Home Featured News The mental side of retirement: How does it affect athletes?

The mental side of retirement: How does it affect athletes?

courtesy of David "Blace" Carpenter

According to the University of Oxford, the definition of retirement is “the action of leaving one’s job and ceasing work”. That definition doesn’t reflect the true meaning of retirement, as quitting an aspect in a person’s life that they put a lot of effort into can heavily affect their mental state. 

Focusing on the sports aspect of retiring, there can be multiple reasons why an athlete has to call it quits. The first reason why an athlete may retire is because time runs out on the athlete. Whether it is a high school athlete who is finished after their four year career, a JUCO athlete being done after two years, or a college athlete done after four years, all these athletes experience a barrier in continuing their competitive career. 

Grand Rapids Community College women’s cross country head coach, Sharon Becker, has had many experiences as a coach with athletes retiring but went through a tough experience herself. 

“One of the hardest times in my life was when I was a college athlete in my third year and stopped competing which meant I was no longer on the team,” Becker said. “It has been almost 30 years since then but I still think about that significant time often. I’ve thought about what I could have done differently back then so I would not have struggled as much or felt so horrible when I was no longer part of the team, training, running, and working out with the team everyday.”

Another common reason athletes retire from their sport is due to injury or illness. An athlete might feel good about their career, but only one play or one thing can go wrong to end it. 

Current GRCC student, Tate Greer, 19, from Grand Rapids, went through a traumatic experience while playing football which forced him to retire way before he wanted to. 

“I started playing football for Forest Hills Central in eighth grade, and stopped after my freshman season. Between the time I started playing and the end of my freshman year, I sustained four concussions, one which spurred an episode of post-concussion syndrome,” Greer said. “All four of these concussions were diagnosed after the fact, though, so my recovery process was unique.”

After these concussions, Greer had to retire from football and wrestling which meant he was unable to compete in any Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) sports. Although he was not able to compete in sports, Greer was mentally and physically challenged by the numerous concussions he sustained which affected the way Greer learned and used his brain. 

“I wouldn’t phrase it as a retirement but more of a transition,” Greer said. “Perhaps my tougher moments came when I had to face the consequences for my stubbornness. Memory deficits, headaches, depression, insomnia, and eyesight issues were a few of the symptoms I had to face.”

A current Psychologist for Blue Anchor Behavioral Health, located in Grand Rapids, Jessica Moskalewski, shared her thoughts about what athletes might go through once they are done with their selective sport. 

“Retiring from a sport brings about significant changes in an athlete’s life,” Moskalewski said. “Depending on the age and commitment level of the individual, some have spent most of their life functioning around seasons, training and competing at a high level. The transition from a strict schedule to one that allows for total individual control can feel just the opposite—out of control. These immense changes can lead to confusion in one’s overall identity and can often initiate a range of uncomfortable and new emotions.”

Another GRCC student and former high-school football player, Carter Kelly, 19, from Grand Rapids, believes what Moskalewski said about immense changes that come from retirement. 

“After my career was over, I felt numb. Right when it was over, I felt like I would not be able to find anything else I was passionate about. It was a very tough thing for me to go through and I had months of identity crisis,” Kelly said. 

There are many students that suffered this as their high school careers ended, but many GRCC athletes experience the same type of mental effects when they end their sport. Sophomore volleyball and basketball player, Karissa Ferry, is currently in the process of deciding whether or not she will be playing sports at the next level. 

“The process has been very hard, especially with all the ups and downs,” Ferry said. “It can have you going through a whirlwind of emotions at times. It can have you super excited but then scared of the future. At one point, I thought I might not have a chance at moving on to the next level and that was a defeating feeling.”

 That is why one of GRCC coaches, Becker, has her player’s backs whenever they go through personal struggles.

“As a coach, I try to use the things I learn from others as well as my own experiences and struggles to help student-athletes be more capable to deal with emotions and issues that surround us when we stop participating in our sport,” Becker said. 

Becker said that many players struggle after stopping their sport for multiple reasons.

“In regards to an athlete retiring or stopping the sport, most of my experiences as a coach have been with athletes that complete the two years of eligibility at GRCC,” Becker said. “Athletes can also suffer an injury which ends their season and career which has the same effects as if they stopped playing the sport altogether.”

Stopping a sport can be mentally challenging because the athlete does not know what to do to boost their mental health. For some people, participating in a sport is the most important thing for them, so when it gets taken away from them, they can have a loss of identity and struggle to find a new hobby. 

Moskalewski believes if athletes take a few steps after they finish their sport, then they feel much better mentally and can move on from the retirement process.

“My guidance to an athlete at the end of their career would be to find meaning and joy in other areas while also preserving the positive values that athletics have given them,” Moskalewski said. “First and foremost, I encourage reflection and celebration of the journey that has come to an end. This can include individual processing or collaborative communication with others who have influenced them along the way. Some things to include in this letter may be: things you are most proud of, important life lessons learned and someone you would like to thank for support.”

Reflecting and celebrating your career can be a great way to boost your mental state soon after your sport is done. Instead of thinking how your career is over, think of everything you accomplished in that time and the amount of work you put in. Another strategy Moskalewski suggested is finding some sort of hobby that is interesting to you. 

“Next, I would promote the exploration of hobbies or interests that may not have been possible due to time or physical restraints while being in a sport,” Moskalewski said. “Just like the importance of balance when competing, balance outside of athletics is essential to living a well-rounded life. Finding a community that allows for someone to lean on during this transition. A thorough self-assessment of strengths can help to identify the difficult question of ‘what lies next?’” (could be a good break out box)

The way both Greer and Kelly approached their life without sports is similar to the strategies Moskalewski talked about. 

For Kelly, it was all about finding new hobbies like golf and putting his time and effort into it. 

“I am finally feeling normal again after finding new hobbies,” Kelly said. “Retiring has changed me for the better in a sense that I was able to close one door and open others for myself. I now love to golf and lift at the local gym.”

It was a more complicated process for Greer, as the effects on his brain from the concussions was a lot to deal with alongside his retirement, but he still changed for the better.

“It took me a solid year to re-write my routines and ambitions, but I slowly matured into more of a cognizant person,” Greer said. “However, more importantly, the whole debacle screwed my head on the right way and pointed me in a more realistic direction. Hardships in life have a purpose.”

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