“All I’ve ever known was competition, what the $#@$%*! am I going to do now?!” My old training partner and friend lamented to me after leaving the orthopedic surgeon’s office on a sunny afternoon in the summer of 2006. My friend had sustained his third ACL tear in 3 years. Leaving that Dr.’s office he was delivered the news that he would undergo another full ACL surgery with grueling 6-9 month rehabilitation. His prognosis gave no guarantee of a full recovery to his former athletic standards, and he was faced the decision of whether or not to risk competing again and do further damage or finally hang up his gloves, and retire from full time mixed martial arts competition.
In that moment, I felt a tremendous amount of empathy for my friend. A few years previous, I dealt with a similar decision that led me back on an academic path and my career in mental health. After one full capsule shoulder surgery, 9 months in physical therapy, and a very difficult fight in which I almost undid all the rehabilitation and healing I did over the past year I knew it was time for me to call it. But what happens when it is time for the athlete to leave the cage, the field, the court, the mat or the ring for good? What occurs in athlete’s mind when he/she decides or is forced to hang up his/her gloves for good and transition to a “civilian” lifestyle?
Similar to individuals in the performing arts, athletic competitors at the professional level exist in a world of both adoration and constant scrutiny. A common quote heard among sports journalists is: “You’re only as good as your last fight/game/match.” In my experience working with clients with athletic backgrounds, that quote has been rehashed with immense frequency in my office. With the advent of the open forum journalism style, and social media, a competitor has immediate exposure to both said praise and criticism and the latter, at times can be downright abusive. With the amount of exposure that an athlete chooses to live with coupled with competing in an extremely physically demanding activity, the physical, emotional and mental highs and lows tend to be experienced in feast or famine. When training, and competing the athlete draws a tremendous sense of purpose from his/her daily regimen and upcoming goal. At this elite level of competition, exhilaration from competition is just one facet of athlete’s mind. The “rush” one feels from competing/performing in front of an audience creates a spike in an athlete’s neurological system that is nearly impossible to replicate outside of competition. This being said, when an individual is placed in an environment that creates a peaking of emotions such as fighting in the cage, or playing on a field under the watchful eye of a captive audience, the thought of never feeling that again can be just plain scary.
“(Insert sport here) saved my life” We have heard through countless stories, and some of us experienced ourselves how sports or an artistic discipline have provided an outlet when our existence may have felt like utter chaos. Through training, and competing not only does the athlete develop strength and resilience to perceiver through difficult problem solving, it also gives him/her confidence and can, in the case of many competitors, the feeling of true purpose in life. It is the perceived feeling that the athlete’s sense of life’s purpose has been removed when they must retire that can be especially painful. Similar to a death of a loved one this lifestyle adjustment can be experienced in fluctuating stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is the second to last stage that can leave the feeling “stuck” indefinitely.
Sport at the elite level in is a full time job. One devotes him/herself from waking to sleeping to the task at hand. Winning. There is a clear chain of events leading up to the competition. Through a calculated training program, a deadline, a resting period, and then begin again for the next challenge, an athlete’s day to day appears as very logical secure steps towards fulfillment. When the athlete is faced with an extreme lifestyle change such as retirement, it can produce psychological effects similar to grief, which left unaddressed can manifest in various forms of cognitive, social and emotional changes such as depression, anxiety, or other forms of psychopathology. Because competition took on the psychological leg work for creating a sense of purpose, or served the role of a coping mechanism for processing trauma for example, once competition is removed, it may create a proverbial hole in the retired athlete’s psychological ability to process emotional adversity.
The fact which is commonly ignored by competitors is, an individual’s lifespan as an elite athlete is unsustainable and many men and women are faced with the mortality of their athletic career sooner than he/she desires. Not only is it the loss of purpose, but the lost of the possibility of a payoff (monetary, emotional) that can have drastic negative effects on the retired athlete’s beliefs about self. These disruptive thoughts can create rifts in personal relationships, and distort his/her worldview. Because high-level athletic competitors have had such extreme devotion to their discipline for so long, leaving may create a loss of identity. The opening quote of this piece is a shining example of the fear and sadness an athlete can experience when he/she places their whole idea of self solely in the hands of an unsustainable activity.
