Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 10
In search of self: Collegiate athletes struggle with identity after sport retirement
BY KRISTINA SEWELL
“Who am I?” ranks high on the list of most obvious questions an introspective person can ask, but the answer doesn’t come so easily. A person’s identity tends to correspond with the roles he or she leads in life: Mother. Father. Teacher. Friend. Doctor.
Then there’s the role of athlete, an identity based on dedication, love, and association with a sport. Ask college players that “obvious” question, and they will probably define themselves as a “student-athlete.”
But for collegiate athletes freshly retired from their sport, the answer to that question becomes less obvious, and finding the answer is even more challenging. While many athletes never lose their connection to their sport of choice, they do lose that implied permission to build a life around the game. They swap one identity for another: athlete for graduate.
For more than half their lives, their days were measured in workouts and competitions, but these athletes must get ready to play their toughest game yet: transitioning away from being an athlete.
A grieving process
Allan Hancock College Athletic Director Kim Ensing remembers the day her basketball career ended; she had an especially difficult and abrupt exit from her time of collegiate play.
It was another day of practice for the basketball team of what was then known as Southern California College. Playing in a routine scrimmage, Ensing was running down the court when she collided with a teammate half her size. Tumbling end over end, Ensing landed with a sense of excruciating pain and a strange protrusion coming from her back.
“It wasn’t extravagant; it was a real freak accident,” Ensing said. “But the rest was history.”
From the moment of her injury, she explained, everything moved in slow motion. Luckily, her athletic trainer at the time helped minimize the damage. When Ensing collided with her teammate, her back was jolted so hard that one to two millimeters of her sacrum slid off of her spine. Despite the pain, Ensing said the greatest ache came from not being able to compete anymore.
“I still tried to re-enter play even against the doctor’s orders,” she said. “It was more painful not to play.”
A basketball player since middle school, Ensing found her days as a competitor ending her junior year of college. Being an athlete was the life she had known, the role that shaped her character. But athlete became a title that took on a different meaning for her.
To this day, she’s remained close to athletics, making a successful career out of athletic directing and coaching.
Also, the loss gave Ensing a perfect basis for her thesis paper that completed her master’s degree in athletic administration.
“When I couldn’t play anymore, I was devastated, and it was therapeutic for me to write the paper,” she said.
Leaving a sport to which one has dedicated countless hours, whether by choice or injury, isn’t as simple as getting up and leaving the dinner table.
With this in mind, Ensing conducted a qualitative study of 12 athletes who no longer competed in college. The subjects had experienced injury, had quit, or found their eligibility expired. Her paper—“Psychological Transition Athletes Experience Upon Retiring from Intercollegiate Competition”—found that athletes endured stages of grieving similar to the ones people experience during death and dying.
“Each athlete experienced anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—in no particular order,” she explained.
Ensing found that athletes who are taken out of their sport due to injury experience more severe forms of grief.
“No matter what had happened, the stages were evident in each of the subjects,” she said.
Ensing said she did the paper and the study in the 1990s, and there wasn’t a lot of research available in this area at the time. Her paper also revealed that the process of grieving for female athletes was even more severe since there were fewer options for professional play after college.
Talking about her injury and the process of developing a new outlook took time. While Ensing wasn’t surprised by the results of her research, it helped validate something she experienced.
“It was a way for me to close a chapter, and I knew I wasn’t alone in going through these circumstances,” Ensing said.
The athletic director is certainly not alone; as sports psychology and research on athletes and their identity becomes more prevalent, psychiatrists such as Dr. Steve Smith have found that athletes do experience an identity struggle that goes largely unnoticed.
So now what?
Smith has worked with his share of athletes, both in and out of competition. A psychiatrist since 2001, his primary occupation is his position as a professor of psychology at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB); he’s been there since 2004.
In 2010, Smith debuted his private practice for athletes: the Santa Barbara Sports Psychology and Research Center.
