You don't know what you've got until it's gone
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
As athletes, we commit so much of ourselves to our respective sports. We commit our time, our money, our energy into a game, so it’s no surprise that game becomes a part of us. A part of who we are. The idea of identity is one that is of great interest to me. I really don’t think I ever gave it much thought until something that apparently comprised so much of my identity was gone. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone seems like an appropriate way for me to explain how I lost, or I guess found out my identity. I played volleyball in college for 2 years. After my sophomore year, we had a coaching change. I was given two options. Remain at UGA and finish my academic career while being a student manager for the team or transfer and play volleyball somewhere else. For those of you who didn’t know my story, there you have it. This is one of those stories that I am not all that comfortable with sharing, but for the sake of this post I feel like the background is necessary. Being given this ultimatum was extremely difficult, and created a multitude of different mental health issues for me, some of which I still struggle with to this day. This ultimatum sparked feelings of anxiety and depression as I no longer knew who I was without this sport. We can save some of that for a later post, so right now I’ll stick to the facts. The facts being that I now felt like I was “no longer a volleyball player”, something that I had been my entire life.
I really don’t think I ever gave it much thought until something that apparently comprised so much of my identity was gone
As soon as I stopped playing, I realized just how much of my identity was vested in the sport. To be completely honest it was far more than I ever could have imagined. I realized that my go to introduction was “Hi my name is Sarah and I play volleyball here”. My fun fact in icebreakers was that I was on the volleyball team. I looked like an athlete. I dressed like an athlete. My friends weren’t my friends, they were my teammates. Like um what?! These realizations were shocking no doubt, but also a little bit horrifying. Volleyball really was all I had ever known, and in a minute, it was gone.
In all fairness, my situation was fairly unique. Most girls don’t have collegiate experiences identical to mine, but some do. Some girls are told that they no longer have a spot on their team. Others are told that they will no longer play again because of an injury. Others still may not have their careers come to an end in an abrupt fashion, but at the end of the day, everyone will eventually stop playing the sport they love. The sport that has come to be such a large part of who they are. This is not to say that everyone has a mini (or major) identity crisis when they stop playing their respective sport, but I think it is much more common than we care to admit. Identity crisis or not, when we stop playing our sport there is a big void left to fill, and this can prove difficult. It is not uncommon for athletes to feel lost or uncertain after their playing careers come to an end.
When we stop playing our sport there is a big void left to fill
I’m going to bring it back to my own experience for a moment. I already mentioned that when I stopped playing volleyball I felt like I lost my identity. If I wasn’t a volleyball player, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was. I never had to think about that before. I stopped playing volleyball 2.5 years ago now, and to this day I’m still trying to find my new identity. Along with my identity I lost something that I loved to do. I think when we play a sport at a high level we sometimes forget why we started playing in the first place. The sport turns into a job, and let’s face it jobs aren’t fun. At the end of the day if you get to college and you’re still playing that same sport you do love it. You may not feel that way every step of the way, but deep down you do. So in addition to my identity, I lost something that I loved. The third and final thing that I feel like I lost, and this is probably the biggest one is I lost the team that I had always had. As a player on a team sport I had never not been part of a team. From the time I was 4 years old I was on a team. Now, 16 years later I was forced to be an individual, no longer a part of a team. This was and still is the toughest part for me. I missed the camaraderie. I missed the cohesion. I missed the purpose.
Ultimately, all good things come to an end. Yes, I stopped playing a year and a half sooner than I thought I would but the end of my career was inevitable. The end of any career is inevitable. At some point in time we will all have to walk away from the sport we have grown up with, grown together with. There will come a day when we all have to untangle ourselves from the sport that has become so much of who we are and find ourselves a new identity.