When faced with loss of identity, depression, anxiety, panic, or habitual trauma response behavior it is important that we look at this as more of a spectrum rather than an all or nothing concept. Not every athlete experiences one or any of these issues. Going further, athletes may experience symptoms of various strength (mild, moderate, severe) and frequency (everyday, week, month, or triggered). Dependent on these factors an athlete can take a number of approaches to alleviating the distress experienced, and/or treatment for said psychopathology. In addition, reaching an elite level in high impact sports such as mixed martial arts, hockey, wrestling, football and the like, an athlete may have endured trauma, experienced depression, or other negative environmental factors (abuse, bullying, low self image, anxiety) prior to taking up the athlete’s respective discipline and through training and competing gained an outlet to process part of his/her negative experience. This being said, it would greatly benefit the athlete to understand the role of training and competition in his/her life. Without addressing the issues that lie beneath the exhibited cognitive, emotional and behavioral symptoms, the retired athlete may be poised to continue to repeat his or her undesired thoughts, feelings and actions in a significantly more detrimental way due to the lack of a competitive lifestyle as the centerpiece of his/her existence and identity.
Because of the mental and physical toughness needed to compete at the professional level, a retired athlete may apply the skills acquired through training (aggressiveness in the face of adversity, dedication, dissonance, and disassociation) to the psychological anguish they may be experiencing post career (tough it out, grind through, etc). Although these coping mechanisms may have worked in the ring, cage or on the mat or field, they may not be as applicable in “civilian life.” Treating him/herself with the harshness of a competitor, can even promote an overly judgmental, resentful, and otherwise hurtful view of self. We don’t exist in a vacuum, so this view of self is often projected on others, and the rest of the world through undesired behavior patterns.
I recently listened to an interview with former UFC champion Dominick Cruz who stated that through his own therapeutic process he learned to “love himself off the mat and out of competition”. Dominick was able to identify himself as a whole individual that existed outside the world of athletics, and that person was someone he loved and cared about. Dominick cited entering the therapeutic process with a trained professional was a difficult journey but allowed him to sort out unprocessed thoughts and feelings and achieve a sense of balance and well being in his day to day existence.
After our conversation, my friend went through a number of years of distress, confusion, and general feelings of being lost until he made the decision to call a reputable counselor in his area. He had called me a few weeks ago to share his story with me, and the benefits he was feeling so far from finding a therapist that was a great fit for him. Just as he had enlisted a small army of trainers, confidants, dietitians, managers, and agents that each had a specialized role to help with a particular aspect of his athletic career, he now shared that he discovered the missing piece, which was addressing his own uninvestigated psychological experiences and emotional baggage.
In a situation familiar to most, a person entering the gym as a New Year’s resolution with scattered intent and an unfamiliarity with fitness, does not usually last long as they grow confused, intimidated, and eventually quit citing a lack of motivation. In reality, the individual struggled because they needed a trainer as a “guide” at first. Relating this to self-improvement, entering the therapeutic process can be a scary thing for anyone, and as an athlete we are taught to be strong, and self-sufficient, but without a proper “guide” our efforts may prove futile. It is that one is not deficient or broken if he/she are seeking therapy. It is actually quite the opposite; therapy is a personal decision and desire to live with a little more ease, and wonderful chance to get to know oneself. In competition we learn knowledge is power and the same can be applied to a therapeutic journey.
Rob Feiner is a Professional Clinical Counseling Intern at The Institute of Holistic Psychiatry in Los Angeles, California. Prior to seeking his license in California, Rob amassed over a decade of experience counseling adolescents in an school setting. Through his years in the academic world, he worked with diverse individuals and groups covering a variety of issues including anxiety, depression, career counseling, interpersonal issues, as well as athletic and performance art potential. Since 1995, he has assumed many different roles in the world of wrestling, jiu-jitsu and the martial arts. He has spent extensive time coaching, competing, and conducting workshops and women’s self-defense seminars throughout the Northeastern United States. In 2003 his martial arts team was also an early adopter of Crossfit integrating it’s philosophies into the team’s strength and conditioning regimen. In addition to his experience with martial arts, He has a profound passion for the ocean and has been surfing and teaching others to surf for over a decade. Combining his experience in coaching and mental health, He currently teaches athletic and performance based seminars, and works with many high-level performance based professionals and athletes who look to improve output, mend fractured relationships, and find balance in daily life.