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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.