I was like you. Though from my nerdy obsession with artsy films and constant mentions of food may deceive you, I was an athlete. I played lacrosse and field hockey since the second grade, moved to playing both year-round in middle school, and then quit lacrosse in high school to focus solely on field hockey. I had dreams of playing college hockey, and so I attended showcases, made a game tape, and visited with coaches.
Then, after an everlasting recruitment process, I decided college sports weren’t for me and transitioned into full NARP status.
As you enter college, maybe you’re experiencing the same thing. Maybe you’re like me: after visiting a couple of different schools’ athletic programs, you realize that you’d rather be spending your time at screenings than practice. Maybe you already knew that college athletics weren’t your thing and bypassed the whole recruitment process (you saved yourself a lot of stress and a lot of emails, and for that, I envy you). Or maybe you won’t get into the school that you pictured yourself playing for, and you’ll have to completely rework your image of college. Either way, you’re going to have to hang up the cleats and move on.
It will be hard to let it go. You may join a club team, or make early morning trips to the rec center as if you’re still training. You will find yourself clinging to it, whether it’s by sharing stories about your team with new dorm friends or keeping up with the latest news in your sport. But you will need to let it go.
College, in a cheesy sense, is all about discovering who you are, and this also means rediscovery. And it’s okay to accept that “athlete” is no longer part of your personal description. College is the time to replace “athlete” with new things–now’s the time to find out if you’re a painter, a leader, a thinker. Discover new passions. Find new things that define you. And be okay with the label of “former athlete.” By letting it go, you’re making room for new things to define you.
You will miss the good things: the songs you sang on the bus rides home from away games, the oddly-specific clapping pattern your team did as a pre-game pump up, the inside jokes and the laughter and the camaraderie. And maybe I even miss the person it made me—the girl who wouldn’t stop running just because her legs were sore and who used frustration as fuel. It’s these tough things that made athletics such a great lesson, and even if those experiences become nothing but memories, the things that sports taught you can live on: how to deal with unfair authority figures, how to push through pain, how to bounce back from failure. Remember how you felt when you lost the big game, how you somehow stopped the torturous thinking of “if I’d ran a little faster, we wouldn’t have lost.” And use that to get over beating yourself up for a bad test grade.
Carry all of that with you: the feeling of satisfaction after making a perfect pass, the agony of making a mistake that put the other team in the lead, and everything in between. Because whether you were MVP or most improved, you learned a lot, and though your time on the field has come to an end, those memories and those lessons don’t need to die. Keep them with you and use them. But still remember that you’re entering a phase of your life where you’ll gain new memories and lessons—ones that are even better, more potent. For every time I was proud of myself for overcoming an injury, I’m five times as proud of myself for getting through a week of grueling schoolwork.
Remember that while sports were great, they weren’t your glory days. Don’t let them be. Take them and internalize them and grow from them, but don’t dwell on them. College is the time to try new things, and you can’t do that if you’re constantly stuck in high school mode. It’s all about striking the balance of holding on to them and letting them go. That will take time, and it’s a process, but you’re in charge of it. And no one’s keeping score.