Disclaimer: some names have changed to protect privacy.
In university, if people asked me who I was and what I did, my response was always the same: ‘I play basketball for the Bisons.”
Now, I don’t know how to answer that question.
I was forced to stop playing basketball. I played the sport since I was four. Because of that, I routinely battle depression and anxiety. Being forced to leave competition mentally damages athletes of all ages and genders.
Losing your athletic identity is a crisis hidden beneath a disguise of strength and drowned out by the cheers of crowds. No other place in our world glorifies excellence and misery like sports does.
Injuries and Medical Problems took my Identity
My basketball days came to an end after doctors suggested that I was physically incapable of playing without injuring myself.
My issues began after graduating from high school in 2015. I grew four inches in the eleventh grade, and I experienced patellar tendinosis (inflammation due to the muscle’s growth spurt that connects my kneecap to my shin bone) in my left knee. Two years later, in my first year with the University of Manitoba Bisons, I played every game and every practice, but I iced my knee over and over after each contest. The pain was becoming unbearable.
I wasn’t treating my injury correctly. I was advised to sit out practices and listen to the team trainer’s advice to rest and stretch my muscles, but I didn’t listen. It wasn’t until I couldn’t run after the season was over that I decided to take some time off the court and rehabilitate my knee injury in the summer of 2016.
In that same summer, after I felt massive pain in my left arm during rehabilitation training for my knee, I later found out I had a blood clot in that arm. Clots in deep veins can be fatal if they travel to the lungs and block off one of the pulmonary arteries. So, yes, this was serious. After the extensive treatment — which included some time off to rest — I was back on my feet and began training for next year.
Just like any injury I’ve ever had, I played through it and let the chips fall.
I returned next school year to continue my career with the Bisons. I suited up for every practice and every game, but going into the summer of 2017, my patellar tendinosis became chronic. A chronic injury results from prolonged, repetitive motion in poorly treated areas of the body resulting in the tendons flaring up at any time, causing excruciating pain.
Today, I feel the pain getting out of bed, sitting too long, or working out at the gym. I recently began wearing a clunky knee brace to reduce the impact on my patella whenever I’m doing any physical activity. I don’t remember the last time I bent my knee without slightly cringing in pain.
Adding to my discomfort, in that same summer, I felt soreness in my left arm. I told myself, “let me just make sure everything is alright,” and I checked into the emergency room. It turned out I had another blood clot in my arm.
Even after treatment and rehab, I still got a blood clot, and now my knee injury is chronic. So, I asked my doctor a question before I left the hospital in 2017.
“Should I keep playing basketball?”
“I wouldn’t if I were you.”
I had a long talk with my parents, and even though they wished I could continue playing, we reached a consensus that I should quit. The following year I told my coach I wasn’t enjoying what I did in school and wanted to pursue a career outside of sport.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell him the truth.
From the court to depression
In the early 2000s, Denise Hopkins** often sat in her car in the garage, turned on and with her window closed, hoping to let the carbon monoxide kill her.
Hopkins trained for more than a decade to be an elite track star. One month before her sophomore year in university, she snapped her ankle in two different places, and her life’s focus became a blur. After months of rehabilitation, she returned to the track, but that explosive first step wasn’t there anymore. Her speed was gone, her potential destroyed.
“All I ever knew was running that 100-metre. Everything I knew was gone in a second,” Hopkins said. “I was trying to run away from my pain, and I felt like I couldn’t live anymore.”
Hopkins now provides personal training services to help others stay physically healthy. “My mental health was really hurting until I decided to stop making excuses as to why I was feeling that way,” she said. “That stuff is real, and I never thought it was.”
When I first heard the term “mental health,” the first thing that came to mind was mental toughness — masking it. This mindset has been rooted in me since I was a child because, in competition, you don’t show weakness; you fight through it.
The most significant part of an athlete’s career isn’t reaching the destination — it’s the journey.
Being painted as a face for success by fans, family, and friends blurred the line between my success on the court and the challenges I face now because I don’t hear them cheer me on anymore. The hurdles so many athletes must climb can explain how injuries, age, or medical problems can hamper an athlete’s mindset.
In a 2016 interview with TIME after his retirement, swimmer and 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps said he knows that “there are probably a lot of people out in the world that are struggling the same exact way I do.”
Since leaving competitive swimming after the 2016 Summer Olympics, Phelps has openly discussed his struggle with depression.
“I always thought of myself as a swimmer,” he said. “Now I try to think of myself more as a human.”
Whether an Olympian, college athlete, or a high school hockey player, the mental challenges can be identical.
The athletic identity
I was in the gym like I worked a full-time job. Almost 10 hours of my day comprised of basketball and school, and it was typical for me to miss out on family events, nights out with my friends, and alone time.
The demand that I placed on myself was absurd.
