The challenge of life between sports events – athlete identity transition

 In College Athletes, Injury, Professional & Olympic Athletes

Athlete identity transition happens at the end of careers but something similar happens at the end of seasons and events. An athlete may face retirement, or may have a serious injury, or simply, it is the end of the season or post major event.

A client spent an entire year training for an Ironman triathlon. She spent a lot of time and energy training and with her team which also equated to a lot of time and energy away from her family, work, friends, social life, etc. When the event was over, she struggled with depression, weight gain, irritability, and lack of energy. She had a job, a daughter, a house, friends but those things had been on the back burner for a year. Figuring out how to get back to the rest of her life after the Ironman was a real struggle for her. What she is struggling with, I call, post event depression. Some athletes go through this kind of sports transition several times a year.

In an article, Pro soccer’s Rachel Breton (March 9, 2017), talks about what happens when your life stops revolving around your sport – “Yet it’s not only about the goals you set for yourself, but also about owning the journey along the way. You want the pain because the goals seem worth it. But what you don’t foresee—and what no practice, training or match prepares you for—is when the “moment” is gone and you have to let go of the journey, including that sweet pain that you, in fact, wanted.”

Event or season transition

My dissertation clarifies what ‘termination’ really meant. At that time (when?), much of the research talked about seasonal/event and sports termination being the same but my research showed that while they are similar, they are not the same. Seasonal/event termination was not termination although it felt comparable, it was a transition – athletes would transition from racing to time off and then back to racing. Some athletes would cycle through this several times a year and that’s what made it a transition versus termination.

Seasonal/event transition distress are struggles that an athlete can face when a season is over and/or when they are between major events. My client dealt with the first couple of items on this list:

  • Adjustment difficulties – the negative factors related to adaptation to a season or event ending.
  • Occupational and financial problems – my client was working while she was training, although because of her level of commitment to the sport, she did not make as much money as she needed which put strain on her and her family.
  • Family and social problems – figuring out how to become re-involved with family and friends can be a huge problem. My client spent so much time with her team and they provided a family-like/social environment which took the place of her outside family and social activities. Transitioning back into her family time and social network was a challenge and caused a lot of anxiety.
  • Body image – body image, is particularly challenging for women, because they struggle with post seasonal/event fluctuation in weight.
  • Alcohol/substance abuse – alcohol and substance abuse is always a consideration when dealing with a situation where something is missing or gone and a person needs an escape, where otherwise healthy alternatives are not available.

Create a healthy balance

Up front, athletes need to know how important it is to never be enmeshed in just one sport. It’s essential for an athlete to recognize that the sport is only one important thing in their life that they do and it’s not who they are. It’s always important to keep a healthy balance. This is one of many reason why sports specialization and year around sports is problematic. It’s also important for coaches and parents to emphasize this and work with their athletes to achieve this.

That is where the conversation started with my client and here are some of the other things we worked on and strategies to create the balance needed:

  • Adjust slowly versus using the total immersion method. We set short term, realistic goals to help her stay motivated and move forward.
  • Put more time into work and being more engaged, or be more involved in some type of profession. My client actually realized that she missed her work and missed having a good amount of disposable income.
  • Reconnect with family and friends as well as make new friends. She also realized that she needed to accept that her relationships were not going to be what they were a year ago but that she could start from where she left off with many of them. She just needed to put in the time.
  • Rebuild her social life. She didn’t even know what she liked anymore. We explored some ideas and each week she would try something new – library, museum, ballet, etc.
  • Remain active and deal with the physical challenges of being less active then she was while involved in Ironman training.
  • Learn the skills to train differently and have balance in life.

Make a plan and avoid athlete identity transition distress

I like how Rachel Breton (March 9, 2017) ended her article, , After the Whistle Blows: What happens when athletes are forced to give up the game that shaped them, which states – “when athletes move on to other engaging ventures, some do it without the slightest hiccup. For others, though, it proves to be significantly more challenging than anticipated. For others still, the experience falls somewhere in between.”

I’ve helped many clients deal with seasonal/event transition and sports termination. While there is a continuum and an array of issues when dealing with seasonal/event transition and sports transition, it’s important to start thinking about them now. Develop the right mental skills to perform optimally now as well as deal with transitions and terminations as they arise.

Also see how former athletes can stay motivated or can re-motivate.

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