The Real Struggle for Athletes: Moving on from their Sport
In June 2003, I ran the fastest mile by any high school runner in the country. Four minutes and one second. A hair shy of one of the most important barriers in sport. Awards and accolades soon followed. A proclamation by the Houston Chronicle as one of a handful of “Houston’s next generation of superstars” and a “Legend in the Making” alongside the likes of future baseball star Lance Berkman[i].
As a teenager, I built up to where I was running over 15 miles per day. Wake up before classes, go for a run, spend seven hours at school, and go for another run. Repeat. day after day. My entire senior year of high school, I stayed up past 10 pm a total of six times. As I ventured into my college career, the dedication only reached even more extreme levels. Everything in my world, relationships, friendships, and even schoolwork, went to the wayside. Running was my obsession. It was my life. It was who I was.
Who I was became deeply intertwined with what I did. I wasn’t Steve the person, I was Steve the runner. To the outside world, but more importantly, to myself.
I relished that identity. Cherished it, as it brought notoriety, pride, and accolades my way. I enjoyed being introduced as ‘the runner’ before hearing my parents, coach, or friends spout off a list of my accomplishments. My self-concept revolved entirely around running, and I was more than okay with that.
As an 18-year old, my life plan was set; college scholarship than on to professional running and hopefully the Olympic Games. School, academics, future jobs beyond that. None of it mattered. I was going to run.
That was, until it was all done, well before I anticipated. Despite running more miles than I put on my car in a year, the hard work did not pay off. I never ran a step faster than I did that summer day of 2003. There was no professional running awaiting my college graduation. I had to move on with life. More importantly, I had to find a new identity.
As I learned in researching and writing my new book The Passion Paradox, just about anyone who goes “all-in” on anything faces the same dilemma. An identity tied around an activity. Athletes in particular are susceptible. We spend our time committed to our sport, to almost extreme levels, from a young age. And thanks to a combination of early success and those around us telling us how great we were, we almost all hold delusions of grandeur.
In a survey of NCAA athletes, 76% of college basketball players thought it was at least somewhat likely that they’d go pro. For other sports, it wasn’t much better. Football? 52%, Baseball? 60%. Hockey? 63%. Athletes held on to their dream despite the actual percentage being a tiny fraction of that (as low as 0.8% of college hockey players make it as professionals, according to the same survey). Whether it’s because of outside influence, or the fact that athletes necessarily have to be slightly delusional to make it to even the college level, it’s clear that athletes walk around with very unrealistic expectations.
And as the majority of their dreams turn into the cruel reality of being done at the age of 22, one of the hardest things to do after finishing a sporting career early isn’t figuring out what job to take next, it’s to grasp who you are.
The Athletic Identity Problem
What’s in an identity? It’s the role we adopt, our inner narrative that answers the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I doing with my life?”
From the outside, they are nothing more than useful heuristics. The cousin that we see once a year for our families Christmas get together becomes known for a singular pursuit. We have the relative who loves football, or teaching, or gardening. From gifts to conversation, we have one tidbit of information (“Suzy likes horses!”) that we remember. For the next decade of their life, little Suzy gets horse related gifts for Christmas. In our mind, this one tidbit of information becomes their identity. The messy complexity of a human being? Stripped away for someone we see maybe once a year.
But on the inside, identities are a powerful tool. They represent the inner story we carry around; a much more complex but still incomplete picture of who we are. Our personalities, our strengths, and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes; all contribute to an ever-growing, ever-evolving picture of who we are.
The function of a strong identity is to provide coherence, a continual narrative that we can fall back upon during times of stress and uncertainty. They are a reflection of our core principles and values. Providing a firm foundation, a ground upon which to stand. And they are beneficial. A strong identity predicts better health outcomes and well-being among college students.
And contrary to what it may seem, identities aren’t static creations that we are imbued with at birth. We actively construct them.
When we are young, it’s natural to try on different identities. When we are 8, we might see ourselves as a soccer player, before ditching that for a future astronaut at 10, or maybe a drummer at 12. What we do shifts and changes. We try on different hats, sometimes exploring them to great depth before ditching them entirely for a fancier hat a few months later. Exploration comes naturally. And it’s beneficial.
As we age, our identities begin to cement. We become attached to what we do, whom we spend time with, and what image we are projecting to the world. Part of it is a loss of youthful freedom; another is a societal push towards specialization. In schools around the country, angst and anxiety follow if we haven’t picked our college major by the time we graduate high school. If our career pathway isn’t set by the time we graduate from college, parental despair often ensues. “My child is lost!” becomes the declaration of well-meaning parents. By the age of 22, we are expected to know what we are going to be doing for the next 40 years of our existence.
In many situations, identity cementation can be quite useful. We “know” who we are, becoming comfortable in our own skin. Confident of our values and purpose. But if we are too firm, too resistant, then we get stuck. We become trapped in identities that were partially pushed upon us by well-meaning adults, while we were still in the age of exploration.
