“Retiring” from a sport can leave you without an identity.

This is a contribution from Good measureexercise rubric.

The first time I walked into the gym after my years of playing Division I lacrosse were coming to an end, I was so overwhelmed that I left after 15 minutes of half-stretching on the mat. The sheer number of options far exceeded what I was used to in terms of exercise. “College athlete” was my identity—from intense game schedules to workouts that stretched into dinner—and it took the guesswork out of how to move my body. Most days, our team practice started with a simple “Get on the line.”

Suddenly, after I “retired” from my sport—which meant I didn’t continue to play professionally like most other college athletes—I was no longer training alongside cheering teammates. Instead, I was among my fellow “real life” exhausted people trying to squeeze in Pilates classes and StairMaster climbs after work. And they all seemed to know what to do and where to go without being told.

Achieving a high level of physical fitness is a badge of honor in the athletic community. Excelling in a sport shows dedication and physical endurance. The worst label an athlete can receive is “lazy” or “lacking speed.” Admitting my lack of gym motivation—even to myself, really—seemed impossible because it felt like an admission of laziness.

Then I found Madison Paige’s TikTok account. She is a former college soccer player who is good at fitness. But, as she reveals in videos, that wasn’t always the case. After she finished, the exercises seemed pointless to her. “I didn’t even know where to start,” she tells me. Watching her lessened my shame. It wasn’t deleted, but at least I knew I wasn’t alone. I decided to learn more about why a sudden drop in motivation happens and how other retired college athletes manage it.

In fact, it is common for college athletes to struggle with withdrawal from their sport. Former athletes are surprisingly more prone to weight gain and depression than their peers, according to a review article published in the journal Nutrients in 2019. “If you give the majority of college athletes a piece of paper and ask them to write who they are, most of them will record an athlete“says Jamie Shapiro, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Denver. Losing that identity can be extremely difficult.

Many athletes who play in college have worked their entire young lives to get recruited. Of U.S. high school football players, only 7 percent go on to play in the NCAA, with less than 3 percent competing at the Division I level. College recruiting is a highly competitive process that includes participation in club teams, weekend tournaments and college camps, as well as a high level of year-round fitness to ensure a potential recruit is ready to perform at any moment.

There is no “off season” during recruiting. For me, that meant spending every summer from the time I was 11 years old on hot grass courts and in the car driving to tournaments. In high school I was meeting with coaches on different campuses almost every weekend instead of going out with friends or getting my school work done. I verbally committed to Brown University when I was 15.

Once the goal of making a college team is finally realized, the real work begins. In college, all athletes have one thing in common: they were also the best in their high school. You are a star playing with other stars. Cross country times are faster, point guards are taller, and tennis serves are faster.

To keep up, you have to work, and work, and work. “Coaching when I was an athlete was very transactional. It was: Do those reps, get through the workout, and in an hour you’ll be done,” says Tilly Burzynski, a former ice hockey player at Providence College. “I was always trying to get stronger, faster and bigger.” Hayden Mitchell, a former football player at the University of Virginia, tells me that in college his days started at 5:30 in the morning and could go until 9 the evening. He jokes that he worked longer hours than he does now at his real nine-to-five job.

Less than 2 percent of college athletes go on to play professionally. For most of us, there comes a point, sooner rather than later, when all team structure and motivation suddenly disappears. After graduation, the retired college athlete must learn how to transition from training—with a specific physiological goal—to exercise, explains Brian Kane, a mental conditioning coach who works with both professional and college athletes. with trainingsuccess is clear: you get stronger, faster, your team wins. Exercise can be difficult to quantify. It’s about health, but maybe more about general well-being. Exercise is about “good energy,” Cain says.

Shapiro advises former college athletes to ask themselves what they enjoyed about participating in the sport and then use that aspect of their previous motivation to fuel their exercise regimens. For many, competition is indeed a big part of that joy. One of the simplest solutions to post-college athlete blues is to join a recreational sports league. Paige is now part of the all-female league, although she maintains only a part-time membership, playing in about half the games. Mitchell plays pickup basketball several times a week. Other former athletes find themselves drawn to apps like Peloton, which use leaderboard features to keep users competitive.

I, like many retired athletes I know, do not think I am capable of playing my sport recreationally. My experience in college sports was characterized by a coach who was notorious for taunting players, which mixed practices and games with anxiety. Picking up a stick again would mean scratching healing scabs. I wish I had the ability to play for fun, but despite my love for the game and my former teammates, I’m not quite there yet.

For some, time can make sports attractive again after the intense experience of being on a college team. “I needed time away from it,” says Burzynski, a former ice hockey player who left a season before retiring. “I would never have been able to put on skates right after I left the sport.”

But it wasn’t until Burzynski discovered yoga, a form of exercise that actively resists competitive comparison, that she began to find her place in fitness, eventually returning to skating for its own sake.

“Moving in a way that’s energizing, not exhausting? The idea that exercise can feel good?” Buriznski says, laughing. “I never learned it or was exposed to it. Now the workout is not something you just have to go through. It’s a pleasure. An hour of my day when I can decompress.

One year after I graduated from college, one of my siblings decided to run a marathon. Another brother joined in, registering for the same race. And another. And then my father. Soon, almost my entire family was signed up to run. I decided too, mostly because I was afraid of missing out a lot more than I was afraid of 26.2 miles. I hated running for most of my athletic career.

But the goal I had set for myself – to finish the race with my dignity intact – brought me back to the gym calm. It was not a goal on which my entire future rested. There was no overbearing coach. And once again I had something to work for and a team of people to do it with – even if that team was just as slow family.

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