Eventually, all athletes will come to a fork in the road. To continue or not to continue? How do we know when it’s the right time to step away from our sport? Oftentimes, this is the toughest decision we will make during our athletic careers.
Some will struggle to hang on, while others of us will struggle to let go. Ultimately, the decision belongs to you (the athlete) alone. Ending too early may leave regret. Ending too late may result in bitterness. You are the only one who can weigh the pros and cons accurately.
Whether you approach the fork in the road during high school, college, or post-collegiate years, the following questions are meant to help you navigate the decision.
Is this a good time to consider moving on from the sport?
Timing is critical. Sometimes our greatest victories are just beyond our toughest struggles. Calling it quits too early may be cutting yourself short. It also may be hurting your team.
Midseason is not a good time to quit (assuming you are in a safe environment). Emotions can be very high during midseason. It’s possible that things aren’t going the way you hoped or expected. Emotional decisions are often rash. There is a good chance that regret will follow.
Besides, struggling at the half-way point doesn’t indicate a terrible finish. The struggle is part of the process. You wouldn’t want to miss out on a glorious finish due to midseason hopelessness.
Aside from the personal consequences, quitting midseason impacts the whole team. Even if it’s an individual sport, other people are invested in the process too. Stick to your commitments. Sometimes we have to follow through with things we don’t want to do.
Once the season has ended, it is important to do a personal debrief. Evaluate how things went. Did you enjoy the season or did you despise every practice? What things can you improve upon and what were your limitations? Give yourself a few weeks of reflection time before throwing in the towel.
Don’t wait too long though. As time passes, our memories tend to exaggerate our feelings. You may find yourself thinking you enjoyed or hated the past season way more than you actually did. Be honest with your coaches and teammates about your decision. However, be careful who you look to for advice. Make sure that the person has your best interest in mind.
Especially during our youth, many things can change in a year. A growth spurt may suddenly improve your performance which can make the process more enjoyable. A coach may join or leave the team which could also impact your ideas of the sport. Your passions may change. If you are on the edge of continuing or stopping, my advice is to give it one more season for the sake of clarity.
Transitions make for a great decision-making time. It forces you to sit down and weigh the pros and cons of your decisions. A transition point may be the conclusion of high school, the conclusions of college, the end of an Olympic cycle, or the finale of a big competition.
These transition periods typically lead to long-term commitments. For example, if you are deciding whether to continue beyond high school, it may impact your whole college-choosing process. Looking ahead, will you appreciate your decision two years from now? Four years? Ten years?
This time period is the best opportunity to make a decision. Step back and evaluate life as a whole. Use the following questions to help you decide.
2. Other priorities
Is sport preventing you from pursuing other dreams?
Last fall we met a high school athlete who was facing a time conflict between her sport and an after-school veterinary program. It wasn’t reasonable to do both. She enjoyed the sport, but she had long-term dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Knowing that her time was limited in athletics, she had to decide between participating in a final season or entering a program that would increase her chances of getting into vet school.
It’s hard to pick between two passions. Not every decision has to be made based on what is best for the long term. Athletics are unique from most other passions in that they have an end-point. Our bodies age and eventually we must retire from the sport. You will have the rest of your life to continue pursuing other passions.
On the flip side, since athletics are only temporary, why not invest in the longer term pursuit? Both mindsets are fair. Do something while you still can or do the thing that will last longer. When it comes down to it, my advice is to do the things that make you happier right now. Only you can decide that.
Am I considering quitting because of fear? Am I afraid that I’m not good enough? Am I afraid that I won’t be accepted? Am I afraid that I’m wasting my time?
Never make decisions out of fear. Fear can be sneaky. You may not even know it’s there. Sit down with a pen and paper and give yourself time to search out fear.
Fear creates doubt. Doubt leads to hopelessness. If you are feeling hopeless, of course, you are going to want to retire. Being realistic and being fearful are very different things, but it often requires good counsel in order to differentiate between the two. If you realistically have no shot at advancing to the next level, then fine, pursue other things if you so choose. Whatever you do, do not let fear be the reason you hesitate to continue.
Fear can be an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. It would be such a shame to give up on the basis of a lie. If the fear of failure or the fear of not being accepted is holding you back, take that risk anyway. You will never know until you try.
Do I really love this sport?
Love can be confusing. What are we really in love with? Is it the sport or is it the glory? Do I love the sport or am I dependent on it?
If you never accomplished another thing in your sport, would you keep going? If yes, then you love your sport. Continue.
If you have no idea who you are aside from being an athlete, you may be struggling with an identity issue. Whether you love the sport or not, you may feel like there is no other option besides continuing. Take a step back and reevaluate. Again, grab your pen and paper and write out the things you love. Do you still love them or do you just tell yourself you do because you can’t fathom life beyond athletics?
What am I giving up in order to be able to participate in my sport?
Yes, I hate the term “sacrifice” when it comes to athletics. It’s a choice, not a sacrifice. But in reality, you do have to give up certain things in order to participate.
Your “sacrifices” may come in the form of time, energy, or even finances. If you didn’t do sports, what could those hours be spent on? Family? School? Friends? You must decide if the sport is worth the cost.
If you didn’t do sports, what would you invest your energy in? Art? Music? Helping people? Again, you must think about your priorities for today.
Sport also requires a financial investment. Could that money be used for college tuition? Could it be put towards getting a family dog? For those of us in our post-collegiate careers, we may not be making money like we would be with a full-time job. Is it worth the struggle?
When sport doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, that’s oftentimes a good sign. Even when it does, we have the power to own our decisions.
Athletics are valuable. However, eventually, they must end. Deciding on an endpoint is difficult. The best way to make a good choice without the consequences of regret or bitterness is to reflect and analyze.
Use these questions to guide you:
1. Is this good timing to make a decision?
2. Are sports preventing me from pursuing other dreams?
3. Is my decision motivated by fear?
4. Do I really love what I’m doing?
5. Is the sport worth the sacrifices?