Friday, July 18, 2014

How to Define Your Life After Sports- Retired Athlete Problems

My goal is to write about the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, and unfortunately is the latter of the both due to some recent events. There is such a negative connotation around the word quitting for any athlete. The goal of practice and workouts is to train our bodies to be fit enough to not quit on us when we need it most in competition, when the other team and maybe some of our teammates are getting tired. Not many athletes I know play the sport for the practices, but instead for when competition time comes. The thought is if you keep going to practice, you will get better, and you will win- making practice both necessary and worth it. Quitting is a choice, and we've all had teammates quit for a variety of reasons whether burnt out or medical reasons, but regardless of the reason usually either their bodies quit or brains quit. Even if your brains don't quit, I've definitely had my body quit a few times on me- one of my more embarrassing moments was when I was attempting to max out on bench press and after a half of a rep laid pinned by my ambitious amount of weight. As my spotter removes the bar from my rapidly collapsing chest, I promise you that my brain wants the bar to move, but my body quit on me. It is for this reason why we go to morning weights at the same time our peers are coming home from a night drinking, and why we go to practice to fine tune the same skills we've been trying to perfect for countless years already. We have to make sure when the game's on the line, our body knows what to do and never quits (or cramps in Game 1 of the NBA finals) and we persevere. We may not lift that heavy of a weight today, but we are able to justify continuing to work towards it since we've come this far already.

The nice thing about sports is our improvements can be measured. You can tell if you are beating your previous best time, are lifting heavier weights, or are hitting at a better efficiency. You can see your hard work paying off, and you get rewarded for the efforts you put in.You are held accountable by your coaches and teammates, and all have common goals to motivate each other towards a specific deadline. What you do in practice translates to competition, and you get both extrinsic and intrinsic satisfaction from improving.

Guess what happens after your career is over? Areas in your life you used to obsess over become meaningless. In everything I did my purpose was to train. I ate healthy so I didn't feel like crap at practice; I didn't go out with my (one) non-athlete friend because I had practice the next day; I lifted weights so I could hit the ball harder. After a work out I would track my progress with coaches, looking over my statistics or watching film. Now all I can do to measure my athleticism is painfully watch my weight decrease as I lose all muscle I worked so hard over the years to gain.This feeling of a loss of purpose is a lot for people to handle. Your identity you've had for the majority of your life is gone, and you need to find new ways to define success. Often times you were competing against others weekly, putting your daily practice to use. Now with nothing emulating competition as a check-in, you're left without any short-term goals.

Around the time I wrote my first post, I learned the heart-wrenching news that an old teammate of mine had committed suicide. She was a strong, independent woman who excelled both on the court and in the classroom. A quick Google search pulls up how concussions, over-training, and post-competition stage of life can all be triggers for depression. I'm pretty sure about 99% of the athletes I've played with can check all three off of those list, or can in the next few years.

I really wish I had the answer for how you can define yourself, and it was a nice easy 3 steps to create an identity post-athletics that works for everyone. It's definitely not easy, but the feeling of nausea that comes over me as I think about losing a teammate is pretty indescribable. After I told my dad, I watched as he looked down silently and shed a few tears. He was hurting for her and her family, but also for his daughter and all of the young athletes really- who grow up with so much pressure to succeed put on by coaches, parents, and the most burdensome of themselves. He's seen me so happy, but he's also seen me so pissed as well- so disappointed in myself for not meeting the extraordinary expectations we all put on ourselves which often aren't practical or healthy. As someone who has gone to too many funerals at the age of 23- seeing parents outlive their child really hurts. It makes you hug your family a little tighter, reach out to friends you haven't talked to in a while, and really evaluate what you're doing in life and if these things are making you happy. So here's a few things that has helped me so far-

Stop the Hype. Looking back on your career it's easy to pick out the fondest memories. Whether it be a national championship, MVP of a tournament, or a big upset win- it's easy to define your sports career with these moments. Looking back I was blessed to have a fantastic career, and I can say I miss it and those were my "Glory Days." Funny, because if you were to ask most people what they want to be doing in their glory days, terms like: cortisone injections, sprint tests, no social life, and power lifts probably wouldn't show up on many people's lists. Everything involves trade offs. You had many things then, but you couldn't see your family on holidays, get a paying job, or start a family. 

Create New Goals. Like one of my exes used to say, lower your expectations, increase your happiness. Results in athletics would happen fast. You would be rewarded (or punished) at the next competition, and have a chance to do it better next time. This short-term focus has slowly shifted to long term. I eat healthy not for games, but to know I'm going to want to be a healthy parent who can keep up with my kids. My scholarship doesn't pay for my housing anymore, so I need to save money to buy a house. I need to continue to work-out and lift weights to relieve tension so my fiance still wants to marry me in 10 months. I don't need to work hard at practice for my teammates, but I do need to work 10x harder to show my family and friends how much they mean to me.

