31 Mar March Sadness by Karolina Shander, Ph.D.
Let us pause for a second. Close your eyes and think about what March means to you. You may think of March Madness, spring flowers, taxes, and warmer weather. But what about those that may be thinking about the ending of a career, heartbreak, loss, confusion, or the realization that their identity as an athlete might be over? Sounds more like March Sadness to me. Probably not the picture you had in mind….If you’re an athlete, feelings like this may lead you to want to avoid thinking about the future, but I challenge you to do so to honor your experiences, prepare for the next step, and allow yourself to feel what you want to feel during this time. And if you know athletes who have finished or are finishing up their sport soon, encourage them to honor their feelings and entertain the potential preparation for ending their sporting careers.
For those unfamiliar with March from a sports context, March is a peak time for sporting events, with Opening Day for Major League Baseball; an increase in tension for National Hockey League games, as regular season ends in April; March Madness in college basketball, with women’s and men’s teams grinding in the NCAA tournament; NCAA competitions in swimming and diving; and many other college sports seasons rising in intensity. High school athletes are also experiencing the change of seasons, as spring sports blast off and winter sports come to a close. During this time, some student athletes may experience pain and confused emotions. Seniors in high school or college may realize that it is not just their seasons that have ended—they also will no longer participate with their team at the end of their academic year. This may be the last time they experience singing the national anthem before a game and wearing their jersey and school name. OOOFFF—that feels like a punch to the gut. As onlookers and teammates in the athletic journey, we may be wrapped up in all the excitement of March, but it is important to take into consideration the experiences of those exiting their sport for good.
Research shows that there are some common experiences among athletes. Retiring from sport represents a transition, an event that changes assumptions about oneself and the world, usually requiring a change in one’s behavior and relationships as a result (Schlossberg, 1981). This transitional process suggests that retirement itself may begin months before athletes end their careers and transition out of sport and may unfold for months into the future (Little, 2020). Athletes’ emotional, psychological, and behavioral responses may fluctuate over time as they progress through retirement. For example, some athletes may enjoy having more time for themselves, feeling less stress in their lives, and maintaining (or improving) their self-image (Warehime et al., 2017). Others report being unsure of their identities after retirement, losing themselves, having difficulty finding structure in their lives, experiencing overwhelming feelings of depression and anxiety (Menke et al., 2019), and feeling that their lives often lack structure and purpose (Barcza-Renner, 2020). This data concludes that athletes will have some level of challenge as they exit sport. Thus, as athletes we must prepare for retirement/ exit from sport. Further, employ family/coaches/support systems of our athletes need to keep an eye on the inevitable transition being experienced by athletes each and every season.
This post would not be complete without some advice on how to protect from the negative outcomes of transition/retirement from sport. So, if we hope to prevent March Sadness and increase the probability of morepositive transition outcomes, research on more positive retirement experiences (Lavallee, 1999; Shander & Petrie, 2021) provides some helpful tips.
10 tips for Retirement from Sport:
1) Those who choose to end their sporting career themselves or feel like they have control over their retirement tend to have better outcomes. Since each athlete does not necessarily choose whether they retire or not, depending on their circumstances, it can be helpful to identify choices and points of choice in your retirement (e.g., how do you want to retire? How do you want to interpret retirement? How do you want to label it? Do you want to have a celebration or not? Do you want to grieve retirement or honor it?).
2) Being able to articulate multiple identities can be helpful for navigating transitions, as there are multiple parts of oneself to lean on and pull from. Therefore, expand your identities. Talk to a professional about cultivating and celebrating different aspects of who you are (e.g., daughter, spouse, artist, performer), and identify how those identities can be amplified, or how your athlete identity can show up in other spaces where you can excel and perform.
3) Support: Social and academic support can be helpful. Identify and assemble your crew/people as your social support. Talk to them, get their thoughts and input, and allow them to help you during this transition process. If the majority of your connections are within your sport or circle, try to identify new circles to hook in to before you retire, or make a plan for staying connected with those from your sport circle when you exit from your sport circle.
4) Research suggests that those who have had previous experience with transition in other areas of life tend to do better, so think about times where you have felt uncertain or did not have a clue of what is next, and identify what made you successful, what allowed you to feel more certain and comforted, how you navigated that process, and what potential hiccups you could avoid in this new experience.
5) Some athletes tend to have better experiences in retirement when they have continued their involvement in sport-related activities after termination. Some may coach, volunteer, pick up a rec league, or find a new sport to delve into. Pinpoint how or if you want to stay connected or drawn to your sport.
6) Planning for and looking ahead to your future after leaving your sport is essential. Those who plan for retirement experience fewer mental health difficulties and experience less negative well-being over time. Thinking about life past sport is the first step. Use your resources on campus, and request meetings with financial advisors/nutritionists/trainers to discuss health and wellness outside of the field. Consider exploring career counseling to prepare for job interviews and career trajectories. You can plan for retirement while being the biggest/baddest/strongest athlete out there on the court simultaneously.
7) Some individuals may have neglected other aspects of life to concentrate on sport throughout their career. Contrary to popular belief, being zoned into only one thing is not always helpful. If that has been you, expand your lens—where else can you bolster your life? What other areas can you expose yourself to? How else might you showcase your competitive edge? Or, how might you amplify your religious self, your team-oriented or sorority self, or your leader self?
8) What are your transferrable skills? Take a look at all the things that it takes to be an athlete. Make connections to how they connect to other aspects of life. How can you capitalize on them outside of your sport? How can you take your competitive edge and let it serve you in stressful situations, at work, or in your family?
9) Some people feel greater satisfaction if they achieved all of their goals during their career and nothing was left unfinished. If there is unfinished business, take time to process that, and think about whether you can find a way to see if it can be finished. Or, explore how you can accept that it isn’t going to be finished and that it can be okay!
10) Finally, a new focus outside of sport can lead to more positive outcomes. For some, that may be a new goal, a new sport, a new city, etc., but the goal setting never stops. Set your sights on what is next! The world is your oyster!
You might find these tips in and of themselves to be overwhelming! Why? Because there are tons of choice with fewer parameters, as well as fear in the reality that the transition from athletics is going to be difficult. In the elite sporting world, there are timelines/rules, predictability to a point, and a buffer of at least having supporters who can answer questions. Outside of your sporting world it may be harder to find that support, but fear not, you can find it. Try to take advantage of those resources now as the lights on the court are turning off. Make connections, build relationships, and grow your roots in the time that you have. Remind yourself of how extraordinary your feats are, and how they can be translated into the world outside of the competitive field. As you dig into some of these tips, chat with your friends, connect with coaches, and stay looped in to where you feel like you will get the most support. For those of you who are not currently in sport or care about those who are in sport at the moment, remind them of these aforementioned tips. Give them reminders that there are tools to help them in this new and uncertain process. March will be madness, April might bring tears and showers, and May will bring graduation. However, if the planning can start now, March does not have to be full of only sadness and madness but also joy, contentment, excitement, and much more.