The college seniors were gathered in a familiar athletics meeting room on The University of North Carolina at Greensboro campus, chatty and at ease until one unfamiliar question gave them pause.

With help from an NCAA grant, Erin Reifsteck launched the Moving On! program in 2015 at UNCG. Since then, other schools also have used it to help their graduating college athletes. Mike Dickens / The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The words, printed in the workbooks before them, were strikingly simple. And that very fact — that one of life’s most fundamental questions could seem so complicated to answer — sent the student-athletes into a quiet spiral of thought.

Who am I?

Their immediate responses came like a reflex. They were softball players, tennis players or basketball players. Cross country runners or track athletes. Team captains. Team starters.

Teammates.

They were student-athletes. Of course. But what else?

Erin Reifsteck, an assistant professor in the UNCG Department of Kinesiology who was guiding this discussion, challenged the seniors to think outside their sports. In a few short months, once they hung up their uniforms and cleats for the last time, they wouldn’t have a choice.

“We all kind of looked at the question and almost, like, laughed,” recalls Danielle Vega, then a UNCG softball player. “We had this moment where we were like, ‘Um, I don’t know.’”

Trust Your Training

Wherever your post-collegiate journey takes you, know that as a former student-athlete, you’re well-equipped for the world. A 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index Study of former NCAA student-athletes who graduated between 1970 and 2014 found this population significantly leads other college graduates in four out of five elements of well-being.

56%are thriving in purpose well-being — defined as liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals. (Non-student-athletes: 48%)

54% are thriving in social well-being — having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life. (Non-student-athletes: 45%)

51% are thriving in community well-being — the sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live. (Non-student-athletes: 43%)

41% are thriving in physical well-being — having good health and enough energy to get things done daily. (Non-student-athletes: 33%)

38% are thriving in financial well-being — a similar rate as their peers. (Non-student-athletes: 37%.)

Even student-athletes who already possess a post-college game plan face a learning curve when their playing days are done. While finding a job commands the focus of most upcoming graduates, the transition to life after competition generates other lifestyle changes unrelated to resumes, interviews and a new work-ready wardrobe. Eating habits may need to be adjusted when calorie-annihilating team workouts dissipate. Motivation to exercise may be harder to muster without encouragement from a coach.

For many former student-athletes, the challenge is not only learning how to stay fit in a new lifestyle, but also coping with a new sense of loss. Some level of anxiety, sadness or insecurity may be hard to avoid as they shed the athlete label — something they have worn proudly over years of dedication to their sport. Three out of four former student-athletes report experiencing difficulty retiring from competitive sport, according to one NCAA study.

"I think once I stopped making myself a priority, that was when everything kind of came to a head.

ASHLEY COHAGEN • Michigan ’13 • Swimming • Detroit Mercy ’15

I’ve Been There

Ashley Cohagen

As told to Rachel Stark

“After college, I was working as a phlebotomist trying to get some experience before nursing school. During that time, it was kind of easy to continue working out. I was still living in Ann Arbor, so I was able to do drop-in practice with the masters swim team. I had enough time to take care of myself. But once I started nursing school — I did a 13-month accelerated bachelor’s program — there was no time for anything.

I was studying all the time. I was not eating well because I was trying to do quick meals. I was not sleeping as much because I was studying. In college, swimming and going to school was stressful, but when you’re a student-athlete, they try and work in a lot of that self-care. You’re trying to make yourself as good physically and mentally so you can compete, so you’re trying to focus on all that stuff. But I think once I didn’t have athletics, it was like, well, I can let my body go to the wayside because I need to study right now.

TODAY: Registered nurse in the greater Detroit area.

I started having panic attacks. I came to my mom after the first one. She asked me, ‘Have you been taking care of yourself? Have you been getting enough sleep? Have you been working out?’ And I thought, ‘Nope, I haven’t been doing any of those things.’ I got into the doctor, and he said, ‘I’m OK with prescribing you medication, but I want to make sure you’re getting into therapy and you’re talking to someone about this.’ So I started seeing a therapist where I was going to nursing school. The more I talked with her, it made sense. I was always kind of a baseline anxious person, even with swimming. But because I wasn’t taking care of myself, I think it snowballed.

