Finding identity outside of sport

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By Marin Scotten

For many post-secondary athletes, there is no greater feeling than playing the sport they love. But what happens when the final buzzer goes? What happens when athletes have to say goodbye to a sport they’ve invested the majority of their life into?

Unfortunately, for a vast majority of U Sports athletes, when their five years of eligibility comes to an end, so does playing their sport competitively. 

Many student-athletes spend almost all their time either training, competing or studying. In this sense, being an athlete can become a primary source of personal identity and many struggle to find interests outside of their sport. Once their athletic career is over, athletes can be left feeling like a fundamental piece of who they are is gone.

Sydney Authier, a former goaltender for the Ryerson women’s hockey team, said hockey was the most important thing in her life from the first time she laced up her skates.

“I fell in love with being on the ice from the moment I stepped on [it],” said Authier. “When I was on the ice and playing well, I just felt joy. It really gave me confidence in myself.” 

Authier began playing hockey in Chatham-Kent, Ont. at just three years old. Almost all of her friends played hockey as well and she prided herself on being an athlete.

“I was always known as the hockey player,” Authier said. “Especially growing up in a small town, athletic achievements are a big deal.” 

In her senior year of high school, Authier committed to Ryerson University to play hockey. However, due to a dangerously high number of concussions, Authier’s university career was cut short. In her third year, she made the difficult decision to step away from the sport in order to prevent another head injury.

“It was a really hard decision,” said Authier. “My first two weeks off the team I think I cried like every day. It was such a big part of my life, and just like that it was over.” 

“It’s pretty sad knowing that it’s all going to come to an end”

She struggled to find something that gave her as much joy and passion as hockey once did. But in her fourth year, Authier became the equipment manager for her former team.

“Equipment management is pretty much the only thing that makes me as excited as playing did,” Authier explained. “It’s allowed me to appreciate the sport in a whole new way.” 

Now, after being away from the game for almost three years, Authier feels she has finally come to terms with her identity outside of hockey.

“I’m finally separating myself from being a hockey player, but it has been a tough few years,” Authier said. “Without my teammates and my newfound love for equipment managing, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

For Joel Hannan, a former member of the varsity men’s volleyball team, finding interests outside of volleyball helped him balance his love for sport. 

Hannan played multiple competitive sports growing up but it wasn’t until his first year of university that he tried beach volleyball. After just three years of playing, he was invited to try out for the Canadian men’s national beach volleyball team.

Although he didn’t make the team, Hannan began to focus all of his energy into becoming a better volleyball player. He went on to play indoor volleyball at Ryerson while completing his Masters of Business Administration.

Upon graduating, Hannan felt he was ready to move on from athletics, although it was difficult.

“Being an athlete is a huge part of my identity,” Hannan said. “Since my varsity career has come to an end, I’ve had to really find joy in other aspects of my life like building a career, building relationships, travelling and learning new things.”

For student-athletes who have not yet graduated, the idea of moving on can be daunting.

“So much of my time is spent either training, studying or hanging with other athletes,” said Olivia Yang, a fourth-year player on the Ryerson women’s volleyball team. “It’s pretty sad knowing that it’s all going to come to an end.” 

“My first two weeks off the team I think I cried like every day. It was such a big part of my life, and just like that it was over”

Yang, who’s also a creative industries student, said she has just recently been questioning who she is outside of being an athlete. She began playing volleyball at age 11 in Vancouver. Yang said she has always been known as a volleyball player and it was her favourite thing to do while growing up. Recently though, she has been trying to find other hobbies that will help her transition when her volleyball career does eventually come to an end.

“I’m pretty lucky that I’ve found a program that I really like,” Yang said. “I didn’t switch into creative industries until my second year and I’m so happy I did. It’s given me something to focus on other than volleyball.” 

Many athletes struggle not only with their athletic careers coming to an end but with the realization that many of the dreams they once had are no longer realistic.

Hayley Robertson, a former member of Ryerson’s women’s basketball team, had dreams of playing at a top NCAA Division One school, going to the Olympics and playing in the WNBA.

“I definitely was singularly focused on basketball up until the end of my freshman year of college. And then in my sophomore year we had a coaching change and I was kind of hit by reality,” Robertson said. “It was really hard coming to terms with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to achieve all of my goals.”

Robertson played three years at the University of Vermont before transferring to Ryerson due to a second coaching change. Growing up, achieving her basketball goals was how she measured her self-worth. 

“Nothing was ever enough,” Robertson explained. “I always thought I could be working harder, or practicing more. Even now, it’s hard knowing that I’ve let my 13-year-old self down. I gave my heart and soul to the game, but for what?” 

While letting go of her dreams of playing in the WNBA was difficult, Robertson said she is grateful that she has gained a broader perspective. Finding other passions such as learning more about climate change and social justice issues have helped Robertson find purpose outside of being an athlete.

“All university athletes struggle with their career ending…You’re now just an average person. But you’re not worth any less and that’s what we have to realize”

“I’m giving myself permission to stop trying to be the best basketball player I can be and focus on being the best human I can be,” Robertson said. 

Finding an identity outside of sport can be very difficult for athletes, but it is seldom talked about. Despite the growth in conversations about mental health, athletics still has a long way to go. No matter the sport or the level of athlete, eventually it’s going to come to an end. 

Authier said normalizing this issue would help other athletes transition into life outside athletics and become more prepared for when that final buzzer sounds on their career.

“All university athletes struggle with their career ending,” Authier said. “You have to enter the real world and you’re no longer the best. People aren’t in awe of what you do or coming to see you perform. You’re now just an average person. But you’re not worth any less and that’s what we have to realize.”

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