By Dr. María Marentes Castillo
Master’s degree in sport psychology
It is well known that you cannot be an athlete all your life. In Mexico, sports life can culminate between the age of 22 and 25, although this clearly depends on sport. In this case we talk about national football and in Mexico playing on a college football team involves participating until the age of 25, and if you want to continue playing at the professional level you can pursue such activity, but the formal beginning of a working life will make it more difficult to continue playing.
Football players who participate in this college league try to give their very best performances both on the field and in the classroom and to be able to stay in athlete-student status. I’ve known stories through interviews with players who started going to a playing field at the age of five usually accompanied by a family member, an age at which they probably didn’t have much awareness of where they were standing, but who thanks to observational learning and motivational development revealed great football players, which made them beneficiaries of sports scholarships to obtain a college career.
Over the course of three years I have met athletes from this sport who left their homes as teenagers with the goal of playing on a sports team and with this the beginning of a new independent life. This new life allows them to set goals and dreams that are gradually being achieved, passing the semester, starting, winning a championship, graduating from college. However, for a student-athlete the focus towards the sporting aspect is so predominant that on many occasions the professional- academic aspect and personal is left aside, not paying attention to what comes after a sporting life, that is to say we do not pay attention to precisely the sport retreat, which is a vital event that can generate more or less psychological well-being in these athletes, mainly leading to questions like
¿Who am I after having been an athlete?, ¿What I’m I going to do with my life if I no longer have to go to train double sessions and play on weekends?, this and other questions can arrive without warning if the sports retirement is not properly addressed.
I have developed this article based on three basis: the experience gained from the psychological work with athletes during their college career, the experience itself as an applied psychologist and based on the psychological work with an athlete, which we will call ‘Athlete95’; (from which I have obtained their consent to take elements of thought and emotions that have arisen from their psychological follow-up).
The 95´ generation college players went through its last year of eligibility, a year of many expectations and goals, year where a stage of life came to an end and where part of the intention was to make the most of every training, every game, and every encounter alongside their brothers. In the case of our Athlete 95, he had two choices before this last year, accepting a very good job offer or playing his last year in his lifelong sport. These two options were incompatible, so the goal in the psychology intervention was to guide him through the decision-making process taking into account all the factors involved. After several sessions, the athlete decides to play his last year of eligibility, visualizing that last day, perhaps that final championship where he enjoys the mariachi, the cake, and the joy and sadness too shared with his family and of course his sports family, hugs, and why not, the tears of joy, sadness, nostalgia, etc. However, no one imagined what was going to happen next.
At the beginning of 2020, China detected a new highly contagious virus that quickly spread to the entire world and led us to live perhaps one of the most difficult years of our lives. Covid-19 came to us by storm and restrictions to stay at home were quickly enforced to everyone and to pause our objectives and goals. In fact, ‘I am now still writing in my isolation at home. Of course, when I returned home that Friday, March 13, I never imagined that 8 months later I would still be home’. The same way football athletes never imagined that during this year 2020 they would never set foot on the field again at least not until college football resumes. Our Athlete 95 never imagined that that decision he made a year earlier would now return to hunt him as the ghost of those decisions that promptly reveals the consequences to us. The psychological sessions had paused, but precisely the previous situation made us return but now in the form of virtual office.
¿How would you feel if one day a year of your life vanishes overnight? , a year where the steps to follow were clear and there was a sense of direction, finish my studies, finish my eligibility on my team and feel that my college career was coming to an end, knowing that for one more year you will continue to play the sport of your life. The question of reflecting is not only the psychological effects that caused this situation as uncertainty, anxiety, anguish, worry, negative stress, despair, among others, but the question that arose in our reflections was: Are we really preparing athletes for sports retirement? And I think the most important: ¿Are we really giving these athletes the necessary resources to be autonomous after their sporting and university life?
Responding to the first question, generally every year a generation of athletes graduates, sports teams prepare by selecting new players to occupy those places, and the priority is to prepare players for starting roles or acquire starters to maintain or improve a team’s performance. I don’t mean to say that seniors are put aside, but it’s true that it’s better to prepare for the day when these young men definitely leave the team. I think it’s important to be aware that they’re people who have been on a sports team, where strong emotional bonds have been formed, and successful ways of living have been found, so retiring is really a crucial event in their lives. ¿How can this approach be applied inside a sports team? It can be from the simplest way by giving an important role to such athlete, to engage in conversations between athletes and coaches about the future, to talk from the coach’s experience, providing feedback on the great contributions that these athletes have had to their team, and clearly if you have a professional of sports psychologist you should go to this professional to address the sports retirement.
As for the second question, within the same sessions with Athlete 95, we were able to reflect on whether the fear and uncertainty of stepping into the real world, it was related to perhaps a fragile autonomy, since some athletes undertake an independent life when they change to a different state to pursue their college careers and leave their homes, but they also arrive to sports programs where they have all the resources to continue to have a safe and quiet life, since they do not need to work to pay for the university, do not have to make their meals, do not have to find a home, pay for it and assume responsibility for its care. The development of autonomy implies having the option of choosing and taking responsibility for the consequences, and autonomy not only develops in childhood, but all life we become more or less autonomous. Life alone gives you a context to develop such autonomy by having to make decisions, manage stress and manage your emotions. If you walk through from one place where you are relatively autonomous at home (knowing that young people leave their homes later) to another one such as a university program where you have all the resources available, this autonomy is probably not developing accordingly. Therefore, if we do not help them prepare for sports retirement, they go out to ‘life’ with a fragile autonomy, having to face a context that becomes too threatening and that provokes a series of unpleasant emotions and thoughts slowing down psychological well-being.
I strongly believe that it is also the responsibility of a coaching staff and of the university to provide the athlete with a context not only where a university degree is obtained or where he can be an athlete, but also to learn for life, so that this vital event such as sports retreat and the end of university life is not a stressful event of a negative type but is a stage that is addressed in a positive way and with many pleasant emotions in between. This does not mean that we provide more to these graduates, but that we do prepare them to face the challenges of life. Fortunately, to finish, our Athlete 95 finds his way into life with patience, acceptance, and more excitement than fear. We’ll keep an eye on this road.