The Athlete Transition: Struggling With Identity After Sport

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Two years ago, to the date, I called myself “an athlete”. My game plan was sports: being an athlete was my identity, my career, where I did my networking, and how I met the majority of my friends. During my athlete career, I played for the Canadian Women’s Volleyball Team for four years. Before that, I played Varsity volleyball at the University of British Columbia, winning three national championships. Before that, I had played on provincial volleyball teams, club teams, high school teams, junior high teams and a couple of beach volleyball teams.

When I was on the Canadian Women’s National volleyball team, it was my career. I didn’t have another job. It was how I made my money, where I derived most of my joy and sorrow, and how I travelled and saw the world. When I filed my taxes, I claimed athlete carding. In short, I ate, slept, and played volleyball. Sports were my life.

Though it was my career for four years, I was never guaranteed a spot on the roster. I never got first dibs on what number I wanted on my jersey and I was never the person the coach called into his office for team advice. I was always a little scared about my role on the team, or if I would even have one. So, each time I went to my coach’s office after tryouts, there was always a big question mark hovering in my psyche.

So when, after a four-year career on the Women’s National Volleyball team, I was called into the office after tryouts in 2013, I really had no idea what to expect. But this was the meeting that changed everything, the one everyone in a sports career dreads. The meeting where, in an instant, you lose your paycheque, your home, your cell phone and worst of all, your teammates. This is the meeting your identity is shaken. It was the meeting my coach told me that I no longer had a spot on the team.

My meeting was about eight minutes long, and I spent five of those minutes fighting back and challenging what he was saying. Naturally, I was devastated. But I don’t want to focus on the tears and sadness that occurred.

When I left the meeting, I felt really weird, like I was in a different world. When I walked out of the boardroom, it was the same hallway I’d walked in and out of on my way to practice thousands of times. When I went to my car, it was the same parking lot I’d parked in hundreds of times, and it was the same route I’d driven home thousands of times, but I felt alienated from it.

Up until that point, when I met new people I introduced myself as:

  • A volleyball player
  • An athlete
  • A teammate
  • A Libero
  • A member of Team Canada
  • A National Team Athlete

Now don’t get me wrong, I could have added these things in as well:

  • A sister
  • A daughter
  • A granddaughter
  • A graduate of the University of British Columbia
  • A friend, etc.

But let’s be honest: lots of people are those things, and the answers on the first list are one hundred times sexier.

These were my thoughts when I was cut from Team Canada:

  • What am I going to do?
  • How am I going to make money?
  • Where am I going to move?
  • Do I have to change my Twitter description right now?
  • When I meet new people, what do I say about my career?
  • Who am I?

 

Some of these seem trivial, but some are pretty heavy. There were tears, but most of all there was confusion. Since the government gave us a housing allowance, the Volleyball Canada office organized our apartments and found us places to live. When I was cut, someone else got the room in my apartment, so I had to move out. They asked me to be out in a reasonable time, about a week. I lived in Winnipeg at the time, but my parents lived in Calgary – so I packed up and drove to my parents’ place. Where else was I supposed to go?

While I was still playing for Team Canada, one of my former teammates who was in the first year of her post-sports career was talking about her difficulties. She really missed the sport and being around her volleyball friends all the time, and she didn’t know how to adapt fitness-wise to her new lifestyle.

But one thing she said hit me like a bullet: “The worst thing about being finished with volleyball is, I’ll never as good at anything in life as I was at volleyball.”

Whoa. You’re just giving up on life after sports right now and throwing in the towel? I hated hearing this. It made my blood boil. She was 26 and basically saying the rest of her life and career was downhill, and she’d blown her load a quarter of the way through.

I knew I wasn’t going to live my life with this attitude, but I realized that this is probably how many felt at the end of their athlete career. Was this because athletes have tunnel vision and dedicate 100% of their focus to training and competition? Or was this because they’re mostly familiar with their sport, and don’t know how to apply that motivation and focus to a new career?

When I got cut, I wasn’t sure if my sports career was entirely over. My coach had released me, but in a roundabout way. He said he wanted me to potentially go play another year of professional volleyball overseas and there might be a spot for me the following year, so my brain was in limbo. Did I still have an athlete career? Or should I just start blazing ahead in a new career after retirement?

This was a really difficult mental space to be in, because it left a lot of uncertainties surrounding various parts of my life. Maybe I wasn’t reading through the lines and my coach was really cutting me for good, maybe it was a way to protect my ego. Regardless of the real message, I wasn’t sure what to do.

So I made two game plans: sports or career. I met with my volleyball agent and told him to keep looking for teams for me for the following year. I kept up in the gym and did my best to stay in peak “athlete condition”. I had started getting involved in sports broadcasting and did some networking, emailing people I’d met in the media world with sports careers to ask their advice. Timing is everything, and the same week I was cut from Team Canada, Jay and Dan from TSN announced they were leaving for Fox Sports 1. I asked Jay if I could take his job on the desk at TSN. He laughed, said it wasn’t that easy, and mapped out some ideas for how I could forge a career that could lead to a job as a sports broadcaster one day.

