Everyone wants to belong, its a basic human need. For lots of people, including myself, being an athlete is their identity, its how they belong and relate to the world. But sports don't last forever, in fact, many end sooner than we'd like. Its like a car wreck, we have this destination were trying to get to when out of no where our whole plan changes and were left to try and pick up the pieces. It's like loosing your best friend, the one constant in your life is suddenly gone and you're left alone. While your friends and family try to understand, it's nearly impossible unless you've experienced it. Below are six stages many college athletes go through after loosing their sport. I hope at the end of this post you can understand our grieving process better because for most of us, it is the hardest thing we've ever had to do in our young lives.
1. The second you quit you think of transferring, body willing.
You spend your whole entire life working towards this goal only to have it cut short right before your eyes, it's only a natural reaction to try and preserve the only thing you've ever really known. By the time you make it to college athletics you've been playing a sport for a decade or more, basically half your life. That much dedication doesn't die easily. You don't want it to end and you'd do anything to have more minute on the court/field. Sadly though, at a certain point, transferring becomes more of a hassle than anything. Eligibility issues on top of transferring credits make transferring almost impossible. Reality eventually sets in and many athletes are forced to forever watch their dream of completing college sports slowly fade away.
2. After realizing transferring is out of the question, you try and convince yourself that you did the right thing.
Even if quitting was the right decision, that by no means makes it easy. In fact its probably the hardest thing we've ever done. And keep in mind these first two steps occur very quickly after quitting. It is at this very moment the full weight of what we've done hits us; it's really over for all intensive purposes. Imagine being in a committed relationship for ten plus years and suddenly, without much warning, its over. You'd be devastated right? Well welcome to our world. We basically just ended our longest relationship and we've hit an all time low.
3. If the regret doesn't kill you, the sadness will.
The regret we feel quickly changes into the saddest sad. Colors are duller and life just doesn't seem worth living anymore. This sadness effects our whole being. We don't have as much energy, we withdraw from our friends, and all we want to do is somehow distract ourselves from the voices in our head. Other athletes, songs, buses, even certain foods are triggers for us. I can't count the number of times I had to leave class to "compose" myself in the bathroom. This is by far the hardest phase and the bad news is it never really goes away, you just learn to deal with it.
4. After a while life starts to feel relatively normal again.
Whether it takes a few weeks, or a few months like me, life starts to feel somewhat normal again. You start to form new routines that don't include practices, film, weights, etc. Your friends aren't all athletes anymore. Normality starts to set in and as much as you may enjoy your now "slow paced" life there will always be a part of you that hates it. While most people may love having spare time to watch Netflix or chill with their friends, we'd do almost anything to be with our teams again, sweating, probably dying at practice or weights, but feeling beyond accomplished for achieving what the few among us ever do. Becoming normal after being so un-normal for years is a really hard thing to accept.
5. You soon realize being normal is really boring.
When you go from being busy over half your day to having nothing in that time spot, you get bored. Really bored. At first it's kind of nice, not having to "charge into battle" all the time, but after a while you really start to miss the adrenaline rush of being an athlete. We pick up new hobbies, of course, but nothing can quite satisfy like our sport did.
6. You think you're all better until season rolls around.
During the off season you don't really think about your sport. It's there no doubt, but it's not blasted around campus everywhere you look. In season, however, that is just what happens. Game days are particularly bad. Signs are plastered around campus and you can't escape it. Even though you're not playing anymore that doesn't stop the unsuspecting student that still recognizes you as an athlete to ask details about the game, this season, or wish you luck in general. I love compliments as much as the next guy, but being constantly tied to my old team is just another reminder of what was and what will never be again. That sadness I mentioned above tries to creep back in, but like I said you just learn to live with it. It's not as bad as before, but it's like remembering an old pet that died or a friend you're no longer friends with. The memories start to flood back and sometimes you don't have the willpower to stop them. Other times you don't want them to stop at all. Painful yes, but sometimes the only way we can feel anything at all is to let the pain back in.
Being an athlete takes everything you have and when it leaves it takes a part of you you'll never get back and the longer you play the harder it is to accept when it's over. Athletes, don't take for granted this opportunity you've been given. Even your worst day playing is somehow still better than your best day not playing. If it has to end before you're ready, let it go. You won't be the same afterwards, but in time you'll be okay again. Parents, I know you think sports are the best thing for your child, but just remember sports change you. They change you before, during, and after. You have to be willing to accept this. Don't see your child as an athlete only because when they aren't that anymore they'll feel alone and lost. Support your son or daughter through this chapter in their lives and tell them it'll be okay when it's over.
Being an athlete is the highest high until it's not. As with anything take it day by day and enjoy what you have while you have it. Nothing lasts forever, but that in itself is one of life's greatest gifts.