflected my need to combine more closely my interest in sports and business/leadership studies more effectively.

During my brief tenure at London Met, I remember feeling that there was a major need for a leadership core text that could enliven a real passion for leadership in students whilst simultaneously setting out theories in a much clearer fashion for time-pressured faculty and students. That is what motivated my first book proposal.

I decided to move out of full-time employment and become a freelance researcher / lecturer when I became pregnant. That led to the opportunity to take on research and part time lecturing contracts and to spend more time writing. Juggling childcare and work can be tough and I am fortunate that my work offers me flexibility to do that. Everyone has a different definition of success and getting a balance to my life, whilst getting my ideas out to the wider world – and continuing to write – is mine. I have a lot more ideas to get out there, however!

Can you tell us more about being an author?

It's fantastic if you love writing, which I do! I find it easy to write for 5 or 6 hours without realizing that much time has passed (definitely a flow state, for those knowledgeable about sports theory!). I'm happy to be alone all day and to manage my own time – I am extremely self-motivated. I relate everything back to sports & fitness training and I write how I train, really.

I competed in bodybuilding for many years and have been a PT since I was 19, and that’s exactly how I would be in a gym – head down, focus, work hard, prioritise, set goals and push through the tough times to reach an ambitious end goal, regardless of whether I am the most naturally talented at that particular role (or not).

I am mindful of the effect of nutrition, sleep, exercise and time spent in nature on writing efficiency, which is basically an approach that I’ve borrowed heavily from fitness training, alongside stuff like self-coaching. Writing and training are ultimately two sides of the same coin for me (in fact it is exactly the premise of one of my books – ‘The Physiology of Emotional & irrational Investing’).

How did you make the transition from a Sport and Exercise Science PhD to being a political author?

That is an interesting question which requires a little back story to answer. Basically, whilst writing ‘Leadership: A Critical Introduction’ I became really interested in two things; how the trait theory of leadership was enjoying a small upsurge in interest because of the rapid emergence of a field called behavioural finance (which looked at the role of human irrationality in finance based on physiological variables such as morning cortisol levels) and in hoping to become more immersed in charismatic leadership theory which generally really interested me. As soon as I turned in the manuscript, I happened to read The Great Gatsby, which sparked the flame that ultimately led me to write ‘Charismatic Leadership: The Role of Charisma in the Global Financial Crisis’. I retained an interest in behavioural finance and turned in the proposal for ‘The Physiology of Emotional & Irrational Investing’ soon after that. Each book ultimately massively informed the next.

I happened to be researching & writing that particular manuscript in 2016-2017 – around the time of Brexit and the 2016 Presidential Campaign - and it became obvious to me throughout the writing process that the theory that I had found to be applicable to the financial markets also appeared extremely relevant to the rapidly shifting political landscape that the world was witnessing at that time. That in turn provided a spark for my forthcoming book ‘Evolution, Politics & Charisma: Why Populists Win’.

I think, ultimately, that it is absolutely crucial that people understand in far more applied depth the absolutely central role of evolutionary biology and physiology in defining and shaping politics, else the spectre of populism is going to continue to rise with unparalleled force. Writing a political title ultimately represented my desire to achieve that aim.

What do you love the most about your job?

I absolutely love writing and I feel so fortunate to have been given the latitude to communicate my arguments and theories in a book so that it reaches a wider audience and hopefully positively impacts on policy and practice in some way.

Writing is an immense passion for me and I feel so lucky to be able to do it. Writing can take many forms – research contracts to write or conduct sports research for a university, a book contract, article writing for a financial institution, and so on – and I am really motivated to explore all of them. That flexibility can open a lot of doors. It also allows me to set my own hours to fit around the school run which is very useful as part of a young family. I also love being my own boss.

What does the future hold for you?

In the immediate future, I am really looking forward to the release of my 4th book, ‘Evolution, Politics & Charisma: Why Populists Win’ which will be released by Routledge in February, 2019. The current dangerous populist wave sweeping across Western Europe is like nothing we have experienced since the 1930’s, and much of its’ explosive rise is owed to the systematic and explicit manipulation of physiological and evolutionary variables. I am immensely passionate about the role of physiology in politics – and in the evolution and cyclical boom-and-bust nature of the financial markets – so I ultimately want to spend some time trying to communicate that message as best I can.

I recently became a Thought Leader for Hartford Funds, which offers a great opportunity for me to further write about the role of physiology in finance. Similarly, I’ve just launched a blog at Psychology Today called ‘Political Animals & Animal Spirits’ which offers me the opportunity to expand on, and write about, the unique and compelling role of physiology in driving populist politics and financial boom-and-bust scenarios (I am currently writing the inaugural post!).

I plan to continue to write regularly on Quora, where I was honoured to be awarded Top Writer in 2018 and 2017 and to write a 5th non-fiction, and then hopefully a fiction title, over the next 2-3 years. I am continuing the role of Research Officer for British Mensa – a wonderful institution that looks into and celebrates the role of IQ in furthering the goals of society – and will no doubt continue to engage with visiting lecturer &/or research contracts.

One other concept that I hope to continue extending is the idea of how sports builds character & leadership, and how sports principles can be transferred to business to create better performance outcomes. It formed the basis of my PhD thesis and interests me as much now as it did then, although I now know that it is principally the quantifiable physiological adaptations that accompany sport training that provide the engine that fuels those benefits as opposed to undertaking the sport itself.

Much of that concept was discussed in one of my books although I have another book proposal in mind that would extend the concept further, including how physiology can explain exactly why sports training can lead to such improvements in disadvantaged and at risk groups. 

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

To be honest, it was always such an immense dream for me to become a student at Loughborough, so being awarded my Ph.D will probably always rank up there as #1. Having each book published comes a close collective #2. Each book represents a major passion and labour of love for me.

You can find out more about Elesa's work online

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