If you were to look up the definition of a strength coach, you’ll likely find something along the lines of, “someone who aims to improve the performance of competitive athletes.” A broad description, but we do just that. We create the blueprint for athletes with the goal being to build them into stronger, faster, and better conditioned athletes. We are responsible for all of the athletes that come our way, and work tirelessly to provide them with the best training program so that they can be successful during their competitive tenure.
Within this system, however, lies a drawback. As you can see, I used the term “competitive athletes.” When one athlete’s sport career ends, our attention shifts to the next athlete for whom we are responsible. It’s not that we choose to ignore the newly retired athlete; rather, it’s an unintentional action that comes with athlete turnover. With this action, we tend to neglect the next important aspect of the previous athlete’s well-being, which is the transition from competitive sports to life after sports (commonly referred to as “adulting” these days).
I say that this is an important aspect because athletes make an incredible number of personal sacrifices in pursuit of their sports-related dreams. If you were to talk to any high school or collegiate athlete, I’m confident that most of them, if not all, would tell you that they started being competitive in a certain sport as early as grade school. With a plethora of club teams traveling across the nation to compete in tournaments every weekend, many kids end up sacrificing time with friends to play their sport. Classes are missed to allow for the travel. At higher levels, family time surrounding the holidays is cut short, or missed altogether. Exposure camps for college recruiting can last for days or weeks. Some athletes even live away from home for months at a time to train with their program. As a result, a social life takes a backseat to athletic obligations. Teammates become close friends, or even family. Coaches become mentors. The identity of an athlete becomes established, and one of the ways that these athletes describe themselves to their new classmates during those first day “icebreaker” drills is: “My name is ____, and I play ____.”
So, when the sport career is all said and done, there is going to be a huge void in the competitive athlete’s heart. As it has been said, “Athletes die twice, first when their athletic career is over.” What once filled the athlete’s life with purpose can no longer be used to guide them into the next day (“tomorrow is game day”; “we have a tournament this weekend”). I can empathize, because I felt that void.
My senior year of college basketball was both amazing and disappointing. After going undefeated in our conference and compiling the best record in school history, we lost by a late 3-pointer in the second half of our conference championship game, and we were not granted an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. We got a second chance to extend our season with an invite to the ECAC, but lost that championship game in a close match as well. The dream of being a basketball champion was now gone, never to be fought for again. No trophy, no banner, no t-shirts; just a feeling of disbelief and a bucketful of sweat-infused tears.
After that game, my mind was taken over by the “what if’s” and the “should have’s,” to the point where it was beginning to affect my everyday life. I so badly wanted to return to the gym and put in the work to get revenge, but my last shot at victory was already used. I lacked the motivation to go anywhere on campus, knowing that I didn’t have practice before or after classes anymore. Touching a basketball became a stressor instead of a stress reliever. I felt no purpose in many of the things that I did, and was sinking into an unfamiliar depression.
I didn’t know whom to talk to about these changes. My coach was already busy looking at recruits and strategies for the next season. My younger teammates were already looking forward to next year, and my fellow senior teammates didn’t want to relive the memory. So, I suppressed my thoughts and kept quiet. It seemed to have worked, because eventually I was able to get off my ass and make efforts towards moving on with my life and feeling okay.
However, like any other times where you try to keep your issues walled up, everything can break through with such an unrelenting force that you end up getting emotionally trampled on. Mine broke through when I was at the gym six months after graduation. I was talking to someone about her goals where it suddenly hit me that I had no goals of my own. It was odd for me to draw a blank because for so many years of my life, my sole goal was to win a championship. Every day I had dedicated myself to a sport that I loved and worked tirelessly throughout the year to be better at it.
But, now there is no next season. I’m no longer a competitive basketball player. With no goals, I had no idea what I was doing with myself. All of those thoughts that I had dammed up in my head had broken through, and I was lost. I struggled for several more months before I finally got the help that I needed to proceed.
This prolonged struggle does not have to be the experience of our athletes.
First, I get that not all athletes are going to experience the end of their career as I did. Some may be able to move on easily, maybe because they’re content with how their career ended. Some may be able to talk about their issues more freely than I did. But many athletes undergo similar negative changes. Other athletes, however—particularly those who reach professional or Olympic status—may experience far worse changes, with a few openly admitting to thinking about or attempting suicide because the depression felt so deep.
When the athletes become older adults, these changes can also negatively impact their willingness to participate in exercise. Since intense, all-out effort is no longer being demanded of them on a regular basis, it is almost guaranteed that the former athletes will fall out of shape. When they make an effort to get back into shape, they will notice that certain movements that were once naturally to execute have become difficult. This decrease in performance leads to frustration, or even injury, which makes them not want to do that movement again.
I understand that strength coaches are not sport psychologists. We’re not going to have every answer or know every theory that comes with psychological change, but many of us have an athletic background to some extent. We know the physical, social, and emotional sacrifices behind the dream. We’re familiar with the feel of adrenaline that came with pre-game run outs or starting line-up calls, and know that it’s almost impossible to replicate that feeling. Utilizing that empathy, we can at least employ a few simple tactics in order to help athletes with the transition from being sport ready to life ready. These tactics aren’t just for strength coaches, either; they are for anyone who has the privilege of working with and getting to know athletes:
We can at least employ a few simple tactics in order to help athletes with the transition from being sport ready to life ready. These tactics aren’t just for strength coaches, either; they are for anyone who has the privilege of working with and getting to know athletes
1. Be an outlet.
Show athletes that you care by reaching out to those whom you know recently ended their final season. Shoot an email, send a text, or make a phone call. Let them know that you haven’t forgotten about them. A simple “just checking in on you” goes a long way, even if the athletes are initially terse.
2. Help them connect their abilities to skills outside of their sport.
This tactic is what helped me the most. I was living such a competitive lifestyle for so long that all I saw of myself was solely that of a basketball player. We need to make sure that athletes don’t acquire this tunnel vision so that they can see how their athletic career has already developed them into successful business people: the dedication to be better; the respectfulness that was shown to coaches, teammates, and opposing players; and the perseverance to bounce back from tough losses and bad games. Employers look for people who exhibit these qualities, since they’re qualities that typically cannot be trained. Help the athlete see the person underneath the jersey.
3. Get them to plan ahead.
Only 1% of the pool of collegiate-level athletes make it to the pros. We’ve heard that stat many times before, but even so, athletes still hope and push for being among that 1%. Obviously we should support our athletes’ professional endeavors, but we should also be that voice to remind them about formulating an alternative in the likely case that the pros don’t give them a call. We can do this by figuring out the athletes’ passions and helping them think about a career path towards those passions. Encourage them to stay engaged in the classroom by participating in discussions so that they can think more critically about the world around them, rather than only about what happens on the court or field. Give them advice on job applications, resumes, and interviews. The sooner that they start thinking about life after sports, the more prepared that they will be.
Again, these tactics are simple, and fairly straightforward. But it’s typically the simple things that we tend to overlook. If I were to sum it up into one piece of advice, it would be to just care about your athletes. Not only about their performance come game time, but also about their life and their future after the final whistle blows.
The lights may have dimmed on the game, and the numbered jersey may no longer be worn. Yet a new game is to be played, this time in a uniform that may now be sporting a name tag rather than a number. The game and the uniform may change, but the person underneath the gear is still, and always will be the same competitive, hard-working individual that was molded into a successful person because of sports. It’s important to remind our current and former athletes of the person who they’ve become, rather than focus on the athlete that they are now or once were.