Overcoming Premature Exits From Sports

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It is true but rarely thought of in the prime of youth and one's sporting career: Whether you are done with the game or the game is done with you, no-one's career as an athlete lasts forever. One day your time as a competing athlete will come to an end.

In March of 2020, COVID19 began its massive impact on the sporting world. The NBA at the time prepared teams to play without fans while -along with the MLB, NHL, and later MLS- closing their locker rooms to media. Internationally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to postpone the Tokyo games until 2021 (Bloom, 2020). The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) made plans to play their championship game without fans, and the English Premier League postponed a match after an owner contracted the virus. Not long after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a pandemic, did collegiate sports find their world upside down.

The Ivy league canceled all spring sports, and all of the NCAA's power conferences canceled their conference tournaments. American professional leagues one by one suspended their seasons, and the XFL, just 5 weeks into its reboot, had to cancel the season and later declared bankruptcy.

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It is true but rarely thought of in the prime of youth and one's sporting career: Whether you are done with the game or the game is done with you, no-one's career as an athlete lasts forever. One day your time as a competing athlete will come to an end.

In March of 2020, COVID19 began its massive impact on the sporting world. The NBA at the time prepared teams to play without fans while -along with the MLB, NHL, and later MLS- closing their locker rooms to media. Internationally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to postpone the Tokyo games until 2021 (Bloom, 2020). The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) made plans to play their championship game without fans, and the English Premier League postponed a match after an owner contracted the virus. Not long after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a pandemic, did collegiate sports find their world upside down.

The Ivy league canceled all spring sports, and all of the NCAA's power conferences canceled their conference tournaments. American professional leagues one by one suspended their seasons, and the XFL, just 5 weeks into its reboot, had to cancel the season and later declared bankruptcy.

In June 2020, marked by the PGA's return in June, a restart of the NBA in July, and new ownership of the XFL in August, brought new and alternative comebacks amidst the pandemic.

Still, countless athletes were left in limbo. The spring of 2020 was the final season for many athletes worldwide as they planned to retire or graduate. As COVID19 continued to rage out of control, collegiate campuses explored online distance learning. Fall sports, in some cases, delayed their return, while others canceled their season. For several athletes, this culmination of events has meant the end to their sporting careers.

The Loss of Sport: What does it mean?

For each athlete, the end of their career has a different meaning. For some, it may mean a loss of Structure- no longer having coaches guiding you on what to do to stay ready for play; no dieticians guiding your diet and food timing or choices; no practice schedule that may even direct when you sleep and wake. Practical losses such as losses of amenities- free or subsidized food/clothes/shoes/housing/medical treatment- may now prove real logistical challenges when they were previously not even conscious considerations.

If you've been an athlete for much of your life, it becomes a part of who you are, causing the end of your sport also to represent a loss of Identity.

Some athletes may lament missed ceremonies/awards/audiences and struggle with a need for external validation. You may be facing the loss of opportunity: Qualifying events, opportunities to break records, setting new PRs. If you've been an athlete for much of your life, it becomes a part of who you are, causing the end of your sport also to represent a loss of Identity.

However, one challenge that makes unexpected exits particularly hard is the loss of closure: Is this goodbye? How do you say goodbye to that part of your life? Do you transform this part of your life into something else? How do you acknowledge and celebrate for yourself what you accomplished?

Close-up of a serious young African American man sitting on the pavement. He is an athlete wearing sports clothing, in deep thought, looking down with a serious, sad expression.

Grief After Loss

It is important to consider what this loss may look like mentally and emotionally. Normal or common grief occurs in 50% to 85% of people after experiencing a loss. Usually, this form of grief includes emotional numbness, shock, disbelief, and/or denial, particularly if the loss is unexpected. Along with emotional distress, individuals may experience difficulty sleeping, fatigue, crying, sadness, anger, guilt, loss of appetite, and a loss of interest in usual activities, for example. These symptoms may come in highly intense emotion episodes, known as "grief bursts," lasting short periods, for instance, 20-30 minutes. Though there is no consensus on the exact amount of time needed to recover from an episode of grief, most people will start to see less severe symptoms after 6 months (PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board, 2020).

In his book, Sports Psychiatry: Strategies for Life Balance and Peak Performance, fellow Sports Psychiatrist David R. McDuff explains that the departure from competitive sports is difficult and can be particularly more so for those athletes who have been competing since their youth and/or well into their professional careers. Much like when a loved one is lost, processing the shift of being an athlete to live after sport may also trigger grief that may take months or years to resolve. In this transition time, athletes are at increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, low motivation, and substance use disorders. Usually, the way athletes resolve this emotional crisis is by developing a replacement activity or identity. Working with a Sports Psychiatrist can help facilitate this positive identity shift for transitioning athletes..

Pivoting: What Now?

After experiencing a loss of any kind, it is important to acknowledge how you feel and cope with it. Like needing to allow yourself time and space to mourn the loss of a loved one, you need to allow yourself time to grieve the loss of your sports career or season.

Part of allowing yourself to move forward is disengaging, to some degree, from your previous role as an athlete in your sport and figuring out how you will take that experience and use it moving forward. I say how and not if, deliberately. Even should you never play your sport again, the experiences had, the skills learned will remain a part of who you are and at your disposal should you choose to leverage them in your future endeavors.

Part of allowing yourself to move forward is disengaging, to some degree, from your previous role as an athlete in your sport and figuring out how you will take that experience and use it moving forward.

