OpinionSo you quit the sport you love. Now what?

The emotional effects of having to quit your sport are just as bad as the physical recovery
Victoria StringerJanuary 23, 202012264 min
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Illustration by Ren Rader

Maybe you dislocated something in your shoulder, or you landed the wrong way on your bad ankle, or you tore something in your back and need surgery or one of a million other possibilities — but suddenly you can’t play or run or swim or pitch anymore, and the next few years don’t look exactly how you thought they would. “It’s just a sport,” you think. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

So why does everything feel like it’s falling apart?

Multiple studies included in the 2012 International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that “athletes who experienced forced retirement … experienced high levels of negative emotions, such as fear of a social death or dying, a sense of betrayal and social exclusion and a loss of identity.” Forced retirement due to an injury is a jarring transition — you must suddenly shift away from seeing your friends and teammates every day, having practices to structure your time around and having dedicated time to work on pushing yourself physically for competition. Even alone, these factors would make quitting a sport difficult, but when the choice isn’t even yours, you feel incredibly disappointed in yourself — you were supposed to be making yourself stronger, but your own body let you down.

I still have trouble reconciling myself with the fact that I used to be able to do sprint sets, whereas now it’s painful to even just stand up. I injured my sacrum running track several months ago, and it has been a long, slow healing process, even with physical therapy. To my surprise, I’ve found that the emotional effects of quitting track have been equally as difficult to manage as the physical recovery process.

I fell into a depressive period where I felt lost and untethered. I had no motivation to work out because I wasn’t working towards anything, which subsequently made me feel lazy and guilty. No one had prepared me for this, and I had no idea why I was having such a visceral reaction or how to deal with it. I was embarrassed at my response to what seemed like something trivial and kept it to myself.

Athletes are more likely to act tough and try to push through the pain instead of getting help because it feels like complaining. However, as described in research led by Sunghee Park at the University of Stirling, the majority of athletes have been found to experience “transition difficulties or negative emotions, including feelings of loss, identity crisis and distress when they ended their career and adjusted to post-sport life.” Talking about and getting help for a shared experience among former athletes isn’t complaining at all. Getting help for psychological difficulties is no different than getting help for a broken leg, even though the former is invisible.

Trinity senior Sabrina Pescatore played soccer and ran track before both (yes, both) of her anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) eventually gave out.

“I think that in the moment, [quitting] was really hard, because something you have valued and that has been an integral part of your identity is kind of taken away from you without your consent. I think that would affect anyone in a pretty substantial way. I became depressed for a while afterwards because I lost who I was and couldn’t handle how I felt,” Pescatore wrote via email.

You do not, and should not, have to handle this distress alone. The people you’re close with can help support both your physical and mental recovery. For some reason, the latter part is not often spoken about, but that does not mean the weight of it needs to rest on your shoulders alone.

“Although I had been recruited [for soccer before tearing my ACL], I was more at risk for re-tearing my ACL [or] tearing the other one after having surgery and decided it wasn’t worth [it],” wrote Trinity junior Jenna Ashworth via email. “Mentally, physically and financially, this was a hard thing to endure … My friends and family played a big role in terms of helping me recover emotionally.”

Additionally, the loss of a sport does not have to be a complete loss. Years were spent putting hard work into something that’s in the past, but all of those years weren’t for nothing. You worked hard, so use what you learned to try and make athletics a positive experience for yourself again. Senior Liz Ryan, who had to give up swimming due to back problems, said via email that she didn’t really miss it until she started lifeguarding recently.

“I guess just sitting there and watching the practices reminded me how much I truly loved the sport and how great it made me feel … I did have a natural talent, so I experienced some shame initially because I felt like I let my talent go to waste by not taking care of my body. I also felt some shame because I was nowhere as healthy as I was in the past, but I quickly turned it around as a positive motivator to get my health back, so I actually started swimming again, just not at a competitive level,” Liz wrote.

And finally, let’s be real — not being in a sport frees up a decent amount of time, time that you can now devote towards other things you care about (do you really miss those 6 a.m. practices?)

“I think [having to quit] opened a window of opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, like research and medicine,” wrote Pescatore. “Being forced to quit something that you love … forces you to explore new parts of yourself if you don’t want to fall into a depression. It didn’t happen immediately for me, it took time to be okay with it, but at some point sports end for everyone, and [now] you can use it as a way to find new things to enjoy.”

Victoria Stringer

One comment

  • Christine P

    February 10, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Couldn’t agree more! It is definitely a distinct psychological transition and often a life crisis for the athlete. My son went through it and it was very difficult. He and I started a nonprofit that provides free resources and support services to medically disqualified athletes or any athlete who has a medical exit from the sport they love. If you want to connect, reach out via our website http://www.sidelinedusa.org. We can help your school’s permanently sidelined athletes in their transition process at no cost.

    Reply

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