Athlete Identity Loss: Retirement

As much as basketball fans have come to love the month of March for the “madness”, that time of year also reminds us that on the other side of the madness…there’s sadness.

I couldn’t resist.

All corniness aside, as much as we love sports, some parts of it hurt.

I’ve noticed that around March and April of the past few years, there’s been a growth in the amount of articles that are written on social media to address this pain. Often times, they’re written by former college athletes in an effort to encourage and empathize with the current student-athletes whose seasons and/or careers have just ended.

Only about 2% of all college athletes go on to play their sport professionally. And even if they do, every athletic career has an expiration date. And whether their last game/match/meet/competition/etc. is concluded with a championship or not, the pain that accompanies this permanent ending is inevitable.

It’s a feeling of loss that can be biologically equivalent to that of heartbreak; Heartbreak from broken relationships and yes, even heartbreak from death. The same general areas of the heart/body are triggered during all of these emotional experiences. It’s called grief.

Some athletes feel the weight of this loss more heavily than others. Some display these emotions more fervently than others. Some feel it for a longer period of time than others. For some, the onset of these emotions may be more immediate or more delayed than for others. Nevertheless, it’s a phase of the athletic journey that affects nearly all athletes who are blessed to play at a high level.

This experience is not so much triggered by the loss of a sport as it by the loss of an identity.

Identity loss in sports is REAL.

It is the number one thing that makes the transition into retirement so difficult for most athletes. After years of training to be the best that we can possibly be, and after years of competing with every bit of mental, physical, and emotional fiber that we have, and after years of loving the game with all of our hearts…it suddenly stops. And that’s no small deal.

And by no means is this phenomenon unique to just sports. There are many other situations in life that smack us in the face with the sudden feeling of “What now?”

After graduating college, plenty of students are confronted with the “What’s next?” feeling. No matter how prepared they may have tried to be for their next steps, two decades of attending school does not often end as simply and smoothly as we’d like to imagine.

Similarly, it’s usually not easy for parents to transition from eighteen (or more) years of catering to the lives of their children to suddenly occupying an empty nest. It usually leaves them staring at their spouse with a look that says, “Sooo…who are we again?”

And that’s what happens with sports all too often. We forget who are. We get so caught up in the training and competing and the straight up love for the game, that we forget who we are without it.

Don’t get me wrong, loving a sport is a GREAT feeling. I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember, so I believe that the assimilation of sports into one’s life contributes tremendously to their personal growth.

However, our passion for the sport can become so engrained in who we are, that it sometimes becomes all of who we are. Therefore, without proper balance, this extreme assimilation can ultimately become crippling.

We’ve all seen or heard about Michael Jordan’s identity struggle that led to a total of three different retirements from the NBA. The void left by basketball invaded his personal and professional life in various ways.

Many of us have also heard the countless stories of post-Olympic depression. Regarding this phenomenon, Michigan State University sport psychologist, Scott Goldman reminds us of an astonishing truth: “The amount of time, effort and energy an athlete puts into their sport exceeds almost anything else they’ve ever done in their life.” (Crum, 2016) For many athletes, it is nothing short of tragic to have countless hours of preparation and anticipation come to a halt in just a matter of minutes or even seconds.

Former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant retired a little over a year ago, and the very first story I read following his last game already seemed to indicate that he may struggle with the transition.

After dropping 60 points in the final game of his 20-year NBA career, The Black Mamba was apparently in the weight room at 6 o’clock the next morning getting a workout in. Naturally, this made me question how he would adjust to the development of a new routine.

However, having mentally prepared himself for retirement for an entire year prior, he seems to have adjusted well to his new lifestyle, as he describes in the link below.

Kobe Bryant on Good Morning America (Watch from 5:55 – 6:55)


“It’s tough when athletes make that transition. I had to really humble myself and say, ‘You know what, that’s not my identity anymore.’”

– Chamique Holdsclaw, former WNBA star


Former WNBA and University of Tennessee basketball star, Chamique Holdsclaw describes the experience of identity loss perfectly in her Mind/Game documentary.

In reference to her retirement Holdsclaw says, “It’s tough when athletes make that transition. You’re used to that rush…the fans cheering you on, the traveling. When things start to slow down and you’re not getting that adrenaline rush and that competitive torch is not lit, it can really start to play with your head. I had to really humble myself and say, ‘You know what, that’s not my identity anymore.’”

