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Mind, Body and Sport: Student-athletes in transition

An excerpt from the Sport Science Institute’s guide to understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness

By Penny Semaia

It’s been 10 years since I last strapped on a helmet and played the game that has done so much for me. Yet, I still have this bond with football that seems to never go away. It’s almost like a sixth sense that pops up when someone mentions the game. When I’m watching a Pitt game at Heinz Field, it’s as if each play is in slow motion. I see every block. I can predict certain movements. Sometimes, I catch myself lifting my arm up as if I was the one shedding a block. I laugh when I think about it. I laugh even harder when I see my old teammates do the same thing. It’s a reflection of our past and what we were – student-athletes.

Today, I work in student-athlete development at the University of Pittsburgh, where I earned my degree and played football. Although it’s been a long time since I played, I’ve transitioned out of my sport in my own way, yet am still connected to it through work and play.

However, not everyone is as fortunate as I am, in the sense that I’m still connected to my sport and alma mater on a daily basis. For much of the 10 years that I’ve been out of uniform, I’ve witnessed many of my student-athletes go through their own transition of taking off their jersey for the last time. For some, it was seamless; they were able to move on to the next phase of their life and not look back. For others, it was the day they wanted to avoid the most; the day they realized they are no longer athletes. Their commitment to their sport had been their identity for as long as they remembered. Now, their identity is a question mark.

As professionals working in student-athlete development, it is our duty to help our student-athletes gain the knowledge and skills to prepare for life after sport. In the area of identity and life transitions, this is one of the most difficult and time-sensitive topics. There is a fine balance to helping student-athletes understand the importance of focusing on their current situation while also preparing them for the next stage. I believe that one of the most important steps in helping student-athletes successfully navigate this transition starts with establishing a strong baseline relationship with them. Programs and resources are important, but in my experience, they are most effective when delivered with what I like to call a human touch.

For example, a student-athlete walked into my office, sat down and stared at me. She said, “Penny, I can’t believe this is it. It’s over. I’m done with track.”

Knowing this student-athlete, I knew she had a great job lined up and was prepared. Yet, she was so caught up in her athletics career ending. My immediate response was, “How do you feel?” She answered, “Well, I don’t know. I’m just … I don’t know.”

I’m sure this sounds familiar. It’s the end of the academic year. We get the trickling-in of seniors who just want to chat, and the conversation somehow always flows into the end of their athletics career. I always anticipate going into this topic with seniors. We’ve been talking about it since day one.

This is where the human touch is most important. The key is taking all of the programs and services that we deliver and narrowing them down to the individual level. It’s also about understanding our student-athletes as individuals and knowing that they are all unique.

For example, just because two student-athletes may compete in the same sport and are from the same region, or even the same family, we cannot assume that we will serve them in a similar way as individuals. The groundwork to all of our programs and services relies on the human touch approach.

The initial phase of this happens by developing:

Positive and trusting relationships. When student-athletes trust us, they will approach us for anything – especially when they need help facing the end of their athletics careers. One thing that has helped me gain trust is taking the time to really listen – that has allowed me to get to know student-athletes as individuals. The information gained through listening, no matter the topic, is often vital for future conversations. I always take notes after my meetings with student-athletes, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time (such as noting a pet’s name). I know that this information can be useful when I need to communicate with them in the future. The more our student-athletes know that we are interested in them, the more they will begin to trust us.

Once this is established, we can have real conversations about their future long before the end of their athletics career is imminent. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s when our student-athletes know that we care enough about them that they will open up.

Instances in which our student-athletes will need support are career-ending injuries, end of eligibility, and stressors in play (not playing at the same level or up to their or their coaches’ expectations). The relationships we build when our student-athletes are under the least amount of stress can help us identify the times when their behaviors are out of character. This is where our gauge of our student-athletes is both a benefit and vital to helping provide the necessary care for them.

Exercise patience. We need to know and understand that athletics is a big deal for our student-athletes. They wouldn’t be participating if it wasn’t! This came up for me early in my career while I was trying to help a young football player.

