Two years ago, to the date, I called myself “an athlete”. It was my identity, it was who I was and it was how I met the majority of my friends. I played for the Canadian Women’s National Volleyball team for four years. Before that, I played for the Varsity volleyball team at the University of British Columbia, winning three national championships. Before that, I had played on provincial volleyball teams, club teams, high school teams, junior high volleyball teams and a couple of beach volleyball teams.
When I was on the Canadian Women’s National volleyball team, it was my job to play volleyball. I didn’t have another job. It was how I made my money, it was where I derived the majority of my joy, my sorrow, and how I travelled and saw the world. When I filed my taxes, I claimed athlete carding. In short, I ate, slept, and played volleyball. It was my life.
Though it was my job for four years, I was never guaranteed a spot on the roster. I never got first dibs on what number I wanted on my jersey and I was never the person who the coach called into his office for team advice. I was always a little scared about my role on the team, or if I would even have one. So each time I went to my coaches office after tryouts, there was always a big question mark hovering in my psyche.
So when, after 4 years of playing on the Women’s National Volleyball team, I was called into the office after tryouts in 2013, I really had no idea what to expect.
But this was the meeting that changed everything. It’s the meeting every athlete dreads. The meeting where in an instant, you lose your paycheck, your home, your cell phone, and worst of all, your teammates. This is the meeting your identity is shaken. It was the meeting my coach told me that I no longer had a spot on the team.
I think my meeting was about 8 minutes long. And in those 8 minutes, my coach cut me (the meeting probably could have taken 3 minutes, but I used the other 5 minutes to fight back and challenge what he was saying).
Naturally, I was devastated. But I don’t want to focus on the tears and sadness that occurred in the actual meeting.
When I left the meeting, I felt really weird. It felt like I was walking into a different world. When I walked out of the boardroom, it was the same hallway I’d walked in and out of on my way to practice thousands of times. When I went to my car, it was the same parking lot I’d parked in hundreds of times, and it was the same route I’d driven home hundreds of times, but I felt alienated from it.
Up until that point, when I met new people, I introduced myself as:
- A volleyball player
- An athlete
- A teammate
- A Libero
- A member of Team Canada
- A National Team Athlete
Now don’t get me wrong, I could have added these things in there as well:
- A sister
- A daughter
- A grand daughter
- A graduate of the University of British Columbia
- A friend, etc
But lets be honest, lots of people are those things, and the answers in column 1 are 100x sexier.
These were my initial thoughts when I was cut from Team Canada:
What am I going to do?
How am I going to make money?
Where am I going to move?
Do I have to change my twitter description right now?
When I meet new people, what do I say, I do?
Who am I?
Some of these seem trivial, but some of them are pretty heavy. I know there were tears, but most of all, there was a lot of confusion. Since the government gave us a housing allowance, the Volleyball Canada office organized our apartments and found us places to live in. When I was cut, someone else got the room in my apartment, so I had to move out. They asked me to be out within a reasonable time, about a week. I lived in Winnipeg at the time, but my parents lived in Calgary. I just packed up my stuff, and drove to my parent’s place, where else was I suppose to go?
While I was still playing for Team Canada, one of my former teammates who was in the first year of her post-volleyball career was talking about the difficulties she was experiencing. She really missed the sport, she missed being around all of her volleyball friends all the time, and she didn’t know how to adapt fitness wise to her new lifestyle. But one thing she said hit me like a bullet.
She said “the worst thing about being finished with volleyball is, I’ll never be as good as anything in life as I was at volleyball”.
So basically you’re just giving up on life right now and throwing in the towel?
I hated hearing this. It made my blood boil. It enraged me. She was 26 and basically saying the rest of her life was downhill and she had blown her load a quarter of the way through.
I knew I wasn’t going to live my life with this attitude, but I realized that this is probably how many athletes felt about themselves just after they had finished with sport.
Was this because the athletes life is so tunnel vision and you dedicate 100% of your focus to training and competition? Or was this because athletes are mostly familiar with their sport, and when they’re done they don’t know where else they want to apply that motivation and focus?
When I got cut, I wasn’t sure if volleyball was entirely over. My coach had released me, but in a weird roundabout way. He said he wanted me to potentially go play another year of Professional volleyball overseas and there might be a spot for me the following year. So my brain was in limbo. Okay was I still a volleyball player? Or should I just start blazing ahead in a new career path?
This was a really difficult mental space to be in, because it left a lot of uncertainties surrounding various parts of my life. Maybe I wasn’t reading through the lines and my coach was really just cutting me for good, maybe it was a method of protecting part of my ego. Regardless of the real message, I wasn’t sure what to do.