That following year was incredibly difficult. I didn’t know who “Claire” was anymore. So much of my identity was wrapped up in sports, and with volleyball out of the picture I felt so lost. When I was on the court, I had a way of displaying my joy, my disappointment, my competitiveness. I could work hard in practices and in the gym, and then show off those skills in a game.

Also, I was constantly surrounded by my best friends and teammates during volleyball. We could vent about a tough practice together and celebrate “that awesome play at the net, where you put up a sick block” together before going back to our apartments exhausted, and cook together, ice our muscles and watch movies. It was like camp 24/7.

Now I’ve tried to evaluate why athletes have such a tough time when their careers end, regardless of how (whether retirement or forced retirement).

So many of the skills you learn and develop during your athlete career are transferable to the working world. We are disciplined, focused, work hard, set goals and are team players. So why should we have doubt or anxiety about our career after retirement and lives post-sports?

One saving grace for my brain was having access to the Calgary Sports Institute (CSI). Even though I trained in Winnipeg, whenever I returned home to see my family the CSI would give me great resources including free gym memberships, physiotherapy and guidance.

When I got cut, I called them and asked for assistance without knowing what I really needed. They had counselors they could put me in touch with, and I could talk to them about things.

Just talking about things helped. They asked what I was interested in doing, and if I wanted to try and get back on the volleyball team. They just helped me make sense of all the different feelings I was going through. It was incredibly useful, and I needed the sounding board.

It wasn’t easy finding out who the new “Claire” was. It took some time, some exploring, some patience and some coffee. A huge thing I discovered, Claire is always changing! I’m going to be a new person when I get married, when I have kids, if I change careers.

But, I think there are a couple of things athletes need to do to better prepare themselves for post-sports career, and for figuring out who they are in that process.

  • Consider what other things you enjoy doing, while you’re still an athlete

Before sports were your life, what other things did you like to do, or could you see yourself getting involved in? This is something many people struggle with, athlete or not. Figuring out what kind of career after retirement you want. But if you even have the faintest idea as an athlete, it’s a good idea to explore this career. Do you need to go back to school? Do you need to get a designation or certificate? Explore how you can make the next career a reality so you can start to think about it before you move on from your athlete career.

  • Talk to other retired athletes

If there are alumni from your team who are already fully emerged in their careers, these might be good people to do some networking with. They’ll have gone through similar issues and experienced emotions comparable to what you’re going through. Sometimes just talking to someone who knows how you feel is the best thing.

  • Remember back to when you were in elementary school

Everybody had a first day of school. We were scared, nervous and didn’t know what to expect. But after a few days, you get the hang of it. By the time you were in Grade 6, you were the king or queen of the playground and everyone looked up to you, but it took time. It’s the same with your next career. When you started your athlete career, you probably didn’t wake up an Olympic athlete. You started from the bottom, worked your way up and then hopefully achieved your goals. When you finish your sports career, you’re likely one of the best in your sport, or were the best. The next phase of your career will be the same – you’re not going to start on top of the podium, you’re going to have to work your way up and this can be a daunting and intimidating thought. But everyone has to start somewhere.

  • It’s going to be tough

Just like those 5 AM training sessions or six hour practices were a grind, so is accomplishing your goals outside of sports. Investment bankers with millions didn’t just end up where they are by buying a nice suit and walking into Goldman Sachs. They put in sleepless nights, worked their asses off, and grinded it out. That’s what every career is if you want to be the best. Don’t expect it to be handed to you because you’re coming from an athlete career. Sure, all those skills you developed will translate really well, but you still have to put in a lot of hard work to reach your goals. No free lunches.

  • You have to be confident

I’ve never boxed, but I have a feeling when two boxers get in a ring, they are both oozing with confidence. They don’t doubt themselves, and they have no hesitation that they will each be victorious in a fight. Same with life. When you get into that ring and you’re competing with others for a job, you need to be confident. If you’ve done the preparation, find some solace in this and be confident when you walk into that office. It’s no different than when you started a game, race or event.

Looking back on my athlete career, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I had to give 100% of my efforts to sports to succeed. But I’m also happy I started to explore a career in journalism before I was entirely finished with volleyball. I entered phase two of my life with the same attitude when I first started volleyball. I was curious, I was hungry, I had a lot to learn, but I was willing to make sacrifices for that career.

Now that I’ve started down the journalism road, I realize I’m still Claire. I’ve just swapped the volleyball for a microphone, and I’m prepared to swap that for other items down the road as well.

Claire Hanna
Canadian Volleyball Player
Twitter: @clahanna

Jeremiah Brown

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