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The Athlete Journey – From Beginner to Retirement

As athletes we find a sport that enriches our lives, gives us meaning and helps define us. A journey that starts when we were young takes us through our formative years and becomes the backdrop from which we experience the many ups and downs of our lives as we move into and through our adulthood.

For many of us we discover our sport at the same time as we are beginning to discover ourselves. Or at least a version of ourselves independent from our parents.

Sport is a chance to be with our friends, to express ourselves, test ourselves and begin to understand who we are and more importantly what we might be capable of. It becomes an environment in which we can lose the definitions bestowed on us by others and begin to shape the person we will become.

Friends, coaches and teachers become our new family and these relationships become how we experience connection outside our biological family. As we give our energy to sport we get such a lot back in return  – the sense of belonging, a cause to fight for and boundaries for us to push against and test. Our enthusiasm blossoms, we become fascinated and hungry to learn more, to progress, to improve, to thrive.

Without deliberately searching for it our needs are met and we become absorbed in a world of wonder that fuels our obsession. Details become fascinating as we search for opportunities to practise, play and perfect those skills that are tantalisingly close. The skills that stretch us, showing off to our friends, or trying to keep up with them as they imitate our heroes. It doesn’t feel like hard work but we get better and better and in itself we enjoy the addiction this brings with it.

This is the case for many activities, some become fads or this month’s thing. But for some of us the fad continues, we continue to make progress, we stick at it and begin to get noticed.

Rather than just our immediate team or group of close friends we get noticed and selected to play with other people just like us – keen, talented and hungry to learn more. We evolve, we do what we can to fit in. Each time we get better our horizon expands with the promise of more just out of our reach. With more practise, with more hard work we make the next steps to perfecting our art.

We have unlocked the magic ingredients of thriving within an environment that both nurtures and challenges us. The desire to be there, hungry for more and the rewards for improvement are more than worth the effort.

With all our needs are met and we get to taste what it feels like to self-actualise – to lose ourselves in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves. The happiness / contentment of the engagement we feel is matched by the progress we are making.

This natural progress is uplifting – the journey to mastery provides its own rewards, we build an independence and discover meaning in what we are doing.

Our growth is celebrated by those around us. We are encouraged and a community is built around us that permits and perpetuates our focus and single-minded pursuit of the activity that is beginning to define who we are.

Our hard work is validated by the feedback we get – the improvements we make and the acknowledgement we get from others. The combination is addictive and we do what we can to maintain and build on it.

At some point our submersion is complete – it is difficult to separate ourselves from our sport – we are in deep.

For those of us lucky enough to continue to make progress and achieve the keys to the elite level our sport becomes the reason we put our studies, careers and relationships on hold and find ways to keep ourselves within the sport and keep the real world at arms length.

Making progress for fun gets replaced with a different sense of urgency. Pleasure is replaced by pressure. We link our happiness to our progress – our sense of happiness and worth becomes entangles with the validation of our performance. Thriving becomes striving – the need to get better rather than the desire to make progress. Selection becomes something to work for rather the natural next step.

Our limitations are exposed and progress is replaced by maintaining previous standards. Rather than looking at the people ahead of us and the enjoying the game of overtaking them, we begin to work to hold our position and look at the people behind us and do what we can to stay in front. Fear becomes a motivator.

The rewards for staying in the environment are still worth the effort. The sport defines who we are, our relationships with key people on our lives are entwined with our routine and lifestyle. Habits are entrenched, maintaining our routines is more comfortable than making changes. What other people consider sacrifices we take for granted – this is how we live our lives.

There is comfort in the challenge, the extremes are our normal. The discipline, the routines provide a safety, a known. We have status, there is certainty in the cycle of training and competition, we have the autonomy to operate within the known boundaries of our world, we fit in and relate to those around us, we understand and agree with how the rewards are given out – life makes sense, life seems fair.  We are comfortable with who we are and what we are doing.

Happy is not our main pursuit – happy happens when we achieve, the euphoria of a win or a breakthrough in performance. Our own happiness is an output of our sporting success. Getting better becomes our prime focus. Performance is measured by increasingly more objective mechanisms. Comparison becomes the way we judge our worth. The small group ahead of us, the people chasing our heals becomes how we measure our progress.

We get to ride the wave for longer than most people. Our success keeps us in a very privileged world. We get to live out our childhood dreams, we get to avoid the responsibilities of growing up in the real world. We get to hang out with our friends and play Peter Pan – kept in a world of teenage values that lasts well into our adulthood. Success, travel, adulation, youthfulness – our lives are the envy of many people outside of our world.