This young man did not play at all before his senior year. Following his senior season, during which he got in a few times, he still wanted to focus on working out and postpone finding a career. I was trying to help him focus on moving on. In my mind, he was a long shot and he didn’t even see that. I wanted him to know and understand this, so I took the “keeping it real” approach of providing statistics of student-athletes who play professionally, horror stories and anything else that revealed the odds that this was not a viable path for him. The more I tried to talk to him, the more he didn’t want to hear me.

This was very frustrating for me. Everything led to a standstill in our progression. It wasn’t until I heard someone say, “Who are we to shatter a kid’s dream?” that I reevaluated my train of thought. They were right. Who was I to tell this young man he shouldn’t pursue his dreams? That really stuck with me.

Since that experience, I’ve shifted my approach and have focused on the idea of Life Beyond Sport. Instead of saying, “move on,” my approach is “prepare for when the day comes.” Helping our student-athletes learn how to balance their preparation is tough, especially when they’ve been told to focus on their athletics for so long. We have to help them realign their objectives and dig deeper into understanding what they want most out of life and how they will get there.  

Maintain the educator role. One last bit of advice I’d have for anyone working in our field is to maintain the educator role. Being in a position where we are on the front lines – working directly with student-athletes daily, I’ve learned that I can’t be the answer for everything. Instead, when student-athletes approach me, I want to engage them in the learning process as much as possible instead of just spoon-feeding them the answers. Our focus should be on helping them learn how to figure things out, helping them identify the necessary resources, or just simply pointing them in the right direction.

Far too often we are looked at as the “go-to office” that solves all of the issues. As nice as that is, it can stir up misinterpretations of what our mission is and what we do. For example, if a sophomore gymnast enters our office and is looking for a summer job and then we provide the individual with a person’s name and phone number to call for a job, are we truly helping that gymnast? By the time their senior year comes around, they will have the same expectations of our services and think that we will just hand them a career. For that office staff, the pressure is often to help serve this student-athlete as quickly as possible.

Instead, our approach should be focused on the process. We should help point them to the resources (such as career services) that can help them develop skills to search for a job and learn about the types of careers that they may want to pursue after graduation. We can support them in this process, but they must be active participants for it to be effective. We cannot be the answer to everything, but we can be a great resource to help point our student-athletes in the right direction. For some student-athletes, this will include referral to a mental health professional.   

Foster trust. For us to effectively help our student-athletes transition to life beyond sports, a foundation of trust must be laid. We cannot simply rely on programs and lectures to have the type of impact necessary. The stronger the relationship, the more likely our student-athletes will understand and accept the services we are providing and the recommendations we are making.

This is where our role becomes a key factor for our athletics departments. I understand that not everyone has one role. Many of us share coaching, academic, or athletic training responsibilities – some have all three roles. No matter what hat we wear, when it comes to the health and well-being of our student-athletes, this should always be the top priority.

By implementing services with a human touch and keeping a focus on life beyond sport – no matter what the student-athlete’s athletics goals – our student-athletes will have the right type of support in their journey.

Penny Semaia is the senior associate athletics director of student life at the University of Pittsburgh. He oversees the Cathy and John Pelusi Family Life Skills Program, which prepares student-athletes for success for life after college by using academic, athletics and community resources. Semaia also serves as the president of Get Involved! Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization focused on young professionals being active in their communities. Semaia was a four-year letter-winner for the Pitt football team from 2000 to 2003. He graduated with a degree in anthropology with related areas in sociology and theater. Semaia joined Pitt’s athletics department in 2005 as the career and life skills coordinator.

Summary of recommendations

  • Take the time to really listen to student-athletes and get to know them as individuals.
  • It is not your role to tell student-athletes which dreams they should or should not pursue.  
  • Talk about life beyond sport before a student-athlete gets to be a senior, no matter what his/her post-college goals are.
  • Don’t be an enabler. Support and educate student-athletes about exploring career options and searching for a job. Focusing on the process and helping them learn new skills is more useful in the long term than handing them a solution, even though that may be easier in the short term.