Once I began competing in high school and college, I lost sleep and experienced mood swings. I struggled with self-confidence and the ability to concentrate. I still struggle to pay attention to others. Maybe I should get it checked out; perhaps I’m scared of what the doctors will say.
My trainer, Darin Soung, said right after my final season he’ll “see me in the offseason.” The offseason is a time when athletes continue training to improve for the following year. I didn’t have the traditional summer vacation. Basketball was legitimately a year-round sport.
“Football becomes your identity,” said George Koonce, a former NFL player who attempted suicide, in a 2012 ESPN article. “Your family buys into it, your friends buy into it. And then it is gone. You are gone.”
I wasn’t prepared for post-sports life
I’m struggling to find purpose in life post sports… and I’m often left wondering, are other ex-athletes dealing with the same problem?
Regarding careers, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reported that 56 per cent of its former athletes are excelling in life after sports. That sounds great, and even though I never played in the NCAA, I’m left thinking: what the hell are the other 44 per cent doing?
Most athletes focus on being the best and concentrating on skills that’d make them even better at their sport. But when do we learn the skills to thrive in the other parts of life?
I processed problems internally and was told to “suck it up” when fighting athletic adversity. So, now in this new life of mine, I’m not used to expressing weakness because to me, I have to suck it up or I’ll fail.
In a 2019 interview with The Indianapolis Star, former number one National Basketball Association (NBA) draft pick Greg Oden said few professional athletes are prepared to deal with the real world after spending their lifetime competing — they feel lost. Oden went through seven surgeries in his seven-year NBA career, playing only a handful of games before his career was cut short in 2014.
Oden only knew basketball — he fell in love with the sport in fourth grade, and by sixth grade, he was 6’6″. One day in 2014, Oden had too much to drink and lashed out at an ex-girlfriend. Oden was charged with one count of battery resulting in serious bodily injury. He later reached a plea deal with the prosecutor in which he agreed to complete domestic violence counselling and attend Alcoholics Anonymous classes.
Oden explained how he’d often find his seven-foot body crumpled next to the toilet, alcohol oozing from his pores. He would get out of bed and go straight for the bottle, and every time he ate, he would throw up.
He had so much sadness — so much regret. He thought there was no way to live during those dark days rather than make the regret and disappointment disappear.
“You just keep on numbing yourself with alcohol,” Oden said, now 33, “trying not to think about it.”
I feel like I’ve failed my family.
Many athletes are graduating each year, more are medically retiring (injured), and the identity crisis athletes go through after leaving a sport is widespread.
Even though it’s been over three years since I was forced to leave the sport, my mind still goes to how excited I got lacing my shoes before big games. That feeling of enthusiasm has turned into sorrow. To me, it’s the mental equivalent of losing a loved one, and I don’t know a healthy way to grieve it.
My dad and mom both worked during the days as I was growing up and the one constant figure in raising me was my grandmother. She taught me how to speak, learn and even think in Punjabi. She taught me how to respect others and love everyone around me. My grandmother died nearly two years ago, and the feeling of losing her is almost the same as quitting basketball. I grew up with both of them — they shaped me into who I’ve become, and now they’re not here anymore.
The worst part is parents and coaches have their identity wrapped up in the sport too. My father played professionally in Asia, and my mom played internationally for India, so yes, there was always pressured to play and succeed.
Since I was four, my parents attended every game, watched every basket, and routinely told me what I needed to improve on. They cheered, motivated, and criticized me so I could reach my potential. They loved that I played basketball so much, they’d often miss my sister’s volleyball games to watch mine.
We smiled after big wins, and I’d cry after the losses. These emotions played into my fallout after everything didn’t go as planned — and then I felt more pressure. I felt their athletic morals forced me to succeed — I felt like they used basketball to raise me — I felt like they were living through me.
Shortly after I left the sport, my father would often say, “Do you miss playing? Have you ever wanted to go back? I had so much fun watching you play.”
My answer? I either tell him that I don’t, or I ignore him. But inside, mentally, it’s more pressure, and I’m reminded my identity is gone, again. I fail, again.
A parent’s moral worth, especially in Indian immigrants, is tied to their kids’ success and how much they can nurture their children’s dreams. My parents don’t go on vacations, and they don’t have much alone time. My mom once told me, “we live for your happiness.”
So how do you think I feel? Not playing what they played? Quitting? Failing?
Identity crises, grief and depression
Whenever I try to find an identity, either through online content creation or photography, I feel like I’m repeatedly dying because who I was, isn’t me anymore. Much like the stages of grief, I’ve been in denial, felt anger, bargained with myself, experienced depression, and now I’m attempting to accept my new life.
I still feel depressed, but now I’m not running from my emotions; instead, I can write this piece to come to terms with my loss.
Even though I now accept playing basketball isn’t my life, I’m still not necessarily happy. I must understand what it means in my life and how I can move on from not competing.
