(Editor’s note: Report by Danny Desin, M.S., www.desinsportpsych.com)
It’s official: The 2018-19 high school sports seasons in Montana have come to an end. With the end of the spring season comes change, especially for those graduating, and change isn’t always easy.
Sports can be so meaningful in the life of a young athlete that breaking away can be difficult. Suddenly there are no more practices, no more team dinners, no more bus rides, no more competition at the high school level. Even for those who are fortunate enough to move on to the next level, the transition can be tough in itself. The question is, why is it so difficult and what can everyone do to help?
Scott Goldman, a sport psychologist, said in a Front Office Sports article that being done with sports can be “as much a shift in identity as dealing with a tragic loss.” He actually uses the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief model in his work with retiring athletes. The stages of this model are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Now, is every athlete likely to go through a grief-related experiences after their sports careers end? Definitely not, but the point is, change like this can play with emotions.
This issue is generally based on one thing: identity. When a sport becomes engrained in the identity of the athlete, they will inevitably struggle when they can no longer participate. This is similar to what will happen in the case of an athletic injury.
This is not to say that a strong athletic identity should be discouraged. In fact, a lot of research pairs strong athletic identity to the ability to bounce back from adverse situations in sports. This is simply an argument that a proper perspective is key. Sports are definitely valuable, but in the end they are simply a mechanism for growth — a way to teach lessons that can’t be covered in the classroom, lessons that will hopefully aid young people on their new journeys.
Even athletes who move on to the college level can be affected. Instead of dealing with the ends of their sports experience, they have to deal with the fact that their high school sports-related tendencies are going to change. The freshman college athlete suddenly becomes a new fish in a big pond full of other talented fish. Schedules change, people change, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut.
The transition out of college athletics poses similar challenges and is so important that many colleges around the country have programs dedicated to assisting those athletes. Not many high schools have taken that step, but it seems it’s only a matter of time some until some do so, if and when their athletes continue to show negative signs.
Of course, everyone wants to believe that they or their child will play their sport as long as they would like to. Some are lucky to move on, but most are not. At some point in time, the career of every athlete will be over, and there will be nothing left but the memories and lessons. This is why athletes need constant messages about the meaning of sport and the value that it can add to their future lives. It will not only allow athletes to be better prepared for the future, but also allow them to enjoy the current moment more often. Be open to discussing this with athletes, young and old. It will aid in the unavoidable transitions they will have to make.
About Danny Desin: Danny Desin has been around the Billings sports community all of his life — as a spectator, player, and coach. Desin received a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from MSU Billings and played college basketball for both Montana State University and MSU-Billings. Has has graduate level education at both Boise State University and California Southern University, where he finished a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a specialization in Sport Psychology. He is a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a prospective Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC).