It is said that an athlete will die twice. Once when they hang up their cleats for the last time and once at the end of their life on earth. The end of an athletic career, especially a collegiate one, can cause similar effects as experiencing a physical death (of a loved one, or someone close, not themselves.)
Collegiate athletes have spent their entire lives working towards the moments that made those 6 a.m. lifts and 1 a.m. bus rides home from games all worth it; and then one day, it’s all over. No more buzzer beater shots, no more holes in one, no more homeruns or Hail Mary’s to win the game. Everything they have been living for… gone, in a blink. A lot of the time, with their game goes their will to truly live their lives to the fullest extent, like they had done during their athletic careers.
1st Quarter: Denial
Picture this, you’re in the locker room getting your final pre-game speech from the coach that you will probably never have the same relationship with ever again, getting ready to storm the court and hear the fans cheering you on, but this time it’s all different. This time is the last time you will ever have this experience again. But it can’t REALLY be the last time, right?
A majority of college athletes will ask themselves this same question when put in the situation. But why is that? Research shows that psychologically, human brains will send signals that stop us from dwelling on the inevitable demise of our own selves. And as dark and scary as that sounds, it is exactly what athletes will do so they don’t have to face the reality that their athletic careers being over.
Denial has been labeled by many professionals as the first of the stages of grief, so it would make sense that, if an athlete ‘dies twice’ they would go through this early on, even as early as the night of their final game. Kade Mayle played football for The University of Vanderbilt, finishing his athletic career in the famous NRG Stadium, dominating defense in The Texas Bowl.
Mayle stated, “There was a part of me that thought I would take a break and the staff would beg me to come back…I knew I didn’t want to try for the NFL but there always was and still is the thought that I could give it one more go- round. And the more time that ticks on from that last whistle, the more I start to miss it.”
Moving on after such a major part of your life ends can be terribly difficult and take years to fully complete. If the athlete does not handle this change well, their mental health will quickly take an even bigger hit and that denial can slowly change to anger.
2nd Quarter: Anger
As previously stated, denial almost always snowballs into anger, and anger can lead any person into a dark place both mentally and physically. Surveys have shown that collegiate athletes typically follow the rule that their physical health comes before their mental health (for the better or the worse) because it’s their bodies that carry them through their athletic careers. So, what happens when your mental health starts affecting your physical health?
Studies have shown that ongoing anger in a person will cause an influx of stress hormones associated to metabolic changes to the brain and that can eventually cause physical harm. Some of those effects include headaches, increased blood pressure, a higher likelihood of stroke and heart attack, among many others.
Athletes are known for prioritizing their physical health over their mental, so when their physical health starts deteriorating as an effect of their mental health things begin to spiral yet again. Mayle also touched on how simple it is to fall out of normal habits they formed during their athletic careers. “You quickly learn that sleeping in, skipping the gym, and eating out is a path of little resistance without those coaches who kept you accountable for your physical performance during the course of your career,” states Mayle.
With the odds of mental and physical health now stacked against the ex- athlete, anger is sure to come with an attempt to compensate for these wicked feelings. But not to worry, because as many athletes will agree, the anger stage can quickly turn into the bargaining stage.
3rd Quarter: Bargaining
The bargaining stage follows anger as it is an attempt to regain control. This stage is much more fulfilling than the previous for everyday folks and athletes alike. Finding something new to fill that hole that formed from your sport being ripped out of daily life is an important part of the recovery process. A clear-cut path that many athletes take as an attempt to stay ‘in the game’ and still be a part of their sport is athletic training.
Darian Apperson was a forward/ center on the women’s basketball team at The University of Charleston and had a terrific career there with many memorable moments. After graduation in 2018, she decided to pursue a career in athletic training and not long after, ended up 7 hours from her hometown, right here in Evansville, Indiana as an AT for the university’s division one athletic programs.
Apperson stated, “Being an athletic trainer has allowed me to be a part of team which I think important since being a part of a team was a part of my life for such a long time. I think that was a big part of why when my college career ended, I wasn’t upset or depressed like some people get, because even though my basketball career was over, my involvement in sports and being a part of a team was not.”
Apperson found a bargaining chip that allowed her to still be a part of a team, and that was good enough for her, but many collegiate athletes may want to take a different route bargaining their way back into the game. Coaching, adult athletic teams, and alumni games are just a few possibilities there are to try and fill the hole from retiring post college.
But even then, college athletes are sure to attest, staying involved in the game does not always bring that same fulfilment that their sport did, and this can sadly lead to the fourth quarter, depression.
4th Quarter: Depression
According to Athletes for Hope, an organization designed to educate the public on mental health effects that occur in athletes, 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental health disorders, specifically depression. There is no denying that this statistic is daunting in many aspects, and it should not be ignored.
This stage can be the most trying for retired athletes because typically this is when reality sets in fully. The truth is, there really isn’t another whistle to be blown, or a start gun to go off, or buzzer to sound and that can truly break an ex- athlete. But the good news is, there is always hope.
Health professionals suggest staying involved in your own everyday life and others, making face-time a priority, and joining support groups. Comradery is a major part of athletics to the point that when asked about what he misses most about collegiate athletics, he stated, “My closest college friend group was comprised of solely my football teammates. We spent every waking moment together- training, meetings, practice, class, meals, hanging out in the dorms and going out on the weekends. We will never be together again in the way we were back then, and that’s a harsh reality to come to terms with.” This speaks to the importance of keeping those supporting people in your lives so support groups and other interpersonal relationships are great options.
Depression may seem like an end all be all, but there is life after athletics and retired athletes should strive to make that life as amazing as they did their previous sports careers. People like Apperson who was able to make a fulfilling career out of her passion for athletics and Mayle who was able to come to terms with his L.A.S.T and created a satisfying life for himself, are both active examples of perseverance and what came from life after sports.
L.A.S.T stands for life after sports transition and it is a highly studied field of research because of the major effects this time truly have on athletes. The University of Alabama coined this term in 2020 as a part of their Journal of Athletic Development and Experience. The University of Alabama staff who are working on this case have found that L.A.S.T and the depression that comes with it is a hidden part of retired athlete’s lives and they are working to make the information more easily accessible.
When the Lights Go Down: The Rebirth
An athlete may die twice, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be reborn. The rebirth may not be the same as before the death (current athlete,) but it can be just as good. Life has so much to offer, and acceptance is the first step in reaching all of those amazing possibilities.
So, retired athletes, let yourself grieve, go through the steps, and when the lights finally go down, walk out of the stadium with pride, hope, and confidence that the next arena in life will be just as memorable as the last. And remember, you only have one more life after sports, make it count until that final whistle blows.