I will never be the same. I have struggled with reshaping my identity after being separated from sport due to injury.
As a track and field athlete, where overuse injuries are most common, I did not consider myself to be at significant risk for a career-ending injury. However, athletes can also incur life-changing injuries outside of their sport, as I experienced firsthand when a drunken driver traveling the wrong way down the freeway crashed into my car head-on.
For me, growing up on the west side of Detroit, success meant making it in sports or music. I moved out of Detroit at the beginning of high school and began competing as a track and field athlete. That’s when I discovered my love for the high jump. The thrill of competition was a sensation that brought me life. It provided me a sense of accomplishment, belonging, identity and passion. Competing as a high jumper became a career goal, and when I graduated from high school in 2007 and was offered a scholarship to compete as a track and field athlete at Michigan State University (MSU), I was one step closer to that goal.
My athletic career was promising. I earned a varsity letter my freshman year after finishing sixth in the high jump at the 2008 Big Ten Outdoor Championships with a jump of 2.07 meters. At the time, the competition level in the field events in the Big Ten Conference was very high, and I managed to have the top placement by a freshman at the meet. I barely missed the qualifying standard for the regional championship but was reassured by the fact that I was only a freshman.
That was until Aug. 20, 2008. At approximately 1:30 a.m., I was driving 75 mph on cruise control heading back to campus when I noticed headlights traveling toward me at very high speed. I was only able to cover my face as my perception of time slowed right before our cars collided. I woke up to a woman knocking on my window, attempting to get my attention. My head was on the steering wheel, the airbags were deployed, and the windshield was crushed in toward my face. I was pulled out of the vehicle through the window and transported to the hospital for surgery. Among the many injuries I sustained were a traumatic brain injury and an extensive injury to my right knee. This was the leg I used to launch myself in the high jump event.
I learned later that the drunken driver had entered the exit ramp and begun traveling in the wrong direction on the highway before colliding with me head-on. After I was struck, a third car hit the side of my vehicle before colliding with the drunken driver. A passenger in the drunken driver’s vehicle died, and the passenger from the third vehicle had a miscarriage. I didn’t really appreciate the extent of my injuries at the time, in part because I was eager to return to competition. Concussion/brain injury protocols were not as established in the NCAA then as they are now, and although I was offered an opportunity to redshirt (to sit out a year without losing any of my collegiate athletic eligibility), I was ultimately allowed to compete.
I was not the same. I began drinking alcohol daily, including when I woke up, before and after practice, and before I went to sleep. I finished the following semester with a 0.7 GPA, which led to me being declared academically ineligible and dismissed from the team.
Since then, I have had five surgeries on my knee, several injections and procedures, multiple therapies, and various forms of treatment for my brain injury and chronic pain. I barely graduated from MSU in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and a 2.1 overall undergraduate GPA. My hopes of going to graduate school were crushed when I received a denial letter from the school to which I had applied. After explaining my situation to the program director at the University of Detroit Mercy, I was admitted to the graduate certificate program in addiction studies. After successfully completing the program, I moved to Chicago to attend the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. It was during my clinical internship at Columbia College that I discovered an opportunity to get back into sports. I graduated with a Master of Arts in counseling psychology in 2017 and moved back to Michigan to begin working at MSU.
I am currently a licensed professional counselor at MSU’s Counseling & Psychiatric Services center. I have attempted to reshape my athletic identity by providing mental health services to athletes through advocacy, education and counseling. This has helped me to re-create a sense of purpose that is aligned in sports and consistent with my athletic identity. After learning about existential psychology through my coursework, I began to research its application in sports and have found it to be helpful, both personally and professionally.
Career-ending sports injuries are representative of an existential crisis. They can have a devastating impact on the individual athlete, the athlete’s team, the athlete’s family and even sports fans. According to Stanley Herring et al. (2016), irritability, sleep/appetite changes, pain, depression and other adverse effects can occur following a sports injury. Not surprisingly, this can be a challenging adjustment for some athletes.
