The problem with being an athlete can be described in one word. That one word is IDENTITY. From the time when we were hunter-gatherers, humans always have been inclined to fit in as a form of survival. It was costly to be an outcast back then. We often attach our identity to what we do INSTEAD of who we are. Who we are is can always be taken to what we do but what we do cannot be carried with who we are. The sooner you figure this out as an athlete, the easier things will be for you. After years of being an athlete it builds up and before you know it you have an NCAA mental health issue.
The Scary Truth of NCAA Mental Health
I was walloped by the mental issues that can come from being an athlete. Early 2016 I lost a childhood friend to this very problem. We dominated high school track; we got the scholarships that we told ourselves that we would get and we both graduated. That sounds like a pretty happy ending, but it was not.
The scary truth is that you need to separate who you are from what you do because what you do will eventually end. The problem with being an athlete is that it can only last so long. In pro sports, they call 30+-year-old athletes OLD!
When you play soccer over in Europe, if you are not identified as soon as you become a teen it becomes much harder to make it. Gymnasts in the Olympics are in the prime at a very young age. Then that IDENTITY of being an athlete just disappears.
Sports are amazing because something is always guaranteed. They find a way to push out the old to make room for the new. It does not matter how good you are.
Michael Jordan had to retire
Wayne Gretzky had to retire,
ALI had to retire
Retirement feels no remorse; it just pushes you out when it is ready.
NCAA Mental Health Reminder -Sports Go On, and So Does Life
When I graduated from Iowa State, I was in a good place. I knew I was going to train a few more years after school to get it all out of my system, but if I retired there, I would have been ok. Here is the problem though, deep down inside, I thought I would have left a legacy that would have made moving on hard for the school. I thought to be an All-American, being a leader and training the right way for four years would have meant more, but it didn’t…
I left, a couple of weeks later, the head coach announced he was going to Boise State, then the whole coaching staff got let go, and a new coaching staff came in. The next year, new people came in, and the team kept moving forward without even a whisper of my name. When you give your all to a program, and it moves on that easily, it hurts but that is life. It goes on, and you must move on as well.
Strategies for Decreasing NCAA Mental Health Issues
Once I finally did retire, I never even announced it. No picture on Instagram, no post on Facebook. I just left! I just stopped and started working. What I noticed after is that people could not accept it. People would always ask me if I missed it or if I am planning a coming back. My answer was always a confident “no, I am good!” and I meant it.
I learned from my friend and many others I have seen walk away from the sport that people will tell themselves that they are good. They will preach about being happy about moving on as a front, but deep down they are hurting inside. This is not an ideal situation to be in because you never confront your true feelings.
NCAA Mental Health Tip – #1. Deal With Setback With Positivity
Trials and tribulations have a way of introducing you to yourself. Who we are is not the person that is standing on the podium with a gold medal smile. Dealing with winning is easy! You don’t have to teach a little kid how to be happy when they win it just comes naturally
The real test is on the flip side. It is when you are set to win, and you suffer a devastating injury. Look in the mirror after that because that is the real you.
It is when you can’t get out of a slump, and nothing is going right. That is when you get introduced to the real you.
Being positive is not about living in this fake happy world where you act like everything is ok. It means you are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. The light is always there, but if you don’t look for it, you will stay in a dark place.
The greatest successes in life ALWAYS come not too long after some of our biggest disappointments. Successful people learn how to turn obstacles into stepping stones.
You have to train yourself to be this person throughout your entire athletic career. When you get used to looking on the positive side, you will be able to do the same when you retire.
When I walked away from track and field, the reason I was happy is that I saw the positive side.
– I got a scholarship and graduated
– made the 2012 Olympic team
– I built amazing relationships throughout my 16-year career that will last a lifetime
I could make the above list go on and on but those three points alone made it all worth it. My career blessed me so much that there was no reason not to hold my head high. It did not end how I dreamed but I still met all of my goals.
