Female athlete thinking

How To Let Go of Sports When Sports Lets Go of You

Here are four pieces of expert advice for transitioning out of your sports career when the time comes and embracing the next chapter in your life.
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All sports careers must end at one point or another, whether it’s due to an injury, not making it to the next level or making the tough decision to leave on your own. No matter the reason, it’s a parting of ways and the end of a journey that comes with a lot of mental duress and emotion—especially if your sport and your dream has been a part of your life for many years and you had a lot invested in it.

It’s important to have some strategies for letting go of sports when sports lets go of you, which is why we sat down with two sports psychologists for their pro tips. Here are four pieces of expert advice for transitioning out of your sports career when the time comes and embracing the next chapter in your life.

1. Plan On It

The hard truth about a career in sports is that no matter how far you make it, there’s always an expiration date on every athlete’s career—even the world’s top professional players. Instead of living in denial about that fact, elite athlete turned sports psychologist Jim Taylor PhD and author of 19 books including Train Your Mind for Athletic Success says to plan for it.

“It's going to happen, but athletes just don't know when,” he says. “If they deny it, the shock of the termination of their careers, in terms of self-identity, grieving, and possible financial strain, can be overwhelming. But if high-level athletes consider the next step in their lives early in their sports careers, whether exploring their passions outside of sport, finishing their educations, considering their next career, and seeking out financial advice to ensure their security post-sports career, when the end does arrive, they are prepared for it and can see it more as a new beginning rather than an ending.”

By the same token, knowing just how finite an athlete’s career is and mentally preparing for it doesn’t have to be depressing—if you frame it right. “Embrace the beauty of it and respect the spectrum of the human experience,” says Nicholas Santino, Director of Coaching and Senior Mental Performance Coach at CEP Mindset Inc. in Toronto, Canada. “The reason why it was so great was because it was going to end. If it didn't end at this point in time, it was going to end later.”

Another way to look at it is by zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. “If you got to the next level, you would have been happy because another person didn't make it. Otherwise it wouldn't be very cool that you made it, right?,” Santino says. “Someone else had to be crying about it for you to make it. If you did make it, it's going to end sooner or later. Be happy while it lasts. And as well, it wouldn't have been so great if that probability wasn't there. If the chances of not making it weren't there.”

2. Be Ready to Mourn

You can be prepared and see the big picture but that doesn't mean it won’t hurt when it happens—so it’s important to prepare for that, too.

“My best advice is be ready to mourn”, Santino says. “Your sport is like a person. We have relationships with people like we have relationships with things. Your sport is probably the biggest relationship you have with anything that you've ever encountered. There is a give and take occurring there. It is a living thing in your mind. The experience of having to grieve is similar to the experience of grieving the loss of a relationship. I wouldn't necessarily call it a death, but I would say the end of a very serious romantic relationship. It’s a close kind of connection to the sport and kind of like breaking up. So be ready to grieve and be ready to mourn the end of a very important relationship.”

3. Find Balance in the Imbalance

After or even during the grieving period in the aftermath of letting go of your sport, it’s time to also find your footing. “Try to create some balance in your life. Because the nature of being a high-level athlete is there's not a lot of balance,” Taylor explains.

“You're devoting your life to your sport. But at the same time, I have an expression to find balance within the imbalance. And when I talk about balance, I don't just mean activities, but self-identity. A high-level athlete is not just a professional athlete or an Olympic athlete, but can also be a husband, a father, somebody who works, does charitable things, a friend—whatever it might be. Look for ways to balance out that self-identity. I always use the metaphor of a pie with different slices. The size of the professional athlete part of the self-identity is like four-fifths —and then all of a sudden you get deselected or you get cut or injured and you remove that piece of pie and all you have is this tiny little piece of pie left. That's not enough to feel good about yourself.”

Taylor goes on to say that the professional athlete part can still be big, but ensuring that there are other slices involved as well—especially when that professional athlete slice is removed—means there's something else there to stay and you can confidently say, “This is who I am now.”

4. Do a Deep Dive Into Self-Exploration

Finally, be ready to explore being a beginner when you move on to something new and be open minded enough to know that you probably won’t be an expert—just yet anyway.

Santino says the best way to transition from a life focused on sports to your next thing is to dive into values exploration. “Identify what your values are and aren't. Get very clear. The reason I like the value exercises is you want to respect that the thing that you love so much—the sport itself, whatever sport that is—is just an expression of a fundamental need and a fundamental value, purpose, principle and core belief.

Most individuals don't take the time to truly analyze the different things they value and why they value it in order to come to a better understanding of their next step and what they will feel passionate about. Take basketball as an example, says Santino. “If you're a basketball person, you think, “I love basketball”, and that's what’s important to me. But really, it's not. It's the expression of things that are important to you. Fundamental things, like being a valuable part of a team, having a sense of competence and autonomy in your life, like being physiologically healthy. There are all these fundamental human needs that are being nourished and developed throughout this kind of participation within that sport.”

Where else can you find these core values? That’s the next big question and mystery to solve. “That's the key. Peel back, see your sport as an expression of your core values. Understand your core values and start to explore different ways that you could nourish those values and provide that for yourself,” Santino says.
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