FINDING LIFE AFTER SPORT - SCIENCE BASED TACTICS FOR THE TRANSITIONING PERFORMER
Whether the time comes with welcome or it comes after weeks or months of denial and dragging of feet, all athletes face the same issue: life after sport ends. It is an incredibly challenging time for many athletes to face the unknowns of life without the official label of “athlete.” With special consideration for the many athletes who were prematurely forced into this phase from COVID-19, there is likely unimaginable grief, anger, loss, and sadness around this phase of life coming much earlier than what was planned. My heart goes out to you. Research has looked into the experience of athletes going through this transition out of sport and found a lot of mental health, interpersonal or social, and/or career challenges that make this transition all the more challenging. Some of these things include loss of appetite, weight fluctuation, insomnia, mood changes, decline in motivation and lack of trust in others to just name a few (Stankovich, Meeker & Henderson, 2001). We (athletes) rely on our identities, as athletes, from years and years of time (who started when they could walk and/or hold a ball or racquet?!), dedication, and life spent in training. When this is taken away or this time comes to an end, it is normal, if not expected, that there is difficulty making meaning of life and finding a sense of worth after this piece of our identity ends. Whether you're reading this preemptive to your transition out of sport or you're in the midst of this process, I wanted to offer advice, considerations, and lessons learned from those who have already gone through this journey, to help you get through yours.
Continue Creating Outlets for Competition, Mastery, and/or Progress.
“So, what now?” Has anyone asked themselves or others this question? Suddenly, you have lost your purpose, sense of direction, structure, and time with those you've spent most of your waking moments with for the past several years. Beyond all of this, you have lost one of the things that bring you passion: the love for competition! The loss of activity, training, and competition may be one of the biggest pills to swallow as time moves on and you find yourself still hungry for that part of you that thrives off of competing. Many athletes fall into post-competition lulls that research has shown that is just as active as non-athlete college alumni (Reifsteck, Gill, & Brooks, 2013; Sorenson et al., 2015). Finding balance in your physical activity is key, as some may need time off or an easier training regime postseason while others may need to keep up their level of fitness. Finding outlets for more competition is key if this is something you loved about competitive sports. Consider joining a local club team, joining a gym that has group fitness or competitions, or keeping virtual connectedness with others!
Explore New Identities, Hobbies, or Experiences.
According to identity theory (Burke et al., 2003; Burke & Reitzes, 1981; Stryker & Burke, 2000), identity helps us regulate what we do and why we do it. When being an athlete is central to your identity for many years and suddenly it ends, many athletes struggle to understand who they are outside of sports. Additionally, our “athlete” identity doesn't exactly transfer the same as an “exerciser” identity. Competitive sport doesn't exactly relate to a lifetime of physical activity participation in the same way that competitive athletics does, so developing a broader exercise identity may be key to promoting long term enjoyment in sport and exercise (Murphy et al., 1993; Reifsteck et al., 2016). Regardless of what stage of transition out of sport you are in, taking time to explore your differing identities both in and out of sport and exercise, can be useful in developing new identities that are fitting. Additionally, if you are preparing to exciting sport or already have, consider taking time to explore other salient identities that you will likely rely on after competition ends. This will help smooth the transition when the time comes. This is also your chance to try something new! Have you ever thought how nice it was for others to have the time or energy to do other hobbies or activities, or attend social events? This is your chance! Try something new that you've always wanted to try! This stage of exploration can be exciting and also more rewarding than what you'd think.
Losing the reason to see your teammates, coaches, and other athletes is also another difficult part of transitioning out of sport. The people you were used to seeing every day at 6am workouts, afternoon practice, dinner, study tables, and maybe classes, you probably don't see anymore. Part of the fun of being on a team is the close friendships you make with fellow athletes. It is important to keep seeking out emotional, mental, and physical connections, whether that be with your past teammates, coaches, or staff, or reaching outside of athletics to campus offerings, such as the counseling center, clubs, or the alumni center. Many of these offices or departments on campus can be valuable support networks that student-athletes may not be aware of or never had time to seek, due to the intense time constraints they face. Maintaining a support team that includes family, friends, and others outside of athletics and who will be there when sport is no longer the center of their lives is key!
After all is said and done, you probably haven't taken the time to think about what competitive sport has meant to you. You probably have seen already or maybe still will see little moments that surprise you that show your incredible resilience, strength, and growth mindset in non-sport settings. Since you never had the time to do anything while competing, now is the time to take a moment to look back and reflect on your time in competitive sport.
- What have you learned about yourself?
- How have you changed?
- What challenging things have you gone through that you've overcome and what qualities do you have that helped you achieve this?
- How were your relationships with teammates, competitors, coaches, etc.? What was meaningful about these people or these relationships?
- How did you get through the tough times and how does that translate to life after sport?
- Who am I without my sport?
Remember the life lessons sport taught you, the ups and downs, and the skills that have allowed you to be successful in multiple areas at the same time and how these skills will help you in the future. These qualities will help you for the rest of your life. You are more ready and capable than you think you are to step into this next chapter of life (Athletes Connected, n.d.) Identify how you've grown, learned, and championed through this part of your life and remember it for when you have a job interview, a difficult interaction, or when you talk with someone who is in your position years from now. Now, with reflection and understanding, it is time to develop a game plan for next season: life.
Athlete Connection (n.d.) Life after Sports. Athletes connected. https://athletesconnected.umich.edu/for-student-athletes/life-after-sports/
Burke, P. J., & Reitzes, D. C. (1981). The link between identity and role performance. Social psychology quarterly, 83-92.
Burke, L. M., Slater, G., Broad, E. M., Haukka, J., Modulon, S., & Hopkins, W. G. (2003). Eating patterns and meal frequency of elite Australian athletes. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 13(4), 521-538.
Murphy, G. M., Petitpas, A. J., & Brewer, B. W. (1996). Identity foreclosure, athletic identity, and career maturity in intercollegiate athletes. The sport psychologist, 10(3), 239-246.
Menke, D. (2013, August 26). Student-Athletes in transition: Applying the schlossberg model. NACADA. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising...
Moore, J. (2019, May 7). The after-sport adjustment. Athletes connected. https://athletesconnected.umich.edu/after-sport-adjustment/
Reifsteck, E. J., Gill, D. L., & Labban, J. D. (2016). “Athletes” and “exercisers”: Understanding identity, motivation, and physical activity participation in former college athletes. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(1), 25.
Reifsteck, E. J., Gill, D. L., & Brooks, D. L. (2013). The relationship between athletic identity and physical activity among former college athletes. Athletic Insight, 5(3), 271-284.
Sorenson, S. C., Romano, R., Azen, S. P., Schroeder, E. T., & Salem, G. J. (2015). Life span exercise among elite intercollegiate student athletes. Sports health, 7(1), 80-86.
Stankovich, C. E., Meeker, D. J., & Henderson, J. L. (2001). The positive transitions model for sport retirement. Journal of College Counseling, 4(1), 81-84.
Stryker, S., & Burke, P. J. (2000). The past, present, and future of an identity theory. Social psychology quarterly. 284-297.