“Primarily, I provide psychotherapy for children, adolescent, and adult athletes involved in athletics,” he said. “I also serve as a consultant for Division I athletics.”
A former competitive cyclist of 25 years, Smith stays active with rock climbing when he isn’t working. His experience at UCSB has allowed him to work with a variety of athletes in different situations, such as running a support group for athletes injured during play at UCSB. Smith said retirement from a sport is a difficult life challenge for many players.
“[Athletes’] whole social structure is built around this sport, and then when they’re done, they are tossed into a world with a different culture,” he explained.
Smith said part of the difficulty comes from the change in time commitment. At the minimum, athletes donate 20 hours a week to a ritual that connects them with the community; the love and praise from the fans becomes a measure of their own self-worth.
“I have heard from a lot of athletes that they don’t know what to do now,” Smith said. “They’re uncertain of where they fit in and have to re-structure their identity.”
But when an athlete is injured, that becomes more of a nightmare for players. Sports injuries are common and many aren’t permanent, but there are some injuries from which there’s no coming back.
“They deal with anxiety and depression,” Smith said. “It’s similar to the grieving process for all players.”
When the injuries become catastrophic and a player’s chances of returning to play are definitively ruled out, that sometimes allows for an easier transition—but Ensing’s story proves that injury or no, leaving a sport is like losing a part of yourself.
“These players are mourning the loss of their identity as an athlete, not so much their sport,” Smith said.
The psychiatrist did say that some athletes feel more of a sense of accomplishment and relief upon retirement; they’re finally able to do things on their own terms. Some athletes, however, find that their sport becomes so ingrained into their being, they can’t imagine life without it.
Never letting go
Kelly Porter has a competitive streak a mile wide that’s largely fueled by his love for water polo. A physical education teacher at Fesler Junior High, Porter said he was a “late bloomer” in the sport and didn’t start playing until high school. For as long as he can remember, Porter was involved with athletics.
“I played baseball, football, and wrestling,” he said. “My uncle was a water polo coach at Righetti and asked me to try it out.”
Porter immediately fell in love with the intensity of water polo, saying that it’s one of the hardest sports he’s ever played.
“It is the most exhilarating sport, and I ended up being a natural with it,” he said.
He was such a natural, part of the reason he went to college was so he could keep playing water polo. Porter started at Cuesta before being recruited on full scholarship to University of the Pacific in Stockton. But college didn’t mark the end of his water polo playing days; the sport is internationally competitive, with plenty of options for pursuing a professional career.
“I played professionally in Australia; we traveled to Europe, Singapore, and Japan,” he said. “If the pros weren’t an option, I would have been coaching right away, but my competitiveness wasn’t ready to let me stop playing.”
The only time the PE teacher stopped playing was for three years after returning home from Australia; Porter was in a vehicle accident that broke his arm. But even though it took him a long time to return to play, he still came back to water polo.
While he continues to participate in tournaments with the One Way Water Polo Club men’s team, Porter remains largely connected to the sport through his coaching endeavors.
“Probably three-quarters of my identity is dedicated to water polo; I am at practice three days a week,” he said. “I live through my kids, who both play. My wife loves to come to games—we’re definitely a water polo family.”
Porter declared without hesitation that he wouldn’t be who he is today if it weren’t for water polo helping him stay disciplined and in shape; despite having 27 stitches, it’s a sport that will last a lifetime.
“If you play it for a long time, it becomes a lifestyle,” he said. “There is nothing I love more than playing.”
Porter said water polo changed the course of his life; if he hadn’t played, he said, he would have worked construction rather than teaching. Water polo has allowed him to give back to his kids and numerous other people in the community.
“I always say I’m going to take a break, but I haven’t missed a day,” he said.
Like Porter, local soccer player and coach Dana McGregor has never really lost touch with his chosen sport either. Starting competition and club soccer at age 12, he played all the way through college at Fresno State. After college, he quit soccer for two years.
“I was burned out after college and had lost my love for the game,” McGregor said.
