[This is a guest blog by Jamie Hershfang. Jamie is an exercise and movement science major at Lewis University in Chicago, IL. With a background in cross country and track and field, she is currently a sport performance coach intern at Athletic Lab.]
You just crossed the finish line of your collegiate athletic career. The hours spent at daily practices, time spent traveling on the weekends to competitive events, daily sacrifices with friends and family, and finding a balancing act with life in general, the end has finally come. For some, this finish line couldn’t come sooner, with a sense of gratification and relief from taxing their bodies all those years. But for many, this finish leaves emptiness in their lives, a loss of something they have always connected with and defined themselves by. The transition out of competitive collegiate athletics is something we don’t plan for, it just happens. And when it does, it often comes a lot sooner than we anticipate. Without a coach to be there every day telling us what to do, teammates to push us at practice, and planning our days around practice time and competition, we often find ourselves lost in the real world, defining ourselves by more than just an athlete, and finding greater intrinsic motivation in the process. You may have just crossed the finish line of your collegiate athletic career, but you have really just approached the starting line to a much greater journey ahead.
Many collegiate athletes, often live and breathe for their sport, treating it as everything they are. Their college choices surround the recruitment process, where they can find the greatest athletic development and a place they can be successful, often neglecting academic priorities along the way. These athletes train at every opportunity given to them, have sacrificed social interactions with friends on the weekends and family gatherings over the holidays so they can spend more time dedicated to practice, and they miss educational opportunities in pursuit of excellence. They have high ambitions and goals that they are extremely driven to achieve. While athletic achievement may be very rewarding, they often lose perspective for other aspects of their life. They may find themselves being defined as someone who must always be successful, and achieving anything less than their expectations means they have not fulfilled their potential and they have failed as a person. With their dedication and time spent towards achieving success, they must reevaluate their self-worth. For these athletes without a concept for a life without their sport, every mistake is a personal defeat, rather than a learning lesson to achieve greater success in the future.
It is a common misconception to think that spending time outside of their sport would sacrifice athletic success. However, this investment towards other activities such as school, work, or personal hobbies, can balance out the emotional attachment these athletes have to their sport. Life isn’t always a competition and finding value in things outside of sport allows them to develop a greater sense of self-worth. For student athletes, it is important to remember that student comes before athlete, making education a priority. It often gives the athlete a different perspective and realization that there is more to life than just their performance, taking away the pressure to always perform their best and actually enjoy the process of achieving their goals, not necessarily the outcome. In life, we are not always rewarded for the little things we do. People are not always going to be watching over our shoulder to make sure we do everything correctly, it is up to us to find intrinsic value and joy that the feeling of hard work provides.
When coaches train their athletes, they often seek more than just short term success. They prepare their athletes for long term development, teaching them skills they can carry with them even after their collegiate career ends. Being a student-athlete is a balancing act, teaching athletes time management skills, the ability to prioritize activities, being able to set realistic goals, how to analyze performance and learn from mistakes and defeats. Understanding that success comes through consistent hard work and planning is a huge takeaway from being a competitive athlete. Not planning for life after sport can bring frustration, defeat, and a loss of self-worth. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should try to care less about our sport and change our priorities. The message is that there is a unique balance between dedication to our sport and other activities that provide us with a sense of fulfillment. This balance can provide a better opportunity for success as a person, and athlete. Through an optimal level of training and emotional attachment, athletes are given a better perspective on what is most important to them in life. They learn to understand how to take defeat and use it as motivation, and enjoy learning new skills along the way. It would be crazy to assume that we don’t all want to be successful, but it is the self-satisfaction and sense of fulfillment through competition and practice that we should value most.
For those individuals who continue to participate in their sport after college, the value and meaning is much different than ever before. It may be hard at first to comprehend that they may not be perfect, may not be the strongest or the fastest, and just be normal. The sense of self achievement, the confidence and joy it brings them, and incorporating it as a part of their life, rather than having it surround their life, is something that can’t be taken away from them. Through personal growth and development, they learn new things about themselves and use their mistakes as learning opportunities. Regardless of what happens, they understand that there’s more to life than just sports. Life goes on and they enjoy whatever happens on the journey they call life.