So what is the main contributor to this common sense of loss? In a study conducted by three Australian researchers, the authors explain that often during an athlete’s playing career, they “may develop a self-concept that does not extend beyond the athletic role.” (Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997)

Here are 3 quick ways that an athlete can extend their self-concept and avoid eventual identity loss:

  1. Remember that successes and failures within your sport do NOT define you as a person. On the surface, most athletes know this to be true. However, in the midst of an athletic career, the tendency to believe otherwise may become a subconscious habit. Ups and downs are inevitable within sports, as they are in life. However, allowing your self-image to increase and decrease along with each one is ultimately unhealthy. It is important to keep a consistent, positive view of yourself that isn’t dictated by your last performance…or how other people react to them.
  2. Set aside time throughout each week to do other things you enjoy. This will allow you to gain fulfillment from activities other than your sport and will help you to view yourself through a broader lens. You will also be more aware of things you can do when sport retirement comes, instead of allowing an abundance of idle time or buying into the feeling that there is nothing else you are good at.
  3. Recognize parallels between sports and life. In the clip of Kobe Bryant above, he declares, “After playing 20 years in the league…everything that I’ve learned from the game, I carry with me ’til this day. So the game has never truly left me.” Find solace in knowing that the end of a sports career is not the end of its presence in your life. All sports encompass overall life lessons of some sort. Be aware and embrace these parallels while you’re still playing so that when you’re done, these takeaways still positively contribute to who you are as a person.


“This is what we do, it’s not who we are.”

– Joe Girardi, New York Yankees’ manager


Everyone who participates in a sport is a person first, and an athlete second.

At face value, that statement often scares away or even angers athletes because they think it suggests that they lack true dedication to their sport. In fact, paradoxically, coming to this realization will actually allow the individual to excel more at their sport.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that being an athlete is a part of your identity and not the entirety of it. This will likely eliminate the tendency that many athletes have to associate athletic performance with overall self-worth, as previously mentioned. Eradicating this common ideology will help reduce pressure and increase performance levels.

When it comes to preparing for sport retirement, Dr. Patricia Lally concludes, “the redefinition of self long before sport career termination may protect one’s identity during this transition process.” (Lally, 2007)

So does this mean that coming to the realization of “a greater self” will completely eliminate the difficulty of ending such a huge chapter in one’s life? No. But the sooner that an individual embraces their complete identity, the easier the transition process will be when the time comes. Not to mention, the more they’ll probably appreciate their athletic journey while they’re still playing.




  • Crum, M. (2016, August 03). For These Olympic Athletes, Depression Is The Major Hurdle. Retrieved from
  • Lally, P. (2007). Identity and athletic retirement: A prospective study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,8(1), 85-99. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.03.003
  • Lavallee, D., Gordon, S., & Grove, J. R. (1997). Retirement from sport and the loss of athletic identity. Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss,2(2), 129-147. doi:10.1080/10811449708414411

One thought on “Athlete Identity Loss: Retirement”

  1. This is a very well thought of and relevant blog post! It brings awareness of the common dilemma young people, in general, face at several points in their lives. I like the equating made between the ending of a sports career and academic graduation. It is very similar.

    We are asked to invest our all into these processes with the promise that at the end of it there will be a great reward and things will be better or work out smoother. However very little guidance is given and not enough conversation takes place about what immediately follows the ending. Bringing attention to this common conclusion makes us question and analyze the process/journey. What are the actual life benefits of being an athlete of note? How can we extrapolate the most benefits from our athletic careers?

    Athletes should consider what additional capacities, skills and resources they gain from their sporting careers and have foresight on how they will apply these beyond sports. For example, many former athletes might miss the fame they had when in actual fact they are still imprinted in the memories of their supporters, who will likely be quick to support other things they (former famous athletes) get involved in e.g. business ventures, health promotion, political campaigns etc.

    Former NBA champion, Vinnie Johnson of the Detroit Pistons, is a great example of how he used his public imagine on the court and translated it into business and socio-political success. Kobe Bryant is using his tremendous social capital and marketability to build up a career in film/cartoon production and has expressed his contentment with not playing basketball anymore.

    Waking up at 5 or 6 am is a habit of highly effective individuals that top level athletes have developed which can continue benefit them transitioning into the working world. Their superb energy levels can be redirected to different aspirations and pursuits. I think the key is having a broader outlook of what athletes wish to achieve by making use of the resources and favor they receive from being standout athletes.

    The reality of the end can come suddenly (through acute injury) or eventually; but it’s inevitable. Just like life itself has an unknown pending end. Many of life’s secrets are revealed when inquiring about its ending. This is the nature of conversation that parents and especially coaches need to stimulate more often. Particularly at the high school level.

    How can aspiring athletes use sports to enhance their quality of life, ensure a better standard of living and achieve self-actualization beyond the playing field? Ultimately using sports as a means of leverage to the next phase of life and not as the end goal.

    This article is an ideal starting point to open this essential but infrequent conversation. Major credit to the author! Please keep the posts coming!

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