Mental Health Awareness: Athlete Identity and Career Retirement

We’ve had some fun over the past few weeks with stories about how to transition from being a swimmer to a N.A.R.P. (non-athlete regular person). Below, former U.S. National Team swimmer and mental health professional Emily Brunemann weighs in.

Imagine this scenario:  Today is the last day of the NCAA competition your senior year.  The rush of emotions such as excitement and apprehension, hit you like a ton of bricks.  You struggle with the emotions you feel for your team on the last day of competition and at the same time feel a twinge in your stomach knowing your career is coming to an end.   A multitude of thoughts rush through your mind; what am I going to do with all my time now?  I have been swimming for so many years.  I am not ready to leave the team.  The “real world” is scary.   And just like that it is over.  

Identities affect the way we carry ourselves through day to day interactions.  Sport is considered something individuals do and does not define who they are.  At the end of the day the traits and qualities one possesses make up who they are as individuals.  The athletic identity is tricky because it affects each person in a psychological, social, and behavioral way.  Psychologically learning to handle the ups and downs of success and pushing past the point of pain are two common examples, socially learning how to be a positive team mate and interacting with others helps us to grow into young adults, and behaviorally athletes make choices to enhance their performance often affecting their social calendar as well as their eating and sleeping habits.  As an athlete the decisions made and thoughts had are driven by the fact that you are an athlete.  When this comes to an end how do you adapt to this change?

There are two ways athletes transition from their sport.  The first is through free choice and the other is through uncontrolled circumstances.  Those who choose to leave the sport on their own terms have significantly higher rates of psychological well-being and self-efficacy.   For others who are forced to retire due to injury or other reasons find the transition more difficult.  However, whether the retirement was planned or unplanned the emotions of identity loss can creep in.  Research suggests that individuals who identify with a high athletic identity tend to struggle more with adaptation away from their sport once retirement was announced.  For some, especially those whose retirement was unplanned and out of their control experiencing the emotions of grief or lose is common.  Like losing someone/something they love.  These athletes can experience the five stages of grief and loss, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Every athlete  goes through the stages differently or may not even go through all of them.

Recognizing these emotions and having an understanding of what is happening is helpful in coping during this time of transition.  Once athletes learn that these emotions are ok and normal to experience, the stress of trying to figure out what is going on or trying to suppress the thoughts becomes more manageable.   Whether you are planning your retirement or not it is important to have a support system and coping strategies in place.  A support system can mean different things to each person.

Here are some ways to identify and build a support system

  • Having strong connection with friends and family to talk about future plans and goals
  • Meeting people outside sport
  • Getting involved with other groups and clubs on campus or at your school
  • Scheduling appointments with a counselor to have a safe space to talk

Coping strategies can include

  • Remembering that your sport does not define who you are as a person
  • Allow yourself to go through the emotions you are feeling, when you try to suppress the thoughts actually become more prevalent than just giving yourself the time to have the emotions.  Remember they will go away with time.
  • Set new goals, this can be either in school or with a new group
  • Understanding and working with someone to better understand  your identities

As always reach out when struggling, there are support systems in place to provide resources and strategies to help cope with the transition, whether you are ready or not.  At some point every athlete no matter if you are an Olympian or not, transitions out of their athlete identity.  You are not alone.  Remember your sport is something you do and does not define who you are as a person.

Before they compete Emily Brunemann helps Christine Jennings get suited up.

Before they compete Emily Brunemann helps Christine Jennings get suited up.

Emily Brunemann is a professional swimmer, currently training with hopes of making the 2016 Olympic Team in the 10k. She graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 2009 and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Social Work, with a concentration in interpersonal practice and mental health. Emily is interning in the University of Michigan Athletic Department counseling services and helping with the Athletes Connected program. She is a former team captain, NCAA champion, 2013 Open Water World Cup Circuit Champion and a member of the US National Team since 2007. 

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9 years ago

I graduated from swimming in a different time, 1989, and clearly never attained the heights of success that you did, Emily. While my retirement was generally voluntary, it also had the element of “forced retirement” as I didn’t achieve the cuts (NCAA div 1 men) I needed to carry on.

However, rather than look at this as a loss of identity, I saw this as a golden opportunity to explore all the things and activities I simply couldn’t do as a swimmer. It became a time of opportunity and exploration for me, where I could channel the energy I used to put into 10 x 400 LCM repeats into a whole host of new ventures.

My recommendation to retiring swimmers… Read more »

Dan Smith
9 years ago

Thank you! It is well past time this issues was addressed in swimming and other collegiate sports!

9 years ago

Thanks Emily

About Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann  Emily Brunemann is an American open water swimmer from Crescent Springs, Ky. Born Sept. 19, 1986 Brunemann was born into an extremely athletic family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her parents, James and Mary Lynn, were both both student-athletes at Xavier, and her brother, Christopher, played football at Western Kentucky. Brunemann is …

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