The Identity of a Student-No-Longer-Athlete

After one year of playing basketball for Point Loma Nazarene University’s men’s basketball team, sophomore graphic design major Kaden Garrett took a surprising turn and left the courts to pursue his talents in the field of graphic design.

“I was becoming burnt out from the game; the grind was no longer fun to me. My passions for art and the community outside of athletics were growing [and] I wanted these to have all of my attention.”

Garrett’s father was the varsity basketball coach of his hometown high school, Tesoro High. Having played youth leagues, club, and high school basketball, the sport had always been a part of his life and identity.

Like Garrett, many collegiate athletes will step away from the sports-centered aspect of their identity for many reasons; unforeseen circumstances such as injuries or interests in other areas name just a few. The process of leaving a lifelong hobby is a battle for many, as sports connect to one’s identity and are embedded in their schedules.

Emma McCoy, junior literature major and writing minor, became a member of the San Diego Canoe Kayak Team in 2019. She had been kayaking since the age of 14 and continued her paddling career with their program until a month into her second semester freshman year.

“I became involved in sprint kayaking after my parents made me go to the summer camp the team was holding the summer before I started high school. I thought it was super weird at first but I fell in love with the water and how friendly everyone was,” McCoy said.

After years of practicing and competing, McCoy had improved in the sport immensely and became extremely passionate. By the time McCoy came to PLNU, she had attended three international races; Olympic Hopes two times, and Junior Worlds once.

The commitment of the sport was huge, which put a strain on McCoy as she entered university. Outside of her classes, she trained nearly twenty hours a week.

“Three days a week I swam, five days I did heavy lifting at the boathouse, and three [to] four days a week I did an on-water workout with my training squad,” McCoy said.

Once arriving at PLNU, Garret had also jumped into the commitments of being a collegiate athlete. His days would start with weights at 6:30am, followed by practice, and classes for the remainder of the day.

“It was a big commitment waking up early, taking care of my body, [and] making sure I got appropriate rest so I could keep up in my academics. Time management was super key, everything in my schedule revolved around the lifestyle,” Garrett said.

Like Garrett, McCoy decided to step away because of the demands of the sport. But for her, injuries played a huge part in the decision.

“I was so burnt out, and my shoulder problems were getting worse. I realized that I didn’t know why I was even training; I loved kayaking, and I still do, but it was so overwhelming I knew I needed a break.” McCoy said.

The break that the two student athletes endured was both challenging yet rewarding.

Garrett felt like he was not fully committed to each part of his identity, but this all changed once leaving his sport.

“Now. . .my days are revolving around [my passions] constantly, which has been extremely fulfilling,” Garrett said.

His schedule opened up for new opportunities to come his way; Garrett is now a resident assistant for PLNU’s ResLife, participates in ministry opportunities on campus, and has been able to work on his art career.

McCoy admitted that she did not know who she was outside of being an athlete.

“I seriously considered transferring to be able to paddle somewhere else, but I knew that God wasn’t done with me at PLNU yet.”

She came to the realization that she is still an athlete, even if she is not competing. McCoy continues to lift, has started practicing yoga and picked up mountain biking over quarantine. She has even found more time to get involved on campus, working at the university’s Writer’s Studio, being a staff member at The Point and editing the Driftwood.

“Life is a little slower, I don’t plan out every minute of my day, and I’m much more easy going when something goes wrong.” McCoy said.

McCoy’s biggest advice for athletes deciding to take a break from their sport, or stopping entirely, is to be kind to themselves.

“You aren’t losing your drive, or your passion, or your discipline. Those things are a part of you. When you close that door, space opens up for some very beautiful things. It’s scary, but trust that you are going to be the same person on the other side.” McCoy said.

Garrett shared how making sure basketball was not his sole identity aided him when leaving the sport.

“If the only thing that people knew about me was basketball, I wouldn’t be truly happy with my identity. If anyone knows anything about me, I want them to know me as a follower of Christ regardless of what passions I’m pursuing,” Garret said.

Professor of Kinesiology, Ted Anderson was involved with the PLNU basketball department’s coaching responsibilities for nearly twenty years. Having played basketball for the university himself, Anderson first hand experienced the importance of having an identity outside of his sport.

“Over the five years that I was here, [being in a sport] did more for my self esteem and self concept… it made me believe that I could do things.” Anderson said.

The kinesiology professor said that student athletes who are at risk of struggling with their identity are those who came to just play the sport and those who are in between levels.

A question Anderson wants for athletes to ask themselves is, “‘Am I preparing myself for the next stage of my sport, or am I preparing myself for real life?’”

A program that he, both former, and current PLNU basketball coaches have started is a men’s basketball alumni group. Collectively the coaches know all the basketball players in the history of the school.

“What we’ve tried to do in the past couple years is to contact all of them. Through [this group], we’ve started a mentorship program [where] we match every basketball player up with a mentor.” Anderson explained.

He shared how the program gives players a connection and a role model.

“It gives you somebody who has been through what you did and now they’re in the next stage of life,” Anderson said. “It’s saying there is a next stage, and look at us, it’s going to be over someday, and what are you doing to prepare, and we can help you think that way.”

Anderson added, “If you’re a Christian, you may be set up to think about priorities differently than other people.”

For student athletes who are struggling with finding their identity outside of their sport, Garrett advises them to pray.

“Have an open mind to where you are being called, and when you feel that nudge in whichever way, go for it in full faith.” Garrett said.

By: Katie Morris