Athlete Transitioning: Graduating from Sport

Often lost in the excitement of the final races, championship qualifiers, and preparing for the culmination of another season is the realization that, for the tens of thousands of athletes graduating from high school or college and not continuing sport, this is it. While many rowers will no doubt look forward to sleeping in, no more 2k tests, and a life beyond spandex, many will struggle to adjust to a life that does not revolve around athletics and athletic performance. All sports have unique cultures and forge strong bonds between teammates, and many will not find the close relationships that existed between teammates in work, school, or future life.

Sport serves to unite people, give them a common goal, and bind them through shared struggle. Beyond the medals and trophies, this is what makes sport so valuable in a person’s life. When retired athletes look back on their career and what they enjoyed, it’s usually much more about the lifelong relationships and personal accomplishments than it is about the stat lines of number of games won or trophies earned. These deep bonds between teammates who share the incredible work ethic, intrinsic motivation, and dedication are hard to match later in life.

This is also what makes sport so hard to leave, and why retirement from sport can be so difficult on so many people.

Everyone who has ever picked up a pair of cleats, glove, ball, or an oar, has had or will have to retire someday. For some, retirement is a choice made voluntarily when the athlete feels they have reached a personally satisfactory level of accomplishment in their career. For others, that moment comes too soon. Early retirement can be caused by injury, aging out of competitive sport opportunities, relocating away from their team or sport, or not making the tryout cut for further competition. Regardless of the reasons, every single athlete at some point has to deal with the sense of loss that comes from leaving his or her sport behind.

The Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) discusses here a physical activity program to help student-athletes stay active in their post-athletic life. AASP also has other resources on their website including a consultant locator. My undergrad advisor was also an AASP counselor and I have a lot of respect for what they do and really believe in their utility to athletes. We all know how difficult it often is to explain athletic passion to a non-athlete, so it’s very valuable to be able to receive counseling from someone who understands, is knowledgeable about, and often shares your motivations.

The NCAA has written here about transitioning, mostly focusing on applicable tips to ease the transition. The IOC is also at least aware of transitioning.

I like the direction that this AASP abstract is going as well as this blog by Stephanie Coakley, discussing the psychological and personal identity side of athletic transitioning. We’re so used to thinking of ourselves as athletes, but what is an athlete without a sport? I think that our athletes will have a much easier time if we can start providing these resources earlier and making sure to have this kind of conversation.

This moment is the official beginning of the sport-career transition, and for many it can be terrifying, confusing….and humbling.   The onset of the sport-career transition can cause an athlete to question everything about their identity – past and present. Very quickly, most athletes realize that they have failed to adequately prepare for this stage in their personal and professional development.   Legendary basketball coach John Wooden held the belief that “failure to plan is like planning to fail”.  Developing a plan for the sport-career transition is a vital part of professional development for professional athletes.  Later we will discuss how to construct a plan, so that when they embark on the sport-career transition they do more than just survive – they thrive! [read the rest]

For my own experience, I was fortunate to always have one foot in the meathead world. I loved lifting so much that I let it detract from other parts of my training. However, this passion has allowed me to maintain my athletic identity beyond organized competitive team sports. I still miss my teammates, miss early morning practice (sometimes), and miss all my training partners I’ve had along the way, but for me, strength training is a sport of its own that I can focus on and enjoy for years to come. On that note, here are some tips I’ve passed along for adapting strength training to post-athletic training.

I’ve had a lot of teammates, friends, and family members who weren’t so lucky and have really struggled adjusting to post-athletic life. If you or someone close to you experiences these feelings of loneliness or lost sense of self, overwhelming fatigue or lethargy, sudden weight loss or weight gain, problems with concentration, or social withdrawal, please consider counseling whether through AASP or another service. It can be hugely helpful just to talk to someone who understands athletes and our motivations. Here is the NCAA’s resource page for mental health for athletes.

Update: a helpful reader pointed me in the direction of rower Gearoid Towey’s work at Crossing the Line Sport where he writes about transitioning through the lens of the grief process. Another great article/interview with Towey here talks about his experience and gives some backstory on Crossing the Line Sport.

I’ve also found staying in touch with former teammates very fun and valuable. In most cases, I’ve had to put more work in to find commonalities beyond sport since we aren’t spending 2+ hours a day practicing together anymore. For example, my fantasy football league consists of my former teammates and co-coaches, which gives us all a natural excuse to stay in touch and talk with each other for at least 18 weeks of the year. It will require more effort than just showing up to practice, and it’s worth it to not let those great friendships and memories die. Making new friendships and finding new communities is also critical. Former teammates and I have gone on to coach competitive and recreational sports programs, volunteer with a variety of causes including youth sports (I got to visit my cousin last week, a former lacrosse player who now volunteers with the WINNERS organization) and environmental conservation, pick up an instrument and play in a band, and get involved with professional programs and social groups entirely unrelated to athletics.

Were you thinking of someone while you read this? Please, take a moment and share it with them. Often just knowing that you aren’t alone can make a big difference.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *