About three months ago, I had the opportunity to attend the NCAA Career in Sports Forum, and it was during this event that I realized one of the biggest issues that affect student-athletes once their college career ends.
Jonathan Orr, a former NFL player, explained during a conference why it is important for student-athletes to find an identity that goes beyond the sport they play. He called it, ‘Rip off the label’, and it refers to the importance of defining “who I am” as a person; and finding our foundation for the rest of our lives. To ask ourselves, ‘Who am I?’ and understand that the sport we play is not our only identity as a person.
It is no secret that many elite athletes, including Jonathan, struggle after their professional careers, finding themselves in an abrupt lifestyle change in a matter of months; or even days.
However, this reality is not far away for student-athletes, including me. We grow up living for the sport we play. In my case, soccer.
From a young age, we learn a sense of responsibility for the sport we practice. Going even further, as we grow, we see how society immediately labels us based on the sport we practice. This is not a problem until the moment when our four, or in some cases, five, years of eligibility end, and we are no longer labeled as student-athletes. That moment is where the identity issues arise and both elite athletes and college athletes find themselves struggling. You go from having well-structured routines with long hours of training, preparing for a competition or game, hours watching film, meetings with coaches and teammates, to being a person where the sport you practiced for your whole life is part of your past, but not necessarily of your present.
In my case, this identity issue happened during my sophomore year, when I suffered an ACL and meniscus tear. This injury pushed me off of the field for nearly two years. It was during the first months after my surgery was completed that I realized that I was more than just a soccer player.
That I had other passions, hobbies, and things I liked.
That in the blink of an eye, my college soccer career would be over and that I needed to find who I was outside my sport.
My coaches and athletic trainers were always there for me to support every decision along the way, some harder than others, to always prioritize my physical and mental health.
Nowadays, more and more athletes turn to sports psychologists to face this problem in which little emphasis is placed. However, I believe that it is also a coach’s task to help their athletes find their identity as a person. The four years that student-athletes spend in college are the preparation for them to face the rest of their lives. Probably one of the people that student-athletes listen to the most during these four years is their coaches.
This is why I emphasize that it is you, COACHES, who must help and prepare all those student-athletes to find their identity beyond sport.
You need to help them answer the question of, ‘Who am I’, in such a way that they consider and understand that sports can and will come to an end and that it is important to know themselves and define who they are ‘off the pitch’.
Having the knowledge and understanding that sometimes student-athletes need a break from their sport, and that is precisely in those breaks from the sport that our sense of identity grows and where we find things that we are passionate about on top of our sport.
This will be an infinite advantage not only in the long run for your student-athletes but also in the short term for your team. You will find a team composed of better people, focused on making this world a better one; a team that will know when and how to “flip the switch” to be mentally engaged in their sports activities, resulting in better overall performances by your athletes.
The reality is that we will not be considered athletes forever. We may be respected, recognized, and even admired for all that we accomplished as student-athletes, but that is not who we will be for the rest of our lives.
It is up to us to ask ourselves the question of ‘Who am I’ and find in us the kind of person that we are beyond the sport that we play.
Andres Gutierrez is an intern for ARI Recruiting and a fifth-year senior defender on the Lindenwood University (NCAA Division II) men’s soccer team. Off the pitch at Lindenwood, Andres is majoring in computer science and serves as a lead student ambassador.