Hanging up the Cleats: Life after Sports

As another academic year comes to an end, I find myself thinking about student-athletes and wonder if their inevitable retirement from high school or collegiate sports weighs heavily on their minds. Of course, facing this transition is much more pressing for seniors who are not pursuing professional athletic careers; nevertheless, the emotions surrounding such a major life change are overwhelming, to say the least. How would I know? Well, at one point in my life I had to close the door on my own dreams of competitively playing a sport that I love. I also know so many other young adults who have had to do the same, and it’s not something any of us were completely ready for. 

As cliché as it sounds, being an athlete meant that I ate, lived, and breathed my sport. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about competing out on the softball field; only in the dirt, sweat, and grass did my soul feel pure. Entertaining the idea that my life would eventually go on, and that I would have to find other ways to fill my days with purpose seemed like a fruitless exercise. Softball was my livelihood, identity, and source of self-confidence – can you blame a fifteen-year-old girl for thinking that would last forever?

Of course, I was not immune to the saying that “all good things must come to an end”. My softball career did end, and a lot earlier than expected at that. For years afterward (and conveniently during my excruciating transition into adulthood), I struggled to be something other than a star softball player that my high school, team, and friends could depend on. I gained weight and lost all desire to be physically active since my exercise was no longer for competitive purpose. I felt like life as I knew it was over, and, worst of all, I had become a stranger to myself.

It took me quite a long time to adjust to a life that did not revolve around sports. In moments of self-reflection, as well as in times of vulnerability shared with friends experiencing the same loss, I found a way to move on. It’s comforting to know that so many others transitioning into adulthood also have had to let go of old talents, hobbies, and dreams – I was certainly not alone. With the help of some of my best girlfriends who went on to play collegiate softball and are now themselves retired, I have compiled a few thoughts that have kept me strong and focused on cultivating a fulfilling life after sports.

1. Find Your Identity

As I alluded to before, it’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking that you’re a one-trick pony, and that your value as an athlete (and a person) is tied to your performance in a sport. I’ve learned that identity is a very fluid thing, and it evolves as we age, meet new people, and gain new experiences. I like to think of my identity as a pie whose recipe gets modified every so often. The measurements for certain ingredients increase or decrease, but are never completely eliminated. As I’ve become older, I’ve toned down the amount of influence that softball has on my self-worth in order to make room for other new, fulfilling ways to be myself.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve turned my back on softball, never to pick up a glove or a bat again. However, I did have to distance myself from the sport for a while in order to reconnect with it in a healthier, more balanced way. My friends claim that volunteering, coaching, and playing recreationally have been excellent ways to revisit their old passion through a new lens, and that giving back to the community can be just as purposeful as competition. 

Most importantly, in the words of my friend, give yourself grace. What does she mean by this? Well, understand that you’re going to feel lost, you’re going to gain a few pounds, and life may feel a little emptier than normal. And that’s okay. Being patient with the process of leaving a life of sports behind and working with your evolving identity will ease the transition into a new stage of adulthood. 

2. Update Your Lifestyle

Going from a virtually involuntary exercise schedule to being solely accountable for maintaining an active lifestyle has been a seemingly impossible task, one that I am still struggling with today. It seems to be a general consensus among my friends that we have all found it difficult to incorporate exercise into our daily routines. Though there is no one solution for overcoming this lifestyle disruption, these are the most important things to keep in mind: 

  1. You can no longer eat as if you were exercising for four hours a day, five days a week. That plate of seconds may be yummy and comforting, but your body will be in for a rude awakening if it can no longer burn off the calories that it has grown accustomed to getting. 
  2. Moving on from a life of athleticism means that your days won’t revolve around constant activity anymore. For many, hours of daily exercise with similar levels of intensity is simply not sustainable. Still, some activity is better than no activity, and as little as ten minutes of exercise a day can be enough to keep your body from becoming stagnant.
  3. Accept that you’re not the sprightly young chicken that you used to be. There is no denying that being an athlete takes a toll on your body. It’s not necessary to prove to yourself and the world that you still have hops or that you can still bench your body weight; give your body a break and modify your exercises accordingly!
  4. Even without a team or a coach, you’re not alone. Finding an accountability partner (or partners) can help you feel like you still have supporters behind you, even if you’re not competing in anything. 

3. Cherish the Memories

There’s no denying that I loved softball, and still do. Sometimes I look back on my experience as an athlete with a melancholic sigh, still mourning the unfulfilled potential in a life that was. However, these thoughts are overcome with the gratitude I feel for the friendships, memories, and lessons that playing a competitive sport has given me. I’ve learned that I don’t have to bury my past in order to start a new future, and have instead focused on incorporating my passion for softball in a personal identity that is balanced, curious, and flexible.

This idea goes hand-in-hand with many of the other topics I cover in this blog; remember that the journey through young adulthood is not a straight path – it twists, turns, and deceives. Your ability to move on from past experiences, disappointments, and triumphs is often tested, but with some optimism, gratitude, and a little help from others, anything is possible.

 

Mental Health

For me, being of healthy mind and soul are equally, if not more, important than having a healthy physical state. But don’t they all go hand-in-hand? Of course. Still, you’ll be surprised how many seemingly external problems are linked to internal feelings of dissatisfaction, confusion, and imbalance.

Increasing mental health awareness is a necessary endeavor, but for those of us struggling, it neither begins nor ends there. Recovery is a process, often taking years, if not a lifetime. In my personal experience, working through my anxiety and depression disorders often times seemed impossible. I felt that the options were limited and that there was only so much strength I had left to fight. I was looking for THE answer – the key that opened the lock – expecting that happiness and relief were on the other side of the door.

As with most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. Many years, panic attacks, and broken relationships later, I still felt lost. But, I continued going to therapy, taking my medications, and trying my best to get out of bed every morning. That’s all that I could do for a while. However, by taking these baby steps and gradually committing myself more and more to the ownership of my well-being, things started to improve. Many factors have contributed to the effective management of my current mental health state, of which I am excited to write about and share with you. Even though I still have some bad days, I am thankful for my progress and ability to help others overcome their struggles as well. Remember, it is possible, and you are not alone.

*Disclaimer: Mental health is an extremely touchy subject, and I understand that my experience is my own. Please keep this into consideration as you read my posts, but I most certainly welcome feedback.

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