I think this is an important message to share because I think it’s something that’s not talked about a lot. You move away from your university, and you don’t have that support system. And the more people I talk to, I realize there are a lot of people who had similar struggles, and they keep that in because they think they’re alone in it and it’s stigmatized. Make yourself a priority.

Read her story.

At the UNCG presentation, Reifsteck recognized the uncertainty Vega and other student-athletes in the room felt. The assistant professor had experienced the same feelings a decade earlier, when she was completing her last competitive season of field hockey at Saint Francis (Pennsylvania).

Her own unexpected difficulties with the transition away from her sport led her to collaborate with a small team of researchers and develop Moving On!, a program that helps college athletes make adjustments for a healthy life after athletics. Launched in 2015, Moving On! is a four-session program that promotes healthy lifestyles after college sports and teaches practical nutrition advice, strategies for maintaining physical activity and obstacles to anticipate along the way.

As a student, Reifsteck’s identity was wrapped around her sport. Whenever asked to describe herself, her automatic response came in some form of: “I’m a field hockey player.” But when that identity she had clung to — the one that had been the source of great confidence and validation from age 12 through college — vanished with the end of her athletics career, Reifsteck found herself filled with questions and lacking motivation outside the structure that college sports demanded.

"After college, I just had to put myself out there and ask someone, ‘Hey, do you want to get coffee?’

BLAIR RUSSELL • Missouri Western ’17 • Volleyball

I’ve Been There

Blair Russell

As told to Rachel Stark

“Since volleyball is a fall sport, you have that spring semester where you’re still a college student but you’re not an athlete anymore. It was really weird. I was roommates with underclassmen, and they were still going to weights and practice. You look forward to that freedom of not having to be somewhere and be held accountable by someone, but you also grow to like it. It’s like a structure thing.

You feel a little left out when your old teammates ... are talking about something that you’re not involved in anymore. Once I left, not having that team aspect, I just remember being a little bit lonely. That’s the best way I could describe it.

TODAY: Assistant volleyball coach at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Blair Russell (in red) poses with some members of the team.

As an athlete, you are constantly connected with your teammates. They’re your friends. In college, you have your friends lined up for you the first day of preseason when you show up. After college, I just had to put myself out there and ask someone, ‘Hey, do you want to get coffee?’

I interviewed for the assistant volleyball coaching position I have now in April before I graduated. I threw myself into my job, which I’m lucky is something I’m super passionate about. I threw myself into it like I did when I was playing volleyball.

Honestly, I just needed to give myself time. I am not an athlete anymore, and I just had to kind of accept it. But it’s OK to be sad about it. You don’t have to feel like, ‘Oh, my gosh, why am I so upset? It’s just a game.’ You should have time to be upset about it.

Read her story.

If she was no longer a field hockey player, who was she? What made her stand out in the world like she did as an athlete?

Reifsteck, who majored in psychology as an undergraduate, used this minor identity crisis as fuel for a new endeavor. She entered the sport and exercise psychology graduate program at UNCG, focusing on athletic identity and transitioning from sport to career.

“A lot of the student-athletes I’ve worked with haven’t really grappled with it until it’s kind of right in their face and they’re getting ready to graduate,” Reifsteck says of the looming end of an athletics career. “The research suggests that proactive coping is really important. So, not waiting until after you’re experiencing the transition to deal with it, but to have some pre-retirement planning.”

Through exercises such as the “Who am I?” reflection, Moving On! prompts student-athletes to identify other interests and passions and, if they haven’t already, begin defining themselves outside their sports.

Reifsteck remembers the surprise in the voice of one softball player when she stated, “Wow, I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that.” The students had never before stopped to think about such forward-looking questions; their jampacked schedules filled with classes and practices and competitions left little time for introspection.