Participation in sports provides athletes with social connection and a sense of identity, meaning and belonging. Athletes are more than the tasks required of them in sports; athletes are also people. We as a species have yet to answer undeniably the big philosophical questions of life, one of which is “Why am I here?” This existential question has barely registered in the field of sports. However, from my perspective, the existential model would seem to be an appropriate fit when treating and supporting athletes who have been separated from their sport due to injury.
According to the National Safe Kids Campaign and the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 3.5 million sports injuries are estimated to occur each year among children and teens. A career-ending injury can encompass an unexpected injury, illness or death that prevents an athlete from participating in a sport. An epidemiology study published in 2016 by Jill Tirabassi et al. found that career-ending injuries made up 6% of all injuries captured from 2005-2014 among high school athletes. Studies published in Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology have suggested that sports career termination should be viewed as a transitional process occurring from the beginning of athletic involvement through post-athletic participation. This transitional process fits well within the existential sport psychology model.
Existential sport psychology
In a 2015 article, Noora Ronkainen and Mark Nesti discussed existential sport psychology being defined as the process of understanding the subjective reality of sport participation and the meaning assigned to experiences. They described the model as an attempt to understand and embrace the complexities of human life without attempting to “fix” or conquer them.
Existential psychology is centered on several major concerns: death, meaning, identity, isolation and freedom. Identity and meaning are especially important for elite athletes, given that their identity is generally tied to who they are as athletes. Meaning has sociocultural influences, and the culture of sports is embedded in the value placed on it by society. This would suggest that sports participants also have value and meaning assigned to their participation in sports.
However, consistent with themes described in 1980 in Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, athletes who experience career-ending injuries may experience a sense of meaninglessness, anxiety and a loss of identity. From this perspective, meaninglessness can be followed by behavioral patterns such as the misuse of alcohol and depression. This is often described as “existential neurosis.” These behaviors appear consistent with the symptomatology athletes can experience following separation from their sport.
As discussed in Nesti’s book Existential Psychology and Sport: Theory and Application, this model encourages people to accept freedom and responsibility in their lives and to live authentically despite experiences that increase anxiety. For injured athletes, this means beginning to accept the freedom in choosing to confront their injuries, and it provides them with a framework to view themselves as people who also identify as athletes.
Research published in 2016 by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that many athletes have been defined by descriptors such as age, gender, level of performance or type of sport. From an existential perspective, these descriptors are very limiting. Athletes are a diverse group of human beings who have dedicated themselves to participating in a sport. Sports participation can be an outlet for developing life skills, building community and social relationships, becoming leaders and much more.
Furthermore, athletes belong to a culture of competitors and sport participants that is centered on a common identity. This identity is not an athlete’s only identity, but neither does this identity cease to exist following an injury. Therefore, existentialism in sport may present an opportunity for athletes to discover how their athletic identity is expressed outside of competition and sports participation.
The Application of existential psychology in sport
The application of existential psychology in sport appears to be a model that can empower injured athletes to view themselves as more than athletes separated from their sport. Some may label themselves as “former athletes” who are still elite members of society possessing unique characteristics, talents and skills developed from participation in sports. The years of training, effort and energy expended in the process of becoming elite athletes can be transferred and applied outside of the sports context.
Although research in this field is limited, existential psychotherapy is a well-documented approach to treatment that is gaining interest in sport psychology. This rehabilitative process involves encouraging athletes to be more authentic in the therapeutic relationship. Encouraging athletes to be more of their authentic selves may help to reveal characteristics about their identity not expressed in the sports environment.
If an athlete is separated from a sport due to injury, their sense of identity may be lost as they transition. Practitioners can assist in this process by facilitating an environment that encourages athletes to explore their meaning and purpose. The athlete’s beliefs and assumptions regarding the injury and what it means to be separated from their sport can be discussed to continue the existential process. Uncovering beliefs and assumptions associated with being injured may also help the athlete conceptualize thoughts, feelings and attitudes that contribute to maladaptive experiences.
