Leaving competitive sports behind is a lot like breaking up with a significant other. Either you're the one who chooses to end it, or someone or something chooses for you. When you retire from sports, sometimes it’s because you don’t make the cut for the team, or maybe you have a career-ending injury, you graduate, a parent loses a job or they get divorced, or maybe you just don’t love it enough anymore to keep making the required sacrifices. Or maybe a tragedy (or pandemic) leads your peers to grow apart and your family to reevaluate your current financial and emotional investment. No matter the reason, leaving competitive sports almost always entails an agonizing transition for an athlete.
One of my students recently decided to stop skating. It had been a long time coming; I had seen the signs for a while, but I thought she would be able to hold out for one more year of high school and to pass one more skating milestone. When she came to tell me that she was thinking of leaving the sport, she was distraught. Being at the rink makes her anxious and she doesn’t feel good about herself when skating anymore because she isn’t achieving goals quickly enough. (As in any sport, the higher you go, the harder it gets to maintain the level of athleticism required to progress and stay interested.) She doesn’t have time to get all her schoolwork completed, participate in the other extra-curriculars need for college apps, keep a part-time job, AND skate. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, she feels like her rate of progress is being used as a gauge for how others around her feel about their own progress. Whether or not others are actually paying attention to what she is doing now is irrelevant—she believes that is the case, so the environment is no longer good for her.
This is not the first conversation I’ve had like this. In fact, for over twenty years I’ve been having similar conversations with almost every teenage athlete I have taught. Skating is a sport that specializes early, and since it hasn’t traditionally been a collegiate sport, most skaters wind down by the time they get to high school. It’s a problem that US Figure Skating is trying to rectify by offering other programs and paths besides the traditionally “competitive” route that you see on TV and by pouring energy into the collegiate skating program. Ultimately, though, the athlete feels pulled in all directions. Their friends change, schoolwork intensifies, they want to try new things, they might get a job, and skating just gets too hard to continue. While many athletes in skating and other sports do stick it out to graduation, most eventually go through a similar transition at some point during or after college.
Yet, the transition is a tough one. “What will I do now? It’s all I’ve ever done.” I’ve heard this statement so many times from young athletes, and when I stop to put myself in their shoes, it can be quite terrifying. I remember what it was like in college to be without the sport I had chosen when I was 4. I also remember what it felt like when my first love left me (also while I was in college). Both felt like being thrown into the deepest abyss imaginable. It was all darkness, and I couldn’t imagine a life different than the one I had known before. I struggled to let go of both and kept searching for ways to maintain contact—with both skating and the boy.
If the time has come for a chapter to close, though, then ultimately you will make the leap or be pushed. You shouldn’t stay in a situation that no longer serves you just because you don’t know what else is out there—that only leaves you feeling more heartbroken, more resentful, and even worse about yourself. (Side note: I did meet a woman once who told me, “never quit your job or your boyfriend until you have the next one lined up”, but as I’ve become much more in tune with my mental health over the years, I definitely do not agree with her!)
What’s next, then, once you foresee the big leap? Here’s what I told my student:
Buckle up, feel all the feelings, give yourself some grace, and enjoy the ride.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. Having experienced the highs and lows of being an athlete and the loss of identity upon retirement, I am passionate about coaching other skaters and athletes who have been through some of the same challenges. I love working with young athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life outside of sports.