By Guest Blogger: Ayiana Gaines, BS
After reading the headline, you may be thinking about all the good times you had in college playing sports and how could that experience possibly be negative? Your memories may include hard but satisfying workouts, fun outings with teammates and all the strong connections you made with everyone. Most of our memories may be great, but sometimes we tend to look past the negative effects that often remain after we’ve graduated and/or when our eligibility is up. I want to explore how structured physical activity, competitive sports participation, and our athletic identity may indeed have a negative effect on our mental, physical and emotional state later in life.
First - a little bit about me: I am a former D1 collegiate Track & Field athlete at Western Michigan University. From South Bend, Indiana, with lots of hard work and due diligence, I was recruited from Riley High School to WMU on a full-ride scholarship. Trust me when I say I was damn good at running a 400-meter race! I was doing great in college until near the end of my junior season, when I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus at practice. You probably know that this was a major setback. I really took a hit in my heart and mind, knowing I would be out for an entire year. I went to counseling to help me cope with the huge change of having so much free time on my hands and not being able to practice or compete anymore. All I could do was physical therapy and rehabilitation.
When I was finally ready to come back, I discovered there were some problems and issues on the team that made it difficult for me to concentrate. I was faced with a decision ... to subject myself to the drama and negativity or to give up my passion, my first love, the one thing I was really good at. I was always defined by my sport - track & field. But ultimately, I chose my mental health and well-being and dropped out of the team. It’s been a year now since I've competed, and it has not been easy. I still go back and forth wondering whether I made the right decision. Hopefully, in the future, there could be more programs to help support former athletes through this transition process.
It is usually a major shock to the body when a high school athlete transitions to collegiate training/practices and games/meets. The extended hours and increased level of intensity of collegiate training can have negative effects on your mental and physical health. Athletes who are hoping to continue on and compete professionally are sometimes limited by past injuries, the pain tolerance when enduring the high level of intensity, and etc. There is a lot of data that relates to athletes who have made it to the professional level, but what the data does not touch on are those athletes who have dedicated four or more years to their designated sport and then it all ended after college. Do you ever wonder how they are doing in their adult lives? Are they still competing or are they living a
sedentary lifestyle? How are they doing, physically and emotionally?
Zachary Y. Kerr conducted a study at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to research the current health of former college athletes. Of the 797 former collegiate athletes who participated in the study, a majority reported that they now suffer from some degree of high cholesterol, anxiety and depression issues. They also reported some behavioral conditions, like alcohol dependence and uncontrolled eating, which has led to obesity. Without a coach or trainer telling them when, where and how much to work out, most did not have the self-motivation to work out on their own.
Another study, conducted by Janet E. Simon and Carrie L. Docherty, compared former collegiate athletes to non-athletes. It was found that former collegiate athletes exercise less, have higher body fat percentages, and perform at lower levels when doing push-ups, sit-to-stand repetitions, and running a mile. Highly competitive collegiate athletes work hard to reach a professional level, but without the stimulus of a coach, scheduled training sessions, and competitive events, many of them lose motivation and focus. It can be very painful when something you once
enjoyed or loved is taken away. You often tend to lose yourself. Which brings me to my next point, athletic identity.
High school and college are totally different. From my experience, you tend to have a broader fan base in high school. You are in your hometown and everyone knows and loves you. Your athletic ability often defines you. But, what happens to your identity when you don't make it professionally? What happens to your identity if you get injured?
In an article by Trisha M. Karr, she talks about “exercise identity” and the healthy and unhealthy outcomes. It was shown that having an “exercise identity” was positively associated with healthy outcomes, like engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity, having lower body dissatisfaction, and a lower BMI. Without the exercise identity that comes from being a former athlete, you spend less time engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, you tend to have a higher body dissatisfaction, and a higher BMI.
Having a high body dissatisfaction may lead to weight gain, and/or eating disorders, because you’re always chasing the body you had when you were competing in your sport. Articles by Erin Reifsteck and other authors talk about
identity theory for athletes. Identity theory can be defined as “the meaning one attributes to oneself in a role” (Burke & Reitzes, 1981). Athletic identity is a specific type of identity defined as the extent to which one identifies with the athletic role (Brewer, Van Realtek, and Linder, 1993). Athletic identity is usually rooted specifically in a competitive sport. As I furthered my research, I also found that athletic identity is linked to problematic issues such as early retirement, emotional difficulties and it has even been found that former athletes have a hard time transitioning into a full time career job. (Reifsteck, Gill & Brooks, 2013).
In conclusion, being a former collegiate athlete has ups and downs, but most people are able to overcome the negative effects they may face. Losing your identity as an athlete can be hard mentally and may be a sensitive subject to discuss. I hope you understand a bit better now how vigorous physical activity, participation in sporting events and athletic identity really do affect the mental and physical state of college athletes. Hopefully there can be more support systems in place to help former athletes successfully transition when their competitive season is at an end.
Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic Identity: Hercules’ Muscles or Achilles Heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 24, 237-254.
Burke, P. J., & Reitzes, D. C. (1981). The link between identity and role performance. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44(2), 83–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/3033704
Karr, T. M., Bauer, K. W., Graham, D. J., Larson, N. I., & Neumark Sztainer, D. R. (2014). Exercise identity: Healthy and unhealthy outcomes in a population-based study of young adults. Journal of Sport Behavior, 37(2).
Kerr ZY, Chandran A, DeFreese JD. Considerations for Present and Future Research on Former Athlete
Health and Well-being. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(5):e194222. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4222
Reifsteck, E.J., Gill, D.L. & Brooks, D.L. (2013). The relationship between athletic identity and physical activity among former college athletes. Athletic Insight, 5 (3), 271-284.
Simon, Janet E., and Carrie L. Docherty. “The Impact of Previous Athletic Experience on Current Physical Fitness in Former Collegiate Athletes and Noncollegiate Athletes.” Sports Health, vol. 9, no. 5, Sept. 2017, pp. 462–468, doi:10.1177/1941738117705311.
Note from Nick:
Ayiana was an intern here at KAW last Fall, and this was a research project she completed as part of her internship. I found the information very enlightening and felt it needed to be shared. Ayiana is now hired on here post internship at KAW as one of our reception staff!
Nicholas Garman, LMT NSCA-CPT
|Kalamazoo Athletic Wellness||
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