As athletes gain more insight, they begin to identify how their beliefs and assumptions are contributing to the distress they may be experiencing. They can be invited to confront the conflict associated with being injured, the change in their identity, the loss of meaning/purpose, and how it all fits within their role in society. Elite and recreational athletes may have their identities shaped by the daily activities associated with sports participation, the social connections made within their sport community and the cultural expression involved in the sport community. These athletes’ purpose in life was heavily influenced by the interaction of these factors, and their injuries may have completely disrupted how they view themselves in society.
Strategies organizations can offer
The organizational sports environment influences athletes’ well-being and sense of community. In an ideal world, organizations would assist athletes separated from their sport by providing helpful resources. Offering these tools can help athletes better adjust to and deal with the uncertainty associated with career-ending injuries. Organizations can foster an atmosphere that is supportive of their injured athletes by continuing to celebrate their contributions and achievements once they are no longer participating in sports.
Further action can be taken by recognizing that injured athletes are still athletes and that their community belonging does not change because they have sustained an injury. This could be demonstrated through messaging in the organization’s mission/vision, by offering roles to injured athletes upon separation from their sport, by providing support groups, and by encouraging the intentional development of life skills. Counselors in this role can facilitate this process by helping athletes and other stakeholders to identify how they relate to society as a whole. Preventive methods can be implemented by maintaining sport participation safety, taking steps to reduce burnout and overtraining, providing psychoeducation, ensuring a safe return to play from previous injuries, and promoting athlete wellness.
Athletes are often taught to accept the realization that they are no longer able to participate in sports following injury or health concerns. But life after sport doesn’t always have to be about “letting go” of the athletic identity. Being an athlete is about more than having the ability to compete at the same level experienced prior to injury. It means that one has committed to a lifelong journey of self-improvement while striving to bring out the best in others. Given the tasks required in sports, this is typically focused on the activities necessary for sport performance.
However, many options can still exist for athletes separated from their primary sport. Practitioners can encourage options such as adaptive sports, which can provide a sense of purpose that aligns with the athlete’s sports identity. This also creates the opportunity to normalize participation in adaptive sports. Not every injury leads to permanent dysfunction, but the existence of adaptive sports challenges the idea that injured athletes are no longer able to participate in competitive sports.
Clinicians can also continue to implement strategies and techniques that reaffirm the athlete’s identity and purpose. Athletes can be encouraged to take ownership of their freedom to make choices and transform their injury experience into new meaning. This can be accomplished through the therapeutic relationship by fostering an empathic and authentic environment that assists the athlete in confronting the choices associated with their injury.
An additional strategy clinicians can use involves incorporating concepts of spirituality into the existential sport psychology practice. Athletes can be encouraged to define spirituality, which may provide an opportunity for them to reflect on their relationship with themselves, others and that which is beyond our understanding.
Applying the athlete’s mindset
Life after sport does not have to mean “acceptance” of a life that fails to provide the same level of renown as sports. From personal and professional experience, I can confirm that being an athlete means that you compete against the odds, and as an athlete, you recognize that you cannot allow self-defeating thoughts or negative feedback to dictate your performance. Instead, you must use it as fuel to reach the next level.
Having an athletic identity means striving to become the best at what you do and doing what needs to be done to get there. It’s about the process. It’s about becoming a better version of yourself by exercising the determination and motivation to become the best. Because as an athlete, you know there is always a chance that you will fail or lose, but you do not let that stop you. That’s why you were able to reach the level of success that you attained — because you did not give up. You continued to be relentless in pursuit of your goal, even with the knowledge that you might have to enlist a backup plan. You may no longer be directly involved in the activity that once gave your life meaning, but the mentality you developed along the way is still a part of you and can be applied in various situations.
Regardless of whether you are still able to participate in your chosen sport, you are, and always will be, an athlete.
Kris Amos is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor practicing in Michigan. He works full time as a staff counselor at Michigan State University’s Counseling & Psychiatric Services center and is the founder and owner of Precision Counseling PLLC, a private practice dedicated to providing professional counseling services. Kris provides individual counseling, group counseling, couples counseling, biofeedback, neurofeedback, mental performance training and educational workshops to the Michigan State community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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