Back to Basics

For help post-college, look at what you already know

Rob Curley (left) and Phil Costa are writing a book to help former athletes. Submitted by Phil Costa

Two former college football players — Rob Curley, a Lafayette alum, and Phil Costa, a Maryland graduate and former Dallas Cowboys player — are interviewing other former athletes and writing a book about the best advice they’ve culled.

Create a schedule

In college, your days were heavily structured. Conditioning at 6 a.m. Class at 9. Practice at 3. You knew where to be and when — and you better not be late. The autonomy that comes when you’re no longer on a team can be jarring, Costa says. Stay on track in your post-athletic life by developing a new schedule that works for your new pursuits. And remember to leave room for relaxation.

Find a coach

Since your earliest days in sports, you’ve benefited from the direction of coaches. You learned how to listen to their critiques, react to their tactics and ask questions. Athletes respond well to coaching, a skill that will serve them outside their sport. “If you can find a mentor, if you can find coaching — whether it’s in the field you’re interested in or once you have a job, looking at the CEO and kind of mimicking how they got into that position, that kind of stuff is really important for athletes,” Curley says.

Play to your strengths

It’s common to question your abilities. On top of that, former student-athletes are often high achievers with a competitive spirit, leading to more self-pressure. “You’ve excelled at sports; can you excel at the next thing?” Costa says athletes may wonder. Combat doubts by reminding yourself of your strengths and identifying the translatable skills you gained in college.

During his time playing football and studying at Maryland, then later during his four years in the NFL, Phil Costa heard stories about athletes who struggled after their playing careers. But he was sure his experience would be different. He had goals: For one, he was determined to shed weight he no longer needed for football — and he did, dropping from 310 pounds to 250.

He gave himself six months to figure out what he would pursue next. That’s when feelings of depression crept in.

“I was really looking for, what else am I passionate about? To try to find something I truly enjoyed doing,” Costa says.

So he searched. He spent a week with a lawyer to learn about his profession. He met with real estate agents and a politician. He shadowed staff at NFL Films. He wondered why he was struggling and confided in another former NFL player who had made the jump to his next pursuit look easy. “What’s the trick?” Costa asked. “What am I not doing?”

"Sports, and in particular football, I knew were a talent, but it wasn’t my singular identity.

PENNY SEMAIA • Pittsburgh ’03 • Football

I’ve Been There

Penny Semaia

As told to Rachel Stark

“Football has been so good to me, but it didn’t anchor me into one particular identity. Music was a part of my life, as well: I was in the orchestra from fourth grade until I graduated high school. I played the viola. In college, I was active on campus outside of athletics, whether it was being a member of the Asian Students Association, the Black Action Society or freshman peer counselors. Those were roles I had on campus that had nothing to do with athletics. Sports, and in particular football, were a talent, but it wasn’t my singular identity.

Today:: Senior associate athletics director for student life at Pittsburgh.

I know now as an adult what I didn’t know as a young student: That I thrive when I am around people, helping people and also learning from people. That experience of what I had beyond just being a student-athlete — which was huge in my life — exposed me to interactions with other student groups, campus professionals and other opportunities in the city.

Now I talk with our student-athletes about how we can help them identify all of their passions. We know their sport is a passion. We know their academics is a passion. We really explore the realm of their interests, their hobbies — the things I coin as when you wake up in the morning and there’s a smile on your face, what makes you smile? Anything that shows signs of an emotional connection or passion, that’s the first step.

Think of it as planning a great meal. You’re never only going to go grocery shopping for one item to serve. If you want a great meal — if you want a great experience — you want to have things that both complement and things that are the main course. And you put time, planning and energy into it.

Read his story.

To Costa’s surprise, the former player responded by admitting that he, too, struggled at the end of his playing career. “Just hearing somebody else, especially a guy like that, say that, it kind of took the weight off my back and made me feel better,” Costa says.