Yet at some point it become time to ask the question ‘is it worth it?’, ‘are the rewards still worth the effort?’. The moment the question arises things begin to shift – maybe it’s another injury, maybe we didn’t get selected, maybe other things seem to appear more important but it all begins to feel like hard work.

Change becomes hard – denial, resistance and anger prevent us facing a new reality. The immortality we felt is beginning to wear thin, replaced by a nagging doubt. The solid foundation we based our lives on begins to crumble. As hard as we try and fight it the cracks begin to appear.

Seeing alternatives becomes difficult. Our myopic vision prevents us from knowing a world just beyond our comprehension. At the same time we don’t know who to turn to – the relationships that supported us for years are too close to our sport. The special people in our lives are equally attached to the identify that we have all colluded to create. The thought of becoming someone else is difficult enough but there is a whole community of people who are also deeply invested in the illusion of the single definition of who we are.

Whether through courage or forces beyond our control eventually the decision is made for us to leave behind our childhood dream. We may cling to it for some time, try and negotiate a partial exit, or leave only to boomerang right back in. Like any break up, we grieve for the loss.

A sense of limbo follows as we try and discover a new version of ourselves. Perhaps one foot stays in the past – habits are difficult to give up, our comfort blanket remains in the things that we do that help maintain our former identity. We try new things, dip our toes into the real world but still when it comes to it we still introduce our former selves, perhaps we add the term ‘ex’ or ‘former’ but still our past defines who we believe we are.

People are still keen to hear our stories and maintain their own attachment to our former glory. It’s seductive, as much as we may want to leave it’s just as easy to stay the same.

Anxiety replaces comfort. Uncertainty replaces the transcendent. Happiness associated with progress is difficult to come by. It is no longer clear who we are and it is far from clear who we will become.

The needs that were effortlessly met begin to become exposed. With no way to articulate our discomfort we withdraw. Vulnerable and weak are not aspects of our characters that we have encountered before. Expressing our feelings, especially these new emotions, is not a part of our natural world. Certainty and predictability are no longer an option, destabilised a new fear presents itself. A fear that perhaps we can’t just muscle ourselves through. A fear that we haven’t perfected the skills to overcome.

We can survive, we can make the best of the world around us and as we move further away from our sport that all-consuming relationship begins to shift. What once absorbed us perhaps begins to irritate us and we make moves to distant ourselves. From time to time we step so far away that we almost deny the aspect of our past that has most profoundly shaped us.

We find other ways to fulfil our needs, other activities that might replace the rush and excitement we knew in the initial discovery of our sport. With our discipline and self-belief we throw ourselves into new pursuits sure in the knowledge that we again become masters. But something may still be missing. We chase the validation that comes with success, we link our happiness to any progress we can make, and we chase those who we see ahead of us. Getting better is what we do best, but perhaps it feels vacuous, it doesn’t reward in the same way. The competition is different, the rules have shifted – the real world doesn’t operate by the same set of guidelines that we have known from our past. Hard work doesn’t provide the same rewards – the meritocracy and elitism we understood is replaced with something else.

We continue to search in the dark. When we were kids it was easy, now we are adults it feels like hard work. We seem out of sorts – a foreigner in a grown up world.

Shift happens but it is slow, it doesn’t follow the path we have known before. We have to get in touch with another part of us. When we were absorbed and thriving we experienced the child-like wonder of happiness and making progress. We begin to learn to reconnect to a happiness based on acceptance and contentment. Happiness is cultivated; it becomes a practice in itself. We discover the things that we need, and learn the vocabulary to express them. We become comfortable in our own immortality and our own imperfections. Recognising our needs are within our grasp we learn to pursue activities that fulfil us. Perhaps we don’t find the single activity that will give us all we need but we can embrace a variety of things that collectively give us all that we are searching for. Those things that will again provide us with the rewards for our efforts. We get to see that the pursuit of medals, trophies and external validation was about something different, something bigger that is available to us in a world beyond our sport. The keys to our happiness are available elsewhere. We find new ways to define success, comfortable with a past that has allowed us to experience something truly special, but also comfortable with a present that can be rewarding in a brand new way.

Acceptance replaces striving. New perspectives are discovered that provide an opportunity to celebrate a new version of us. A version of ourselves that offers more to the world than our athletic talent.

A human being replaces the athlete – powerful yet vulnerable. Conscious and aware we get to make more choices – choices to be happy, choices to pursue new goals. A human being with untapped potential and capable of thriving in this world beyond sport.

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