During his hiatus, he jumped into a full time job at a Christian boys camp as a child care worker, which distracted him from the absence of soccer in his life. It was here that McGregor re-examined his decision about leaving the sport forever.
“I was playing soccer with one of the kids and he asked me why I didn’t play professionally, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s a good question,’” McGregor said.
Shortly after that, a door opened for McGregor to play semi-professional soccer in Oregon. His stint with semi-pro and pro soccer took him to Bermuda, the Middle East, and South Africa, where soccer is a favored pastime and the level of play is intense.
McGregor said his approach to soccer changed at an early age after a divine experience; he said it shifted his whole playing career.
“Your identity becomes soccer,” he said. “When I began playing more for God, I realized it was no longer about me.”
Although he’s only stepped away from his sport for brief periods, McGregor’s approach to soccer allowed him to cultivate his own identity outside of the sport.
“I think it will always be a part of my life, but it is just a game,” he said.
McGregor continues to play in adult leagues, but spends most of his time coaching and working as a private trainer. He acts as host to local soccer camps as well as an annual summer camp in Canada, sharing his love for the game.
“I found this passion when I was 12; it’s hard to let go of something you love,” he said. “There are certain things that bring you energy and make you come alive as a person. For me, soccer is one of those things.”
Making the transition
Whether collegiate athletes remain connected with the sport or not, leaving competitive play and a life built around a sport is no easy feat.
Athletic identity is ultimately defined as the degree to which a person identifies with his or her sport. It’s how athletes come to perceive themselves, and also serves as a basis for their sense of self and worth.
“College athletes often derive their personal identity from their sport, focusing a lot of their time on athletics in college,” a Georgetown University article reported last month. “They are often surrounded by other athletes and frequently have an athletic identity from their peers who recognize them on campus as an athlete.”
But once they leave college, athletes lose their social network and support from teammates, coaches, and advisors. Sports injuries happen and retirement from sport is inevitable, but the problem with athletic identity comes from athletes basing their entire self-worth on their success in a given sport.
While participating in competitive sports provides athletes with a solid foundation of crucial life skills, it’s the loss of sports identity that makes transition to “real life” an issue.
“Transitioning to a career is not a problem—athletes already have the tools for success,” Hancock's Ensing said. “You stop playing and have work and family, but losing your sport is like going through a bad break up. It is a part of someone’s identity that dies on the vine.”
Given her own experiences and those of other college athletes, Ensing said it’s crucial that collegiate athletic staff help provide athletes with the tools to move on successfully from their playing careers. In fact, she wants to make sure no athlete ever feels uncared for.
“When coaches embrace the entire student athlete, in the sense there are people who care about their academic progress and their personal/professional goals, it validates them as a human being,” Ensing said.
The athletic director added that athletes need to be able to view themselves as a person and an athlete; how they’re handled as humans is very important for making a successful transition and avoiding depression.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), through its Athlete Career Program, released a fact sheet for athletes getting ready to make the transition out of sports. The report, in addition to defining athletic identity, offers a series of tips for positive transition. The IOC recommends that athletes getting ready to retire should seek to expand their identities, discover interests beyond the sport, acquire solid stress management skills, and prepare thoroughly ahead of time for a new career.
Smith said UCSB makes continuous strides to address athletes as a whole person; other collegiate programs that treat athletes like commodities are depersonalizing their players. According to Smith, there aren’t good mechanisms in place for retirement from collegiate athletics. The psychiatrist said the issues associated with strong athletic identity make up an important problem that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
“It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like for these athletes giving up a huge cornerstone of how they think of themselves,” he explained. “It’s a tough pill to swallow. Some athletes make sense of it, and others struggle. It becomes a process of acceptance.”
For Ensing, it’s not so much growing to accept the loss of identity, but finding productive ways to deal with the pain.
“I don’t know if you ever accept it,” she said. “You just learn to live with it.”
Contact Staff Writer Kristina Sewell at email@example.com.