In her book entitled Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, author and Sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot discusses a major sociological study whereby her colleague, Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, explores the process of disengaging from roles that are central to one's identity. She writes:

"In her large-scale sociological study of "role exits," Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh identifies four distinct stages of disengagement from a role that is central to a person's identity and the reestablishment of an identity in a new role- a process that includes entertaining "first doubts," weighing "role alternatives," and coming to a "turning point" where the person makes a move, often announcing it publicly, as a way of deterring retreat. Ebaugh's fourth stage-"creating an ex-role"- however, is a subtle recognition of the messiness that can protrude even into a neat and linear stage theory; one identity bleeds over into the next. During this fourth and final stage, people struggle with incorporating their "hangover identity" into their future identity; seeking to find a balance between who they were and who they are becoming; working to find the skills, experiences, and perspectives that are translatable from one identity to the next and the ones that must be discarded; and, most important, struggling to establish themselves in their new role while they continue to disentangle themselves from the social expectations of their previous one."

Commit To Pivoting

Once you have made that commitment to pivoting, announcing your plans to those you trust may not only help you keep accountable in moving forward but may also help you to accept this period as a new beginning. Allow yourself to be reenergized with a new purpose, and see the new doors or windows that may be opening to you. Keep in mind that this identity formation is a process. At different stages of your life and as different opportunities unfold, it is OK to change your mind about which parts of your former identity you wish to keep in the game and which you choose to bench. If it gets messy, that is OK too. You know from your years of athletic training that you spend far more time in practice-on the journey- than you do in moments of competition or standing on a podium. Find peace in knowing you are on your own journey, running your own race.

Another tool in helping to move past the disappointment of a premature or unexpected ending is to take time to acknowledge what you did achieve. Particularly in the setting of the COVID Pandemic of 2020, several athletes and others I have worked with have had to forego traditional ceremonies and celebrations that were greatly anticipated.

It is OK and even healthy to take time to celebrate yourself. Now better than ever is a good time to free yourself of the need for external validation.

Still, every exit does not have to look the same. It is no less meaningful and no less important, even without pomp and circumstance. It is OK and even healthy to take time to celebrate yourself. Now better than ever is a good time to free yourself of the need for external validation. Whether it is fan-fare or not, you still achieved what you did.

How can you reframe this exit, accept it and gain from it? Think about what benefits you got from your sport. Even the timing of an "untimely" end may prove beneficial to you, though the reasons may not become apparent until years to come. Think on what are the immediate takeaways from the situation. Think about what cannot be taken from you- Experience; Bonding with teammates; travel; memories; lessons in professionalism; lessons in resilience.

Here is an exercise. Fill in the blanks:

  • Because I am an athlete, I can ______________
  • Because of my experience in sport, I know how to ______________
  • What I realize from this experience is ______________
  • Because I cannot participate in my sport right now I am free to ______________
  • What I enjoy about being who I am is ______________
  • What I hope to achieve in my future is______________

"Sometimes the person you need to know is you"

A pitfall to avoid as you explore your options after ending your career as a competing athlete is a stifling thought that you have to be connected with someone in particular to pursue your goals. You don't. Adversity breeds ingenuity. As I often say to those, I treat "Sometimes the person you need to know is you."

Seeking Help: The More You Know

It is no secret that to optimize your performance in life and sport, mental health matters. Whether coping with a temporary delay or a career-ending event, you are not alone. In addition to being in communication with each other for support, athletes and coaches should identify and utilize the sources of support around them. This may include university counseling services, a team clinician, alumni resources centers, or even your league's players association. A sports psychiatrist or sports psychologist may also meet with individuals or groups to help process the loss and plan for future success.

Should you or someone you know be experiencing signs of a major depressive episode or having any thoughts about wanting to harm yourself or others, you should not hesitate to seek evaluation and care from a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist.

It is also important to be able to distinguish signs of grief from a more serious depressive episode. For example, those grieving may have moments when they can still think and feel positively about what or who they've lost. In contrast, a depressed individual has constant negative thoughts and an inability to feel hopeful or happy. When grieving, one's self-esteem usually remains intact, whereas in depression, you may feel worthless and self-loathing. Suicidal ideation is also more common in a major depressive episode than in grief (PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board, 2020). Should you or someone you know be experiencing signs of a major depressive episode or having any thoughts about wanting to harm yourself or others, you should not hesitate to seek evaluation and care from a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist.

Peace Be The Journey

Exits come for everyone at some point and often not at a time of our choosing.

My heart goes out to those athletes whose sport is no longer funded at their institution; for those who may have lost the chance to continue their studies at schools where their sport was canceled; the athletes who eagerly awaited their senior year, or league debut season in Spring 2020, only to have it cut short by the Pandemic; the athletes who waited in anticipation to play their sport in fall 2020, but found the doors were still closed, or a higher moral obligation called them toward a different path, even if only temporarily. I see you.

Be encouraged, and remember this, you are not your sport! At the "end" of it, you are still you. The lessons learned, life skills gained, experiences both of trials and triumph, the opportunities had; all the ways it has helped shape you into the person you are, are yours to keep. Winners find a way to win. All that you are, and all that you have learned and accomplished in your sport to date, can be used in the future, whether that be to reach higher heights in your sport in the future or if you decide to apply your skills to succeed in a new arena.

All those many hours spent in training. The weight room, conditioning, in practice; The days of competition, traveling around the country and even the world, some events ending in victory, others in defeat; The moments of bonding, and sometimes perhaps in conflict, with teammates and or coaches; Ups and downs with the injury. All of these things, and more, are a part of your journey. This is not the end of your story. Your future is still yours to create.

May this sudden end in your season or career show you if nothing else, the value in the journey, which is yours forevermore regardless of your end destination. After all, your journey through sport may actually be the head fake that guides you to your true destiny.

Cheers to your next chapter. You've got this!

 

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References

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