I was reading the Nashville Scene (a local paper about the happenings around town) which I do all the time, but this particular cover story pricked my heart. On the cover was a former TN Titan linebacker Gerald McRath (never heard of the guy before this) and he was telling his story about his forced transition from football. He then went on to talk about his struggle with depression. This post isn’t so much about mental health as it is about why some athletes don’t take a proactive approach to transitioning. Why don’t they ask for help WHEN THEY KNOW it’s going to be over at some point? The excuse can’t be no one told me…
In the article McRath says “the anguish from his earlier than anticipated exit from football had caused him a separation that still pains him years later”.
I can totally relate to that. The years after my transition I had separation anxiety too. There were other factors that led to his later depression, but those that slide into a low place after sports have a common thread. They didn’t prepare PROPERLY for after the game. What do we do instead?
Self-medicate: In some cases this means drugs and alcohol. More subtly it means, finding distractions (getting really busy, working jobs that you don’t care about just because it’s easy, continuing to train when the pro prospects are low). It’s easy to not think about your real feelings when you’re constantly “on the go”. The funny thing is, from the outside looking in other people are looking at you and saying “Oh look at Shannon, she seems to be doing really well” or “Jason is just working that job because he’s still got a shot at the league”. This is one of the reasons athletes don’t ask for help. They assume that if they appear to “have it all together” everything will fall into place. I say “they” but I’m in that camp too.
Try not to appear weak: We have been conditioned to believe that any sign of emotion or doubt is considered weak. How would someone respond if I said “I feel like my life is over, I’ve never felt this low before. I was hopeless” This is what McRath said after he injured his knee. Instead of confronting the emotions that this kind of transition brings up we bury them as to not look like we can’t handle a little adversity.
Act like it doesn’t matter: This is along the lines of not wanting to look weak. If I don’t think about the problem it doesn’t exist. So what, I don’t get to play anymore. So what, I’m graduating and I don’t really know what I want to do (even though I have a degree). It’s no problem that I’m not feeling fulfilled in my career (at least I have a job). Ignoring the problem doesn’t mean it’s not there.
You know what else? Say you do voice these thoughts to someone, they don’t always believe you. Or they don’t know how to help you beyond saying everything is going to work out. When McRath finally went to a doctor about his sleepless nights and other physical ailments, the doctor said “You look great, you’re a football player, you’re fine”. Never mind the fact that he can’t sleep and is plagued with stress. None of that matters because… he’s a football player right… but I digress...
I can’t blame them thought. If you have never shown any form of vulnerability people assume that as an athlete “you got it”. That continues to be the lens people see you through.
When I first started researching and writing about athletic transition, I thought I was alone. I thought that it was unique to me or unique to those that didn’t have a plan. NO! It’s not. People just don’t talk about it much or they frame it in a way that highlights the importance of “having a plan b”. Guess what? I had a plan B. I graduated, I used my degree AND got another degree…yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of dissatisfaction. I know what you’re thinking “you need to be grateful” “ that’s what’s wrong with you kids today, you don’t count your blessings” “you always want more more more”. To that I say, yes, I do want more. So do most people if they’re honest with themselves.
"More isn’t always measured in money, things, power, or status. More is also measured in love, influence, fulfillment, intrinsic value, creative expression, value to the community, successors, freedom, spiritual peace, and JOY dammit lol. I know for sure I’m not alone in wanting more of that."
How many people have spoken to athletes from that angle? That is why I write and speak. To be an alternative in a sea of motivational minutia that looks at athletes and tells them “if you have a plan B everything will be okay”.
Psst… student-athlete… if you’re reading this, don’t fool yourself. You don’t fully know who you are without the game yet (unless you do in which case congratulations, you can quit reading now). If you knew who you were and what makes you valuable beyond being able to excel in sports, transitioning wouldn’t be so hard. Again… I'm talking to my younger self too… You have to self reflect (more on that another time).
So… what should one do in the face of impending transition?
Stop hiding behind your sport and accolades and ask for help. Not just if there are mental health issues, but also for identity and personal development issues. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but starting the conversation is the first step. You never know where it will lead. Start the process WHILE YOU'RE STILL PLAYING.
Final thought: You don’t have to be in trouble to ask for help (or begin self-reflection).You don’t have to be lost to seek guidance. You don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom to realize things aren't going the way you'd like. If I had asked for help sooner, I probably would be well on my way to manifesting and sharing my core message.
Listen, there is no shame in hitting rock bottom, in fact, hitting rock bottom may be the only thing that forces change. However, it’s not a prerequisite.
If you find this helpful leave a comment, share it, like it, pass it along to an athlete that may need it!