I have been doing a lot of self-reflection since the Olympic Games- asking myself questions about what I want to do with my life after I am done competing in wrestling. What can I do that will allow me to be happy, excited, and make a difference in peoples lives, while at the same time using all of my potential and not selling myself short of my abilities and influence. Those who know me know that I am a very indecisive person- so the thought of making a seemingly life long commitment to a career is extremely daunting and anxiety provoking.
What makes this decision so difficult is that I have put thousands of hours into the sport of wrestling. I have been wrestling since middle school, but specifically the past 8 years (since arriving at SFU), I have dedicated my entire life and prioritized wrestling and my athletic performance above everything else- including relationships and school. Everything I did, everything I ate, everything I thought, was wrestling related. Wrestling was my “career” but one that I brought home with me and that influenced every decision and every action for most of my life. So what could I do that I would love enough to make such a commitment to in terms of a career after sport?
You always hear- “balance in life is healthy”, but for most high performance-athletes there is no “balance”. I think that's what makes it so hard to transition out of the sporting world. Sure- many athletes are educated, and have other identities and roles in life but I can guarantee those athletes that have made it to a high enough level will tell you- their athletic identity has been their “master status” through most if not their entire athletic experience. They prioritized improving as athletes and achieving their athletic goals above everything else in their lives.
For most people, their careers relate to their master status- they work hard, get an education or training, and prioritize work- with eyes on making money, getting a raise, making a difference- with long term, life-long goals in mind. For athletes however-their “careers” are always on a shorter time-line. We know that our 20’s are when we will reach peak performance in the sporting world. But after this athletic career is over-then what? We put in the hours and years of training for something that we know is short lived. We gladly, and willingly sacrifice everything else. However, after our athletic careers have ended- most athletes won’t be able to “retire” and are forced to find an alternate career in their life after sport in order to make a living.
For high performance athletes, their teammates and experiences, and the passion they have for the sport will remain but they will be FORCED to make this transition out- maybe due to injuries, maybe due to finances, maybe due to the realization that they are unable (as a result of many different reasons) to get to the level or maintain the level of performance needed to be successful in their sport, or maybe because of the desire (particularly for women) to start a family in which they are unable to compete. If you think of retiring from sport as a forced action instead of an easy decision or switch then I think it is easier to empathize with transitioning athletes. Because what I know for sure is that most athletes are so passionate about their sport that they would love to continue to compete indefinitely (if their mental and physical health, finances, and relationships allowed), as there is nothing comparable to the emotions and experiences gained through sport.
However, transitioning athletes are forced accept and deal, and find another master identity to replace their athletic one. And sure this process is easier for some than for others, but I think the “post- competition depression” that you hear so commonly among transitioning athletes lies within the uncertainty of “what do I do now?”. It has to do with the fact that a transitioning athlete questions whether they will be able to find a career or role that they feel as passionately about as they did about their sport, an identity that they take as much pride in as their athletic identity, or that they will be able to feel those same extremes of emotions, or wake up everyday excited to work towards a goal like they had when they were high performance athletes.
However, in the sporting world, no one talks about life after sport. It is an important topic that I think is ignored by athletes and coaches alike. The time that the athlete “retires” is too late to start the conversation of life after sport. I believe that encouraging athletes to plan and think about life after sport and having conversations about various topics related to this would be extremely beneficial for the well-being of all high performance athletes. Sure, athletes know their athletic careers are relatively short, but vocalizing this fact and explaining the difficulty some athletes have with life after sport will have athletes thinking about the seriousness and importance of planning for that point in their lives in which they will no longer compete.
I think that is why my knee injury in 2014/2015 was so difficult. I hadn’t realistically thought about life after wrestling, or who I was or what I would do without the sport. This injury forced me to soul-search and clarify my priorities and my identity when I did not have the sport of wrestling. I think that the coping experience and character building that that injury forced upon me now helps me to look at retiring from sport from a position of acceptance, excitement, and peace. That injury forced me to find and learn about myself and my relationships, and prioritize things and people in my life. However, I think and I wish that I had been encouraged to think about these and had discussions about such topics prior to this injury, as I think it would have made the coping (especially in the first couple months of this injury) easier. I also know I can relate to the struggles being experienced by those athletes transitioning out of sport after this past Olympic cycle, as I know this will be the first time many of them are facing so many big questions, and undergoing identity and soul searching in life without their sport.
I think that about the process of transitioning out of sport a lot, as a lot of people close to me are currently transitioning out of competition- and I ask myself- if I was permanently unable to continue to compete or if I no longer was able to dedicate the time or energy into competing would I be able to still live a passionate, happy, exciting life without the sport of wrestling? I think the answer is yes.
The career and life that I want to pursue will continue to be wonderful with and without the sport of wrestling. My relationships will remain, and those I love will remain. My friends, family, and loved ones will still love me no matter what I choose to do to fill up my days, and I will love them. What I want to do is to make a difference in peoples lives, and leave every person that I meet feeling a little more positive and a little more happy- and I think that through this effort I will continue to allow myself to feel purposeful and blissful.
For those of you who haven’t already- I highly suggest watching Brene Brown’s Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” (and those who like to ready- read her books). It will put your life and efforts in perspective by re-focusing your priorities and thoughts towards love, relationships, and honest connections. I have to admit I have watched and re-watched and read and reread her teachings, and I can say she has been the most helpful in pulling me out of my sometimes overwhelming anxiety or negativity that naturally occurs after trauma and hurt- THANK YOU Kevin Black for introducing me to her!
Anyways- the time that I will make the transition out of wrestling is still uncertain- I cannot tell you when this will be. However, as I keep saying, I will not force myself to train and compete if I no longer feel the excitement, passion, motivation, or have the ability to do so. Whether this is one, two, three, four, or five years away- I literally have no idea. But when this time comes, I will bid farewell to the sport I love and pursue another path with the same dedication and passion as I once directed to my wrestling career. I will continue to love and be loved, and do my best to make this crazy world a little bit brighter.