So I made two life plans: volleyball or career. I had a meeting with my volleyball agent where I told him to keep looking for teams for me for the following year. I kept up in the gym and did my best to stay in peak “athlete condition”. I had started getting involved in sports broadcasting and emailed some people I’d met in the media world, and asked for their advice. Timing is everything, and the same week that I had been cut from Team Canada, Jay and Dan from TSN announced that they were leaving for Fox Sports 1. I asked Jay if I could take his job at the desk on TSN. He laughed, said it wasn’t that easy, and mapped out some ideas for how I could forge a career that could potentially lead to a job as a sports broadcaster one day.
That following year was incredibly difficult. I didn’t know who “Claire” was anymore. So much of my identity was wrapped up in volleyball, and with that not in the imminent picture, I felt so lost. When I was on the volleyball court, I had a way of displaying my joy, my disappointment, my competitiveness. I could work hard in practices and in the gym, and then show off those skills in a game.
Also, I was constantly surrounded by my best friends and teammates during volleyball. We could vent about a tough practice together and celebrate “that awesome play at the net, where you put up such a sick block” together. Then go back to our apartments, exhausted, and cook together, ice our muscles, then watch movies. It was kind of like camp 24/7.
Now I’ve tried to evaluate why athletes have such a tough time when their careers end, regardless of how they end (retirement or forced-retirement).
So many of the skills you learn and develop as an athlete are so transferable to the working world. We are disciplined, focused, work hard, set goals, and are team players. Therefore, why should we have any doubt or anxiety about our lives post-sport?
One saving grace for my brain was having access to the Calgary Sports Institute (CSI). Even though I trained in Winnipeg, whenever I returned home to see my family, the CSI would always give me some great resources, including free gym memberships, physiotherapy and guidance.
When I got cut, I called them and asked for assistance, I didn’t even know what I really needed. They said they had counselors they could put me in touch with, and I could talk to them about things.
Just talking about things helped. They asked what I was interested in doing, and if I wanted to try and get back on the volleyball team. They just helped me make sense of all the different feelings I was going through. It was incredibly useful and I needed that sounding board.
It wasn’t easy finding out who the new “Claire” was. It took some time, some exploring, some patience, and some coffee. A huge thing I discovered, Claire is always changing! I’m going to be a new person when I get married, when I have kids, if I change careers.
BUT, I think there are a couple of things athletes need to do to better prepare themselves for post-sport, and for figuring out who they are in that process.
1. Consider what other things you enjoy doing, while you’re still an athlete
Before your sport was your life, what other things did you like to do, or could you maybe see yourself getting involved in. This is something that many people struggle with, athlete or not. Figuring out what kind of career you want to have. But if you even have the faintest idea as an athlete, it’s a good idea to explore this career. Do you need to go back to school? Do you need to get a designation or certificate to perform this? Explore how you can make the next career a reality so you can start to think about it before you completely end your athlete life.
2. Talk to other retired athletes
If there are alumni from your team who are already fully emerged in their careers, then these might be good people to talk to. They’ll have gone through similar issues and experience emotions comparable to what you’re going through. Sometimes just talking to someone who knows what you’re going through is the best thing.
3. Remember back to when you were in Elementary school
Everybody had a first day of school. We were scared, we were nervous, we didn’t know what to expect. But after a few days, you got the hang of it. By the time you were in Gr 6, you were the king/queen of the playground and everyone looked up to you, but it took time. Well that’s the same with the next career. When you started your career as an athlete, you probably didn’t wake up an Olympic gold medalist. You started from the bottom, worked your way up, and then (hopefully) achieved your goals. When you finish as an athlete, you’re likely one of the best in your sport, or were the best. The next phase will be the same, you’re not going to start on top of the podium, you’re going to have to work your way up and this can be a daunting and intimidating thought. But everyone has to start from somewhere.
4. Its going to be tough
Just like those 5am training sessions or 6 hr practices were a grind, and painful, so are accomplishing goals in real life. Investment bankers with millions didn’t just end up where they are by buying a nice suit and walking into Goldman Sachs. They put in sleepless nights, worked their asses off, and grinded it out. Well that’s what every job is like if you want to be the best. Don’t expect it to be handed to you because you’re an athlete. Sure, all those skills you develop as an athlete will translate really well, but you still have to put in a lot of hardwork to reach your goals. No free lunches.
5. You have to be confident
I’ve never boxed, but I have a feeling when two boxers get into a ring, they are both oozing with confidence. They don’t doubt themselves, and they have no hesitation that they will each be victorious in a fight. Same with life. When you get into that ring and you’re competing with others for a job, you need to be confident. If you’ve done the preparation, then find some solace in this and be confident when you walk into that office. It’s no different than when you started a game/race/event.
Looking back on my career as an athlete, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I had to give 100% of my efforts to that sport to succeed. But I’m also happy I started to explore the career in journalism before I was entirely finished with volleyball. I entered phase 2 of my life with the same attitude when I first started volleyball. I was curious, I was hungry, I had a lot to learn, but I was willing to make some sacrifices for that career.
Now that I’ve started down the journalism road, I realize I’m still Claire, I’ve just swapped the volleyball for a microphone, and I’m prepared to swap that for other items down the road as well.