The Ex-Athlete's Mental Health Survival Guide

There comes a time in every athlete’s career when the last whistle is blown. For some, that sound brings a sense of relief. But for many, a feeling of emptiness may start to settle in. 

For an athlete — especially a competitive one — losing a sport can be like losing your identity. That sport has been a part of who you are for the majority of your life.

Less than two percent of all college athletes go on to play their sport at a professional level. The transition to a life without athletics is rarely talked about and can be very challenging for the other 98 percent. Most of an athlete’s life is highly structured around practices, games, and conditioning sessions. After sports, athletes have to become their own coach and try to transfer the skills they’ve learned as a member of a team into a real life setting.

Here’s a survival guide for the 98 percent that won’t go pro:

  1. It’s okay to mourn (but only for a little while). First, take a little time off; you deserve it. Remember that you are not defined by your sport; and, believe it or not, there are more things to life than athletics!  The incidence of depression in college athletes is 17 percent; if you’re feeling depressed and it’s impacting your daily functioning, it’s okay to seek help. If you’re not sure where to start, you can call Sheppard Pratt’s therapy referral service at 410-938-5000.
  2. Find yourself. Up until now, your sport has taken up most of your time and become a major part of who you are. Now’s the time to pursue other interests. Find another passion in life! This is easier said than done, but look for something positive that fills the void that your sport has left, like joining a club, or engaging in volunteer work. It’s easy to get caught up in the transition, but finding new objectives can be exciting.
  3. Stay active. You are your own coach now. Develop your own routine and weekly schedule. No one is going to tell you when your workouts are, for how long you need to work out, or what you should be doing. Find a workout buddy and use one another as motivation. You’re more likely to stay active if you do so with someone else. Take this time to explore other ways to stay fit besides the dreaded weight room or the treadmill. Group exercise classes can be a fun way to be active, and can make you feel like you’re part of a “team” again.
  4. Find ways to stay involved with your sport. If you still have love for the sport, why not find alternative ways to stay involved? While nothing compares to playing in a competitive environment, adult leagues are no joke either! (And can be a lot of fun.) If you suffered an injury during your time as an athlete, another way to stay involved is to coach or help out at clinics. Use your sports IQ to help others.
  5. Use your free time wisely! This is a major key to success after athletic life. Focus on your career, and make long-term goals for yourself. Athletes are used to working toward a goal, like a championship, so set a goal and define a process for how you’re going to reach that goal. You didn’t get to where you are in life by mistake; channel that same drive towards your next move.

While these tips aren’t exhaustive, this is a great place to start.

Former athletes: what has worked for you in your transition away from team life? Do you have any additional tricks for moving on and forging a new path? Let us know in the comments below!

Haley Paakaula, a senior at Towson University, is the marketing and public relations intern at Sheppard Pratt Health System. She recently finished her fourth and final season of varsity volleyball at Towson.