Finally, when Costa went into an operating room for a new medical sales job, he found what he had been seeking: a new place for his passion. And several years later when a former teammate called and expressed concerns about his own path forward, Costa passed along the message that had doused him with relief before:

It was tough for me, too.

Maintain Your Nutrition Game

Don’t overlook the importance of a postgrad nutrition game plan. Lauren Link, a registered dietitian who oversees nutrition for Purdue athletics, provides five healthy eating tips for the transition.

Adjust your caloric intake.

Most former athletes burn only 500 to 1,000 calories per day from activity, which is less than they did as a student-athlete. “Even if you stay active and have a workout regime after college, it’s unlikely that you are going to be burning as many calories as before,” Link says. Dietary changes are one way — a big way — to bridge the post-college calorie gap.

Carbohydrate intake is an area to pay attention to. Instead of carbs such as grains and starchy vegetables taking up one-third to half of your plate when you were in full training mode, Link recommends about a fourth of a former athlete’s plate be filled with carb-rich foods. Think of carbs like pasta as a side item now, not the main course.

Just like your momma said, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

It’s not only a healthy choice, Link says, but filling yourself up with fruits and veggies comes without the negative caloric impact found in many other food items. With meal planning in mind, go to the grocery every week or two so you can purchase fresh produce, dairy and grains — consumables that won’t last a month in your pantry or refrigerator. Empty caloric foods such as fried foods and sweets don’t do much for you, so limit your intake, she says.

It’s your kitchen now, so be the cook.

A detailed meal plan might seem intimidating to young professionals, but it starts with the basics. Choose one or two nights per week to prepare meals at home. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Even if it’s just you, cook a quantity large enough to pack for your lunch the next day. Batch cooking ensures you’ll be eating healthy meals that you prepared, plus dining out less, saving calories — and dollars.

“Cooking ahead is a huge money saver that I see all the time among young grads who played college sports,” Link says. Starting out, they feel like they have a lot of money. Tuition bills are in the past, and their careers are now underway. But a daily $7 to $10 lunch out with co-workers can add up to a couple of thousand dollars in a year. A little bit of meal prepping and planning can go a long way for your wallet.

You didn’t skip practice, so don’t skip meals.

You may be running late for a meeting or traveling for work and think you don’t have time for breakfast or lunch. Those meals get abused a lot, Link says. Skipping meals throws off the body’s metabolism, increases the risk of muscle breakdown, and can add fat mass. If you do skip a meal, the next time you eat, the body’s insulin response is higher, which promotes the storage of fat. It also leaves you hungry, irritable and unproductive.

If you drink alcohol, have an intake plan.

Most college graduates are older than 21 and, like a lot of young professionals, many enjoy the social scene. There is nothing wrong with a beer or a glass of wine, Link says, but doing so multiple times a week, or to excess, really adds on the calories over the course of a week or month. A good plan is to limit yourself to a day or two per week to consume an alcoholic beverage. If you drink, be choosy about the mixers used. Avoid sodas and juices and opt for lower caloric mixers such as water, tonic water or club soda.

— Monica Miller

Visit NCAA After the Game for more advice on life after college sports and job postings for former student-athletes.

Experts agree student-athletes benefit when they think — and step — outside of the athletics bubble before they say goodbye to their sport. The less their identity revolves solely around being a student-athlete, the less of a shock it will be when that identity expires.

“We talk a lot about your sport is something you do; it doesn’t define who you are as a person,” says Emily Klueh, an athletics mental health counselor at the University of Michigan and coordinator for Athletes Connected, a program to support student-athlete mental health. Klueh stresses balance: “Whatever people have as hobbies, explore those a bit because those are going to be really helpful when or if that identity struggle comes into play.”