Re-create Certain Scenarios. Although you may never play varsity athletics again, many of us probably also won't have our first kiss again- and we just have to embrace that that time in our life is over. However, we are able to create new firsts, and recreate many things that did make us happy. There are leagues everywhere for all kinds of activities if you miss competing, and there's always Netflix if you want to reenact how you studied for finals. If you miss training you can train for a marathon, 5k, or tough mudder, and if you wish you could go back to a time that was simpler and you had less responsibility you can just appreciate that you also had less responsibility in Kindergarten and look how far you've come now.

Ask for a Spot. As corny as it may sound, it is always okay to ask for help. Many stories revolving around suicide in the NFL blame that athletics is a culture that often expects an individual to suck it up and keep going. In a hard life that comes with some glamour as well, people point to others less fortunate and explain if they can be happy so can you. If only your happiness was defined with how happy you appeared to be- then maybe this train of thinking would work. But I know I definitely would never try to max out my bench without a spot- and none of my teammates or coaches would ever expect me to, so it only is rational this mentality should carry over post-career whether it be to a therapist, old coach, or teammate. That's one of the best parts about being in athletics- the bonds you form from being together in the trenches- toughing out crazy circumstances- and having each others back. These are some of the most powerful relationships you can form, and these are the life-long friends most sorority sisters could only hope to find.

During pre-season we often trained for the unknown, buying into the concept that if we keep doing this we will be good and we will win. We didn't have anyone to play against so we just had to trust we were doing what we needed to do. Pre-season sucked, and you want to quit sometimes, but you keep pushing through knowing better days will be coming soon. Wrapping our heads around  that there is still a lot of unknown ahead of us can be really tough, especially when our goals are farther out now. But we just gotta believe what we're doing now is setting us up for where we are supposed to be, and keep faith in a bigger purpose in life.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Uphill Climb (aka the Downward Spiral) Retired Athlete Problems

I have recently decided that blogging would be a good way to express myself (and keep my job, since it's required), and here we are. When challenged to think of what I could possibly contribute that other people would want to read, I actually had hundreds of ideas. Personally, I would love to read a blog about someone who's mini dachshund is the cutest, which is perfect because I have one. Or topics on how to flip a house, get the boy to fall for you, or how to live a life as happy as you appear on social media.

Not to say I can't do any of these things- but as an athlete that is your identity, one that you're ever really able to shake off. My LinkedIn head-shot is my Volleyball Roster picture, and my resume consists of about 100 synonyms for excelling with time management skills, working in a team, and leading others, and my e-mail address I signed up for this with ( is the one I used while being recruited in high school since my UNC e-mail address has been deactivated. All my relationships in life have a direct correlation with the number of times we've changed and showered in front of each other in a lockerroom, and almost none of these friends were selected by choice- rather through tryouts or recruitment.

No problem, this is what I know, and writing about volleyball is then the easy choice. I was athletically talented enough to win a national championship in high school, receive a scholarship to play in college, and get recruited by my work league upon graduation. However my previous few months coaching a team that went 1-49 made me question my abilities like never before, and also remind me the absolute love-hate relationship I have with the sport. As the only blogs I know are on Barstool, and all the ones I read have lists- here's mine..

3 Ways You Know You Are a Real Retired Athlete
1. You hate the sport. Sometimes.You kind of hated it while you were playing it, and now you curse it whenever you drop something and your knee (back, shoulder, ankle) almost gives out. You've hated coaches, and loved coaches, but if you ever 100% loved the sport you play you either are playing Park District or you are lying.

2. You have no friends. Always. So these friends that you had everyday, in the trenches, always had your back. If you decided to cancel dinner plans you would see them at study hours later, weights the next morning, or when they returned from dinner since you live with them. Now you have to make friends in a world that there are no tryout, recruitment, or reason to be friends with you. I know what you may be thinking, the reason I have no friends is because I send off very intimidating vibes... Here I will not argue with you and just nod in agreement that this is another causation of being a real athlete at one time.

3. You know true emotion. You definitely know pain. Not just your back/knee/shoulder pain. The pain of losing, the pain of not starting, and the pain of ending a sport that has been such a big part of your life. With pain comes the feelings of insanity. Waking up early, going to bed late, to put yourself through a torture you question yourself regularly on, yet continue to do it anyway. Most importantly you know competing- and this is the emotion that stays with you post-athletic career which eats at your soul. Whether you are playing scrabble with Aunt Cheryl or beer pong on the weekends- you must win. 

This constant need to define your successes in black and white is the upward climb all athletes face. We lost our identity, and our easy way that we measure good and bad in wins and losses and find other ways to define these feelings. Whether it is finishing my personal pint of Ben & Jerry's in under 5 minutes, getting the raise at work before my colleagues, or beating the traffic home from work- I find new ways to attempt to create my happiness- and I'm not nearly as good at these things as I was at volleyball.