There is a website that I have come across lately that I absolutely LOVE (no I didn’t hit caps lock by mistake) called the Players Tribune. Part of what is so unique about it, is that it gives raw, authentic, first person accounts from athletes themselves about what their life and struggles are like behind the airbrushed media glow.
Christie Rampone wrote an excellence piece in the summer about how as a 40 year old athlete she feels that the sport is obsessed with defining her by her age (she is bad ass against anyone in the sport at any age). There’s been other pieces on athletes that I’ve read in various sports that have been an incredibly enlightening viewpoint, that’s so different to what the media chooses to portray.
The latest gem of an article from the Players Tribune was one that I came across the other day. It was from an NHL player named Daniel Carcillo who was retiring from the sport. This is his piece from The Player’s Tribune: Click Here
He spoke in his piece, accompanied by an incredibly touching video, about the death of his good friend and former teammate, a 12 year NHL vet named Steve Matador who died at the age of 35 and who struggled immensely with the after effects of concussions and direction after he left the sport. I teared up with him as he described losing one of his best friends, how tough life is after leaving elite sport, and how it feels that players are abandoned to figure the transition struggle from sport, out on their own.
Juxtaposed with the glitz and glamour and money of professional sports, it was surprising to see how the story resonated with me and the female elite athletes that I know, who have faced the same struggles quietly of a sport that defines us, and what life is like away from the bright, shiny lights that glisten on us for so long.
For all the careful planning that our lives as elite sports require it is ironic that we lack preparedness for a certainty that bonds all of us, regardless of gender or sport: those lights and experiences that define us for so long eventually fade away.
In the article, this quote I found especially poignant:
When I rejoined the team after taking a few days off for Monty’s funeral, I couldn’t put what happened out of my mind. One night on the road, I started writing down my thoughts on Hilton hotel notepads. Why do NHL players struggle so much with moving on from the game? Why are so many former players I know battling depression? Why does the hockey community ignore them when they’re gone? And why can’t we create a more concrete program to help them transition into real life?
Someone asked me this summer if it was hard for me to watch the World Cup knowing many players on different teams. I think what he was getting at was if it made me jealous in some way in such an incredible sporting spectacle to not be participating as an athlete.
The certainty of my answer cascaded out of my mouth driven by its pure authenticity. “No not at all. I know the reality of what it’s like behind the scenes and I feel lucky where I am in my own life, happy and able to enjoy the games from the stand.”
At points in the last few years I am not sure I would have been able to say that.
What I mean is that elite sport is completely consuming; for female soccer athletes, you sacrifice your time, personal relationships, your body, and for me when it was my number one, there was an all-consuming stress that I felt all the time. There were also coaches that dictated your life to you, some of who didn’t have your best interest at heart. And how could you not be defined by something that you threw all your time and your whole soul into being good at.
Sure there were amazing moments, but there were times when I questioned how skewed my view was, if it was worth it, based on the bubble I knew I was living in. I feel like I am betraying the sport just by even saying that which demonstrates how strongly it is inculcated into us that elite sports is the happiest place on earth. I’ve come to realize that playing the sport for me in all of it’s purity is the happiest place on earth, but its so much more than playing the game in its purest form, especially the higher the level you climb.
As someone that is a little ADD on life, I knew there was so much more I also wanted to do and see, such as educating myself, traveling, having personal relationships and struggled with the tension of the sacrifice I needed to make, and knowing that there was a big world out there away from soccer to experience and the stress of trying to think about what would come next, and when that next should start. Finances were also a stress, as I wore clothes from high school well into my late 20’s as any spare dollar that I had went towards bettering myself as an athlete.
To play your sport at the highest level is all consuming, and in some ways you have to be driven and let the journey of the pursuit envelop every fiber of your being. Your worth in this elite sports world is measured by what team you are on, what championships you win, and while it can propel you on unquantifiable highs to the most incredible levels, it can also, with the same force throw you down into the darkest places.
It is further confusing when you have messages bombarded at you constantly about being a quitter, and what success is defined as, and have to wade through all of it, while trying to honour and decipher what you are really feeling and what your own personal truth is.
Just after graduating from university, I sat in a restaurant with a dear former teammate from soccer growing up, chatting about sports and its effect on our lives.
My friend was sipping on hot lemon water suffering from an extreme case of anorexia, paranoid about consuming calories and days away from entering a hospital. It broke my heart. (Good news, she is doing incredibly today, an inspiration to anyone she meets.)
We had played together on high performance soccer teams growing up, and she was the heart and soul of our teams. She was good at everything; a straight A student, the lead instrument in her 2 school bands, and a kick ass soccer player. She also was super social, kind, fun and loved by everyone.
As we sat there catching up, she spoke openly with her struggles since she had finished playing soccer a couple of years before and how she realized how soccer played a role of something so much deeper. For the first time I learned how she had grown up with a mother with a crippling mental illness and had spent a year with a foster family. How she had funneled all of her energy with her struggles with her home life into being perfect at everything she tried, soccer rising to the forefront.
I marveled because the friendships that I had with my friends from the Provincial Team never seemed shallow in the slightest. In fact they were some of the richest friendships that I had had. But as my friend and I started going through our list of friends that had accomplished very high things in the sport, we realized that the common trait was that they were all driven by a very strong “why”. We never spoke about our struggles, not because we felt that we couldn’t, but perhaps at such a young age we couldn’t decipher what we were feeling, and soccer for all of us was our happy place, where we escaped from everything we grappled with in our “regular” lives.
My “why” was my mom who was dealing with MS, and how soccer gave me a place to channel all those confusing, crushing emotions. We started going through many other friends that had a similar drive. The common point with all of us was that
a) soccer was a lot more than just a game to us, as most were driven by something deeper
b) because of this we were obsessed with the sport which drove us to high levels
c) there was a big hole to be filled when the time came for it to be over.
The Player’s Tribune article confirms for me that its a struggle that goes far beyond women’s soccer, and that transcends both gender, socioeconomics and the individual sports.
I have friends that work with pro tennis players that talk about how they are completely ill-prepared for life after tennis emotionally and practically, and have another young friend that after hitting an Olympic standard in running, promptly spilled into a vortex of physical and emotional symptoms that took her out of running for months. Another friend spoke of a 3 time Olympian bobsledder who she knew, that was in a depression, lost in a lifestyle and sport that has defined him and in his early 30’s crippled about where to go from here.
We’re conditioned for years to be strong, to be tough, to not think negative. Sometimes it’s hard just to let yourself feel.
And no one wants to be a downer, a quitter or portray anything less that beautiful, filtered Instagram shot, and so people feel like they need to struggle through the transition on their own. The sad part is that it’s a conversation that so many wonderful, athletes could benefit from that would help people mentally and practically if it was pushed to the forefront.
It’s an conversation and awareness that I think it’s important to have, if not for the sole reason that people don’t have to feel isolated thinking that they are alone.
Daniel Carvillo, has started a charity in honour of his friend Steve Matador, and the sole purpose of it, is to help athletes transition from elite sport, it’s called Chapter 5.
After all the stories that I have heard, it is somewhat mind-blowing that this is the first organization I have come across that is stand-alone from governing sport bodies, dealing solely with helping athletes get to a healthy place in mind, body and job after they are done with sport.
If you’d like to support it, this is the link.