Diversifying their experiences and interests beyond athletics doesn’t mean downplaying the role of sports. Klueh was shaped by her own athletics involvement — she won the national title in the 1,650-yard freestyle at the 2008 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships (then as Emily Brunemann) and went on to swim professionally for 10 years before returning to her alma mater for graduate school and then a job. The grit, leadership and confidence that propelled her to success as a swimmer drives her as a counselor, and she draws on her own experiences in the pool to give back to the student-athletes of today.

“There’s so much that happens through sports that I think is unique to athletes,” Klueh says. “There are things that are still a part of who an athlete is, and those will never be taken away.

“I will always be a former athlete,” she adds. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. … I think it’s just redefining what that means in your life.”

Former UNCG softball player Danielle Vega is now a graduate student.

It was spring 2016 when Vega, the UNCG softball player at the Moving On! session, first attempted to define herself beyond her sport. Her final season in full swing, she would graduate and begin the next stage of her life just weeks later.

Facing the question from Reifsteck about her identity, Vega wrote the obvious answer on the workbook page before her: She was a softball player.

She paused, staring at the glaring white page. She would earn a public health degree soon. Vega had devoted hundreds of hours to the field of study and planned to dedicate even more in graduate school.

“Public health educator,” she scribbled.

behind the story

When My Playing Days Ended

Champion Assistant Editor Rachel Stark was a state medalist in high school cross country and track before battling a string of injuries.

It should be a yes-or-no question. Yet whenever I’m asked about my own athletics background — “Were you a student-athlete?” — I awkwardly stumble through a longer-than-necessary answer.

Technically, I was a student-athlete — but only for one semester in which I spent more time in the Indiana University, Bloomington, athletic training room than I did in practice. My mental will to compete in college cross country was repeatedly squelched by my body’s uncanny tendency to physically break. After suffering cracks in a tibia, a femur, an ankle and two different bones in my pelvis over the span of a few years, I realized it was time to walk away from my athletic goals for my own long-term health.

So while I was a college athlete for only a matter of months, a part of me still wishes I could answer “yes” — simply “yes” — to that question. The opportunity to compete among an elite group on a national stage is the stuff of dreams for many kids, and the young men and women who get to see their dreams through carry that unique experience with them for a lifetime. They always will be a part of the former student-athlete community.

But just as I had difficulty moving beyond dreams of competition and accepting that I was a former cross country runner, other student-athletes — including those who soak up every experience over their four years of eligibility — can struggle, too. Entering this community of former student-athletes can elicit a range of emotions, depending on the individual. Some may be happy to kiss 6 a.m. workouts goodbye and welcome extra free time in their schedules. Others may miss the camaraderie of their team or the rush of heated competition. It’s not always easy to rip off your “current student-athlete” label, no matter when that time comes.

That’s why, in “When the Playing Days End”, we take a deeper look at this transition period, diving into questions of personal identity and how student-athletes can learn to define themselves beyond sports. We often hear about the challenge of finding a job out of college, but quieter, internal hurdles can take grads by surprise. Through personal stories of people who have been in their cleats/spikes/tennis shoes, we hope to help prepare current athletes for their own end to competitive sports — whenever that may be — as well as assist others who are already in the thick of the transition.

For athletes and nonathletes alike, college is often referred to as the time of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure for just four or five years. A little perspective helps: Graduation is not the finish line, but the starting point for greater things.

— Rachel Stark

Read her story.

Next she thought of her family. They shaped her, too. She was a “family person,” she added, and a person of faith.

Beyond those few details, she decided, she had more thinking to do.

If asked to define herself today, just two years later, Vega wouldn’t hesitate. She is a master’s student in public health. She is also now an advocate for sexual violence prevention. She counts reading, swimming and running as new hobbies. She completed her first half-marathon in March.

Softball remains a piece of her, though less prominent. She now gives back to the Spartans as a volunteer assistant coach.

She found the Moving On! program so meaningful that she has returned to facilitate the workshop this spring. She’ll challenge the student-athletes to answer the same question that stumped her not long ago: “Who am I?”

It’s a question she’s glad someone asked her.