I’m still afraid of processing grief because I’ve never really wanted to talk about it. I’m uncomfortable and profoundly struggling.
I often sit in my dark room, but all I have to do is go to bed. But with my depression, it’s not very easy. As with a lot of people dealing with mental health issues, it never is.
“Being an athlete, you’re supposed to be this strong person who doesn’t have weaknesses,” Phelps said. “I struggle through problems just like everybody else does.”
Coupling the feeling of failure with my family and fans’ pressure to keep an outwardly “perfect life” has kept me in silence. After all, sport taught me to push through it and “shut up and dribble.”
Oden said he often watched his old college and NBA highlights, knowing he shouldn’t. He would sob. Even now, I still watch my old high school footage, and it’s a mistake I keep making.
Athletes set up to fail
Many athletes don’t have an idea how to face mental health struggles. In a 2019 interview with The Gazette, Brian Hainline, NCAA’s chief medical officer, said that mental health is the number one health and safety concern for athletes. In 2016, NCAA’s research company, Sports Science Institute, published a book titled Mental Health Best Practices, a guide for programs to follow to successfully transition athletes from sports to the industry through group therapy and extra guidance.
In 2019, six years after the NCAA declared mental health a priority, the five largest conferences in the association voted to require all of their schools to provide mental health services.
“It’s really problematic,” Hainline said. “We’re trying to offer up athletics as a subculture… for changing the culture of society as it has to do with mental health.”
Here’s the problem: how can we apply this into the next phase?
The NCAA still doesn’t track whether or not its athletes even utilize the services while competing.
In 2019, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) funded the Borders Commission, an internal review process meant to investigate what happened within the organization that allowed Larry Nassar, former U.S. Gymnastics team doctor, to sexually abuse over 300 young gymnasts.
The commission learned that hundreds of former athletes suffered from mental agony after their careers ended and received marginal help from the USOPC.
Suicide also remains the third leading cause of death for NCAA athletes, according to the Indiana Law Journal. The 2016 study found that nearly 25 per cent of post-secondary athletes reported symptoms of depression. The report determined sports provide a dangerous environment that fails to prepare athletes for long-term mental health.
Athletes are often pushed beyond their limits to recover from injuries, and one athlete who misses even three games can lose a starting position. That pressure to return can often lead to chronic pain, which the researchers at Drexel and Kean universities say can lead to depression.
“Studies are showing, that whenever you’re dealing in chronic pain, that has an effect on your emotional and mental well-being,” wrote Tim Neal, who co-authored the NCAA’s Mind, Body and Sport publication.
When the pain and frustration became too unbearable to push through, normal phrases felt like insults. I remember hearing my old teammates saying, “We heard you quit.” Then I remembered telling myself that I didn’t quit because I couldn’t handle the grind. I quit because I put my life first.
Prepare for your exit from sport
Take the late great Kobe Bryant, for example. He planned for years and charted a path for himself and his storytelling ability. His books are still being published today.
Justine Siegal, director of sports partnerships at Northeastern University’s Sport in Society Program, said in a 2012 interview with Boston University Radio that about 20 per cent of athletes need “considerable psychological adjustment” after leaving their sport.
“[Athletes] don’t necessarily have a plan outside of your sport,” she said. “That can be very disconcerting, to be so goal-oriented your whole life and then just walk away and move on to a new goal.”
In many professions, one can be forced out of a job and find another. But when, say, tennis is over for a player — it’s over. According to Siegal, you should begin exit planning well in advance because, at one point, you’re going to have to leave your sport, and when that happens, you have to be ready.
Counselling helps. I’ve been part of exit counselling groups with other athletes who make a similar transition, whether from injury or retirement. The group teaches us how to transfer our sports skills — goal-setting, time management, stress management — into life skills.
Not being able to play the sport at a high level anymore hasn’t kept me from giving back to it. I’ve volunteered with Manitoba’s largest grassroots sports program, Attack Basketball, for four years now.
I coach youth and teach them the skills required to succeed in sports: leadership, communication, and stress management. I still miss the game, but I love giving back to it.
Oden graduated with a degree in sports industry and is now an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at Ohio State University, his alma mater.
Struggling to find closure
Even with the benefits coaching brings me, I still struggle in silence, as do many other athletes.
On a chilly November evening, a recent graduate of the University of Manitoba talks about her life as a hockey player, one that took her to championships and glory. Hockey introduced her to new friends, and the sport provided a sense of self-worth. But it felt as if she’d lived two lives now.
She’s struggled with the fact that after graduating, her hockey career is over.
“It’s kind of pushed under the rug,” she said. “After you get injured or graduate, you think everything will be OK. But I’m not OK.”
She had an interview at a corporation’s H.R. department earlier that month, and the recruiter asked, “tell me about yourself.”
She had trouble trying to answer the question. I told her it was OK; I have the same problem.