While those on the outside looking in may view sports as just a game, athletes know it’s far more than that. Participation in athletics means you stand for something bigger than yourself by default. Whether it’s the name on the front of your jersey, or your teammates counting on you to make the big play, your performance affects others.
The athletic arena is a testing ground, an external representation of internal fortitude. A tough loss or a poor performance can highly affect an athlete's self-esteem for days, weeks, and even years. I still think about the time I dropped that touchdown pass in high school (that was over ten years ago).
The pressure to perform in the athletic arena can be overwhelming at times. This is why athletes have a tendency to be so hard on themselves. Even when you’re no longer competing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing everyday life through the narrow lens of “wins and losses.”
I often hear people making the comparison between playing sports at an elite level, and serving in the military. While the stakes are dramatically different, there’s no denying the similarly structured lifestyles:
Everyday our attention is undivided, and our roles are crystal clear. We are told when to report for duty (practice), when to wake up, and when we can take the day off. This highly regimented, highly disciplined lifestyle becomes second nature to us. We grow accustomed to pushing ourselves beyond the limit and being comfortable with discomfort.
Athletes sacrifice a lot to hold up that trophy and celebrate in the locker room after a big win. We take tremendous pride in making our contribution to the team. We put all of our other passions, interests, and hobbies on the back burner in pursuit of greatness. We identify ourselves as part of a unit, sometimes to the point that we forget who we are as individuals.
Transitioning out of athletics can elicit a wide range of emotions. Some may be happy to put the days of mandatory 6am workouts behind them, while others miss the thrill of the action, the accolades, and the tight bonds they shared with their teammates.
Athletes are modern day gladiators, and no one is more lost than a gladiator without a worthy cause to fight for. I’ve worked with track stars who haven’t been fulfilled since running their final race. Football players who would give up their left arm just to play one more snap. Water polo players who didn’t know who they were outside of a swimming pool.
When you’re constantly in the spotlight, striving to be the best version of yourself, it’s easy to feel “less-than” when the spotlight fades and you’re just a “regular person” again.
When I found myself back home after college, I felt like I was moving backwards. I spent 4 years on scholarship in New York living on my own, paying my own bills, and being part of an elite group. I came back home 4 years later to my childhood bedroom as an unemployed college grad with zero real-world experience.
My level of ambition, competitiveness and drive was stronger than ever, but at this stage in my life I had no outlet, and no concrete vision for my future.
Transition, in any area of life, can be a huge challenge to navigate. It’s easy to feel isolated, lost, and hopeless. Feeling that no one could relate to what I was going through, I kept these feelings bottled up inside of me, which ultimately made things worse.
Unfortunately, being vulnerable is a huge challenge for most athletes. People come to know and love us for our strength and courage in the arena. We feel like we need to constantly uphold the image of the superhero, even when our playing days are long gone.
Telling everyone that you're “ok”, when you’re really not, will only compound these feelings and keep you trapped in a negative feedback loop. I learned this the hard way. The more I started reaching out and opening up to people, the more I discovered I wasn’t alone.
Asking for help doesn’t make us weak, it makes us stronger. It also gives the person helping us a chance to feel rewarded by giving back. There are plenty of people willing to help you when you’re willing to share yourself openly and honestly.
Don’t be ashamed of the feelings of uncertainty, frustration, nostalgia, or anything else that comes up during the transition. Don’t be afraid to express what you’re dealing with, and ask for guidance. If you want help, you’re going to have to risk being vulnerable.
Sports is like a fraternity or a sorority. The only difference between fraternities/sororities and athletics is that once we get out into the professional world, we’re not nearly as connected and supportive of one another as we could be.
We go from being part of a huge network and support system during our playing days to being almost completely isolated, sometimes in a matter of weeks.
In order for other former athletes to realize that they’re not facing these challenges alone, I think we could all benefit from being more intentional about connecting and supporting one another, especially during the initial transition.
I encourage you to reach out to at least one of your former teammates this week, even if it’s just to remind them that you’re there if they ever need anything. It’s up to us to support our brothers and sisters. If we don't, who will?
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