The transition away from sport begins the moment an athlete realizes he or she has played the last game, run the last race, or completed the final practice or competition. The following story is a montage of thoughts, emotions and circumstances common to the experience of the elite athlete’s I’ve seen in Counseling as a Sport Psychologist.
As a child, I was passionate about soccer. Deep within me was a longing to become the best. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I felt up to it. Every obstacle was just another challenge to overcome. I had the desire and the talent, and I fully committed myself. I’d practice twenty or more hours a week in the rain or cold to hone my craft. I’d work on ball-skills instead of watching TV, dribbling until my feet hurt or when I couldn’t see the ball because of the dark. I saved birthday money for equipment, travel and lessons instead of toys or going out with friends. In Middle and High School, my weekends were tournaments and I did most of my homework in the car. No dating, no other hobbies; there wasn’t time for that. My parents sacrificed their own time and money to help me fulfill my dream, and I was determined not to let anyone down.
The work paid off. I won awards, got opportunities to showcase my talent, and people took notice.
I played at the highest levels in front of hundreds, then thousands, and then millions of people. My dream came true, and for a time I poured everything into it; soccer demanded my heart, soul, time, love, and body, and I gave everything willingly. Playing filled my world; it was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Then something terrible happened, and before I was ready, it was all over. I realize now it could have been many things. A point where age or injuries had me no longer quite good enough to stay at the top, or maybe the team was developing new talent for my position, or my knee could have blown out. “At this level, it doesn’t take much,” they told me, and just like that, quick as a snap of the fingers, I’m out.
I’d like to ask that you take a little of your time to imagine what that moment was like for me. If you’re the typical elite athlete, you retire in your early to late twenties with a career lasting single-digits and not quite reaching the height of your ambition. Since you were a kid, sport defined you. It’s where you found your purpose, your meaning, your friends, your aspirations and goals, your identity. Sport was your everything; and in the blink of an eye it’s taken away from you. Now that you’re no longer an athlete, who are you? You have no answer to that question. You gave sport everything, and now you’re abandoned. New talent comes along, and the fans lose interest. You had your moment in the sun, and now it’s rising on someone else.
Originally, I thought, ‘I made the industry look good for years; they’ll take care of me.’ But there’s little time for has-beens, and they’ve moved on as well. They tell me every new season means a new roster; they need to rebuild, focus on the now and not the then; this is a business, not a daycare. They say I knew what I was getting into from the start. But did I? I never finished my college degree, and most of my credits were in a major they chose for me. The ache in my knees keeps me up at night. I feel old, worn down and battered. I’ve never even had a real job.
No matter your profession, think of what it would be like if soon after you mastered it, you were no longer allowed to do that job for the rest of your life. All the time and effort you invested becoming an electrician, a lawyer, a radiologist, a teacher, or an IT specialist, gone. You’re not yet thirty years old, and everything you committed to is suddenly and shockingly stripped away and you need to start over from the bottom.
No more fans, their cheers are like an ocean wave you can feel on your skin.
No more coaches to motivate and drive you towards perfection and shape every waken moment of your day.
No more ‘next practice’, ‘next game’, ‘next season’.
No more family of athletes similarly driven to the single-minded purpose of shared excellence.
No more money, and no interest or skills for a different trade. Besides, everyone else your age started that journey a decade ago. You’re already way behind.
You’ve become a historical side-note, a row on a spreadsheet. Who are you going to be, now that you can no longer be the only thing that mattered to you?