Goodbye, Sports: Making the Most of Your Final Senior Season

"Goodbye, Sports." Saying good-bye to your identity as an athlete: never easy.

Good-bye sports. Help your senior transition to a life without a sports team.

How I said, "Goodbye, Sports."

As a 16 year old junior in high school, I played on an overachieving high school volleyball team. We took second place at the Kansas State volleyball tournament. You could call us the ultimate underdogs - “athletes” who specialized in basketball but developed a love for volleyball. You could some up our improbable run at the state tournament with one word: magical.

We looked to keep the trend going during basketball season. We made it to the state tournament again and played our first game against the eventual state champion. As I remember it, we led by five points late in the first quarter. I remember aggressively attacking our basket. I made a jump stop to the left … and I blew out my knee.

The rest of the game finished in a blur. Once, I attempted to go back into the game. I couldn’t run. From the bench I tried to cheer for my teammates but I kept getting choked up and the tears - angry tears combined with the ugly cry that comes with a broken heart - the tears wouldn’t stop.

Then, we lost. The dream run for our team ended.

After our loss, my torn ACL was confirmed. We scheduled my surgery. My parents felt it best that I stayed in one classroom every day to avoid the stairs. I was isolated from all of my friends. My travel team began to practice. Without me. Softball season started, which most of my friends played. I focused on rehab - 5:30 a.m. in the pool, 45 minutes on the elliptical.

I felt so lost.

- Crystal Waddell

At the time, I identified as one thing: an athlete. My uncertainty about my future manifested in a thousand bad decisions. The recruiting letters stopped. Everyone held their breath and watched - maybe even placed their bets if I would ever play again. Most people probably didn't think of me at all.

We all have to say, "Goodbye, Sports" sometime...

The end of a playing career is inevitable - but the way it ends … every athlete wants to control that. I believe every athlete wants to end a competitive career on her terms. In a perfect world, that would happen. Tom Brady, anyone?!

But in sports, and the real world, most of us don’t live out fairy tale endings. 2020 and 2021 stole a piece of the story from our athletes. Seasons upended, suspended, postponed. Athletes have watched their gyms close … and they’ve also watched players in other states keep playing.

It’s been confusing, to say the least. Some teams didn’t have a season for their seniors. Senior Night never happened. Closure never happened. Memories feel like they have been stolen. In a time when our nation needed unity the most, our most unifying activities: ironically, competitive athletics, were taken away from us.

I tell you all of this because I wonder how your athlete feels. I wonder if he feels lost. If he feels like his identity has been taken. If she feels disconnected and lonely because she is separated from her team. I wonder if he feels confused about how to navigate life without the familiarity and comfort of competition, and training.

How do you continue working to be your best when there seems to no longer be a reason to try?

So ... how do we help them say good-bye and transition to life beyond sports in a healthy way?

Over the last few weeks and months, I have been listening and absorbing advice from coaches about all of this. I can’t lie - some of the listening was for my own therapy and my own healing from the trauma of my knee injury and decade-long spiral that ensued. Back then, no one talked about mindset and identity. 

But if you are looking for some ideas about how to discuss it all with your athlete, here are some ideas: 

Ask your athlete: What made you happy today? 

Consider: What tools does your athlete have when they don’t feel good? (Do they know how to relax? Do they have mindful techniques to use their breath?)

When she starts to play again: Praise the effort, not the outcome.

I can’t wait to share with you some specific tips and feedback I’ve heard from some phenomenal coaches and trainers on the cutting edge of athlete mental health. For now, I’ll leave you with this final thought: 

“What if things aren’t going well? Will you still be there when I’m not winning? When I’m not playing?”

Athletes need to know that we still love them, that they still matter, no matter what. Of course, the answer is yes.

We just have to tell them.

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