Ask any serious competitor. Giving up his sport was the hardest thing he ever did.
As a 4-time Pennsylvania State tennis champion and a former college squash player for a top Division 1 team, I still struggle with the fact that my athletic career is now part of my past. I find myself not alone. Ex-professional and ex-college athletes alike describe leaving their sports with a sense of grieving, as though much of their identity is buried underneath the pile of athletic gear collecting dust in the closet. Recovery from such a loss is a daunting task.
Raised on Competition
The serious child athlete quickly incorporates sports into his identity. Athletic talent becomes a source of pride. Victories serve to inflate self-worth. After all, trophies in the most literal sense are tangible validations of success. Similarly, lessons, practices, special game-day clothes all provide a sense of purpose. Unlike his classmates, the child athlete does not play at the playground on Saturdays or spend his summers idle on the lake. Structure and sacrifice replace free time. These factors combine to make the child athlete feel special -- more special than other children.
In addition to pride in oneself, hard work and victory also prove to be a straightforward path to parental approval. Through positive (and negative) reinforcement, a child athlete understands that his talent serves a double purpose: 1) to feel good about himself, and 2) to please his parents.
Without considering the long-term consequences, pushing a child into competitive athletics seems like a no-brainer if it inspires such high self-esteem and familial pride.
Upon closer examination, here lie the problems that set the adult athlete up to struggle tremendously when he eventually leaves competition: First, the child athlete's self-esteem is not based on high regard for personal attributes, such as compassion, generosity or humor. Rather it is based on rankings, trophies and defeating other people. In other words, the child athlete's self-respect is centered on what he does, not who he is.
Second, the parent-child bond over a sport often borders on unhealthy. External validation, from hugs to gifts, signals to the child athlete that love is a reward for good performance. The child athlete can come to feel that love is conditional -- conditional upon what he achieves, rather than simply being himself.
Similar to a drug addict who does not recognize the power of his addiction until he experiences withdrawal, the child athlete does not comprehend how dependent his self-worth is on athletics until he reaches retirement later in life.
The Inevitable Struggle Of Becoming a "Regular Person"
Every adult athlete faces the reality of becoming a "regular person" (see "NARP" - Non-Athletic Regular Person) at some point -- due to a college graduation, career-ending injury, burnout, or retirement from the professional circuit.
The ex-athlete struggles with this transition. He continues to wear old practice gear. He never fails to emphasize his past when giving a short introduction: "I'm Bob. I'm 27, and I played professional soccer until three years ago. Now I'm a sports journalist." Often he chooses to become a coach or a sports broadcaster, for example, utilizing career as a way to hold onto sports in any way possible. The ex-athlete searches in vain to strike the proper balance between being a past athlete and a current "regular person."
Whether the ex-athlete can or cannot make this distinction easily, he struggles with reconditioning his sense of self and his relationships with the outside world. For the first time, he can not rely on rankings or recent victories as a source of self-esteem. It feels like whatever he does as a "regular person" will come up short compared to all that he accomplished on the court or on the field.
The ex-athlete also struggles with losing his method of acquiring "trophies" (literally and figuratively). There are no medals, press releases, gold stars, or other tangible forms of external validation presented to "winners" at work each week. Without measurements, measuring self-worth suddenly becomes far more difficult.
Newly unstable perceptions of the self go hand in hand with confusion over maintaining others' approval. The conditional love established in the child athlete's mind -- the pattern of victory followed by reward -- has its source cut when the athlete stops competing. Without athletics, he fears that those around him will no longer appreciate his value in the same way. While in most cases familial love is not (and was never) truly conditional, the ex-athlete is unaware of this and fears that without his athletic accomplishments and contributions, his support system will deconstruct. To the athlete, what he does is intertwined with who he is; and if others love him for he is, will they still love him when he steps off the field?
The child athlete is not proud of being "just Mike" or "just Lindsay," but instead respects himself for what he can produce with his talents. Upon losing his sport, the adult athlete suddenly doubts what makes him special. And that stings.
Making it Sting Less
Sympathizing with others who feel the same sense of loss and confusion post-retirement is one step toward healing. Swapping stories serves as a catharsis, as well as a connector between storytellers.
Perhaps with the help of fellow ex-athletes, understanding how the past overlaps with the present is critical. Certain aspects, such as the values instilled from sports -- hard work, sportsmanship, and commitment -- will serve an ex-athlete in the home, the workplace, and everywhere else. Other aspects, such as a world record, may earn respect and inspire others, but will not be relevant in everyday life.
Lastly, an ex-athlete needs to appreciate his athletic career for what it says about his character. Instead of dwelling on tournaments won or previous media recognition, he should focus on the personal qualities that proved necessary to persevere through setbacks and rise to new heights. That same strength of character will extend to the world outside of athletics, too. In recognizing this, the ex-athlete can fuse his past and his present, as well as fuel his self-respect not with what he once achieved, but rather with who he is.