Post athletic depression is a common struggle among athletes, and for me this is no surprise. Ask any collegiate athlete to introduce themselves, and they will mention their sport in the first three sentences (just behind their name and where they are from) as in “Hi, my name is Toni, I am from Baltimore, MD and I am a swimmer.” In fact, the sport of swimming even has a term dedicated to retired athletes, swammer, which is weird because many of us participate in masters swimming.
Our athletic experiences and achievements defined us during our formative years, and because of this, it will never leave our identity. My confidence came from swimming, my value system came from swimming, my moral compass was developed through my athletic experiences, and my first/second/third boyfriend were swimmers. Athletes will never fully transition away from their identity as a college athlete because it made us who we are today, and this is why the uncertainty of life after your sport is so terrifying and difficult. How can you be all those things when you are no longer participating in your sport?
Here are some other reasons why retirement is so difficult:
1. It is rare for athletes to end their career on a high note so many athletes leave the sport in disappointment
2. Our sport has defined much of our identity for our entire lives
3. Our sports advocated for self care and without the structure of the sport our self care lacks directly correlating to our mental health
4. We lose our tribe and for the first time need to deal with a solo identity, which makes us feel left out and alone.
But you are not alone, and should not ever suffer alone.
To Athletes: Reach out to your teammates and coaches to stay connected, and get help from your university whether that be the counseling center or sports psychologist. Schedule something to fill this new gap in your schedule—and make it all about self care and connecting with friends. Stay on top of your nutrition and a daily exercise routine (these are directly correlated to mental health) and be prepared to redefine your fitness level, however that may be. I will never be in as great of shape as I was as a collegiate swimmer, but I also don’t want to because they would require more than 4 hours a day of exercise and I would rather do something else with that time.
To Coaches: Your seniors need you now more than ever. Reach out, check in, and make sure your athletes know that you are their mentor and support system forever. Tell them that you value them for who they are and not just as a number on the roster (don’t assume they already know this). Let them know that they matter, that this process is hard, that they are not alone, and that there are resources available to them.
To All: Talk about post retirement depression. Bring awareness to this struggle, and share your story. Together we can help make this transition smoother.