For athletes, they often suffer a double whammy: an identity that cements when they are young that they then have to move on from far too early in their careers.
During my teenage years, while my friends were dabbling in their interests, maybe trying band or drama, I was specializing. Running was the only activity outside of running I had time for. And my experience was the norm.
Because of a misplaced ideal of specialization, a leftover of the false idea that we need 10,000 hours of practice, athletes often shorten a crucial phase of identity formulation: exploration. They are pushed towards choosing a singular activity to focus on, to join elite travel teams, and hire private trainers; while the rest of their peer group is still dabbling there way through life.
Athlete’s identities often set and harden long before their corresponding peer group. While Jimmy and Suzy are still trying to decide what video games they like; the athletic prodigy among them is being whisked away to soccer practice every night, and multiple games on the weekend. For those who achieve any semblance of success, the process quickens.
Psychologists refer to it as Identity Foreclosure. When a person gives in to the role assigned to them (i.e. football player) before they’ve been allowed to explore their own internal needs and values. As athletes achieve success, parents, friends, and families help to cement their role as an athlete. Combine that with a misguided belief that they too can become a professional athlete despite the low rate of success, and it’s no wonder that athletes go all-in on their role in sports. Some research has suggested that a higher percentage of black athletes have identity foreclosure than their white counterparts. The same study found that more black athletes believed they were going to play pro then other ethnicities. While we don’t know for sure, the authors speculated that this could be a ramification of the message being sent to young black children that sports are one of the only ways to break through in life
As athletes show promise, we compound the problem by stripping away their autonomy- making most decisions for them. When to show to practice, what classes to take, what their summer ‘vacation’ looks like. Their sport restricts many outside activities and clubs, and their weekends are spent playing games. School and sport; other interests aren’t welcome.
Without interests, passions–that mythical drive that we are often told is the key to living a happy productive life– don’t develop. Contrary to commencement speech wisdom, passions aren’t something to magically find or follow. They develop. They follow a clear pattern that is actually quite similar to most of our dating lives: a) dabbling in a variety of activities b) Exploring the activities that spark your interest b) Spend enough time pursuing your interest to see if it can turn into a passion. Interests hold the key to passion.
And worse, we have to move on and shed those identities well before normal retirement age.
Retirement from a sport doesn’t occur at 65, It occurs at 18, 23, or if you are blessed with a rare combination of immense talent and work ethic, your early 30’s. A time when most of our colleagues are climbing the corporate ladder, we are hanging on to the activity we’ve known since our pre-teen years. Fighting father time, and our aging bodies. In sports like women’s gymnastics, it’s even worse. Specializing as a pre-teen, and out of the sport shortly after they hit puberty. Spending your entire childhood dedicated to mastering a craft that you have to abandon at the age of 18.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that upon transitioning out of sports, athletes often suffer from what is called identity confusion. A confrontation that they will no longer be able to do the one activity that their life has revolved around for decades. Along with identity issues, often comes an increased risk of depression, alcoholism, and other substance abuse. It’s not surprising that upon retirement from the NBA, Dwayne Wade said “I’ll be in therapy. Seriously.” We should commend Wade for being proactive and raising awareness, but the vast majority of athletes aren’t prepared for such a transition.
Despite choosing to retire, star Australian football player Barry Hall felt the implications immediately, telling the TV program Insight “I had two or three months… that I really struggled. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t answer mates’ phone calls, I was eating terribly, drinking heavily. A tough time. And look, I didn’t know at that stage it was a form of depression.”
Athletes are thus hit with the double whammy of a premature cementing and shedding of their identity. As Melanie Wright, a two time Gold medal winning swimmer summarized the problem “You start sport young and it becomes intertwined with who you are for so long. Then overnight it’s gone.”
So as you sit back and watch March Madness, your favorite college football Bowl Game, stop and consider what reality they are about to face. Yes, some will go on to be millionaires, stars that we will watch for the next decade in professional sport. But the vast majority of them are about to face an entirely different problem. An early retirement. A shedding of an identity that they’ve known since their pre-teen days of dominating the youth courts. Sometimes, not by their own choice, but an identity that was almost forced upon them from parents, coaches, and onlookers who saw talent.
As the conversation around mental health and athletics has rightfully grown, it’s time for us to consider the psychological repercussions of early stardom and identity cementation. Are we doing enough to provide athletes with the skill sets to move on, to find new passions and come to terms with their new identity? Or are we catering to the 1% who make it to the top of their game, and hoping that the rest survive. Degree (hopefully) in hand, but identity no where to be found.
Steve Magnessis the author of the new book The
Passion Paradox. He coaches professional and college runners. He can be
found on twitter @Stevemagness
[i] Legends in the Making: A salute to Houston’s next generation of superstars. Houston Chronicle. January 26, 2004
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