March is my absolute favorite month of the year (which you already knew if you've seen my Twitter and Instagram accounts). There are numerous elite sports that are in tournament/conference play or will be soon. Tons of great competition, exciting upsets, and champions being crowned. So many awesome things, so little time!
On the other hand, one of the hardest parts of this time of year is many athletes are experiencing the end of their careers. Some of these endings are expected (not making conference/tournament play means you know when your last competition is), whereas other endings (losing in conference/tournament play, injury) are not.
As an athlete, I can appreciate that thinking about the end of your career while you're actively playing seems odd. You've likely been taught to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of yourself. Yet, once you're done, the ending seems SO abrupt. Over. Done. Finished. Now what do you do?
I know it totally sounds cliché but you must allow yourself to grieve the loss of your sport. Think of it this way: you have a relationship with your sport. You invest time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, and tears into it. Just like you'd invest into a relationship. Would you ever think of not allowing yourself to grieve the loss of a relationship? Would your family or friends expect you to jump into a new relationship right away without getting your bearings? Of course not! The end of your sport career is the same way.
I've seen many athletes get caught up in minimizing how the end of their career impacts them, especially if they are seniors and the ending is "expected" at the end of the season. I get it. You knew this was your last season, so it "shouldn't" get to you, right? (GAH! There's those "should" statements again....) Oh but only if it worked that way!
The reality is even if we know a loss is coming, it's still hard. Last year my grandfather passed away. He was 91, so I knew the end of his life was coming in the near future. He lived a long, fulfilled life. Yet, after he died I found myself incredibly sad and thinking about my life from perspectives I'd never considered before.
That's because losses, expected or not, bring up a lot of emotions for us. And emotions bring up a lot of thoughts for us. We have to know what to do with them or they will get the better of us. You've got to respect that this is the process. Granted, it doesn't look the same for everyone, but expect you're going to feel SOMETHING. Be ready for it and cope with it.
Once your sport career is over, it will be very important for you to connect with other parts of your identity. Ideally, you've been developing other aspects of your identity beyond sports throughout your career. But if you haven't or they're less developed, you still have time! Just know that when you're athletic identity has changed, you're going to go through a change, too.
You may go from being one of the most recognized people on campus to people not knowing who you are. Or maybe people give you the benefit of the doubt less now that you're not playing sports or have higher expectations for you in other aspects of your life (like relationships or academics). Whatever happens, know this process is normal and make sure you take some time to figure out who you are going to be now that sports are not as large in your life.
One final aspect to consider is what tangible things you got from your sport. Maybe it was a big coping skill or outlet for stress for you? Maybe it was your source of friendships? Maybe it kept you in shape, eating well, and on a good sleep schedule? Maybe it helped you structure your day because you had to be structured to fit everything in? Most likely it was all of these things and more.
When you've spent the better part of your life being an athlete (as most elite athletes have) once you're done with your career, you have to figure out alternative ways to get these and other needs met. Professionals working with athletes have experience helping them navigate these challenges. For example, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology recently announced a partnership with the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) to help retired players transition to life after basketball.
So if you're finished with your sport career, take some time to celebrate your accomplishments. Then take some time to plan your next steps. If you're still in your sport, take some time to consider these points and how you can integrate them into your life proactively. Reach out to professionals who have experience navigating athletes through this process. You don't have to take it on without help.
Dr. Erin Haugen is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport/performance psychologist located in Grand Forks, ND. She specializes in helping college student-athletes excel in sports and in life. She is a former basketball player, current triathlete, and LOVES dogs.
Disclaimer: You should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice tailored to your situation. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.