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.