NCAA Mental Health Tip – #2 – You Don’t Always Need to Consume More
Many of us are just outright greedy. Athlete culture is one of the worst cultures of them all when it comes to greed. It is not always a bad thing though because that mindset is required if you want to stay great.
The biggest threat to our success tomorrow is the success we have today because we lose that hunger for more.
The problem with always being like this is that we never take the time to reflect and just be thankful for what we have. Bill Belichick won his last Super Bowl against the Falcons and what did this man say after when asked how he felt about it? He stated that the New England Patriots were already behind because all the other times are already getting ready for a new season.
Do you see the greatness and the problem there? When you take no time to be thankful for what you have done, it will always feel like you have never accomplished anything even when you have accomplished so much.
I want you to take a piece of paper right now and write down everything that you have accomplished as an athlete and just take some time to smile and appreciate it. Doing this on a regular basis will help your mental health when it is time to leave.
When I made my first Olympic team, everyone’s mindset immediately became, I must make the second team. After a while, I was like wait a damn minute! I don’t have to make two Olympic teams. That is someone else’s mandate. More is not always better.
NCAA Mental Health Tip – #3 Start Developing New Passions
For too many athletes school is just something you have to do to keep playing sports. I know that was my motivation to get good grades. My luck ran out in college though, and it was mostly because I had no goal after college, so I saw no point in having stellar grades.
I was fortunate that all through college I got heavily involved in entrepreneurship. I started a blog, I developed an app, I started my own clothing line, and I did it all while in school and running track at a high level. Over the years my passion for entrepreneurship grew so much that by the time I graduated they were just as important to me.
It was in doing this that I discovered the power of removing your identity from sports because I had placed my character there for my whole life. In school, I was always the fast kid. I was the one you had to watch run. My life became about entertaining others with my abilities, but that is just not who I am. That is simply something I had the capacity to do but like all abilities, we can lose them at any time and then what are we left with?
For me, I still had a lot going for me, but it was entrepreneurship that saved me. I never made it my identity though; it was just something I did. I was a family man as well, but that was not everything I was. All of these were just parts of me.
The same goes for you. You are not your sport, you just happen to play that sport, but there is an amazing person that does not need that competition at all.
NCAA Mental Health Tip – #4 Your Core Will Still Be There
The best thing about the Olympics was that it gave me a quick taste of what success can do. I was on top of the world. I felt like everyone was in my corner. Everyone wanted to take a pic, talk about me and hold my hand. When I found out that I was not chosen to run the 4x100m relay when we were in London, and that I would watch from the stands, all those people left just as quick.
But you know what is true! My core was still there. The people who loved me for me and always have seen that I am more than an athlete were just as supportive and loving as before I ever made the team. It was a beautiful lesson.
You have to remind yourself of this. If people are only in your life because of what you can do for them as an athlete, you may as well let them go now because when you are no longer successful, they will leave you. For some people that is horrible, and you can even trick yourself into thinking that your parents only care about you as an athlete.
Your core will still be there for you. The ones that matter will stick around and you can take comfort in knowing that. No matter what you pursue, your core will have your back.
Now it is on you to be motivated by some different things in life. When I ran track all my life, it was just about me and pushing myself. Then I got married, and it just made the track feel not as important. I retired, and it felt good to do some different things and live a different lifestyle with my wife.
NCAA Mental Health Tip #5 – Let The Rest of Your Days Be The Best of Your Days
It is scary to look forward and feel like all the best moments of life are already behind you. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn would always say invest all your years of living in your next year. So instead of seeing getting older as a bad thing, you see turning 10, 20, 40, etc. as an opportunity to invest all the lessons into the next year. How beautiful is that?
When you remember that even though you may not know what the future holds, but that it does hold something special for you, mental health will not get a grip on your life. The rest of your days shall be nothing short of the best of your days. The NCAA mental health issue would disappear if everyone understood just how much value they have outside of sports.