It’s an absolutely amazing moment to see a teammate get drafted or selected for any of the next levels of play after college sports. If you look around at most senior days in all divisions of sports, at this already elite level of life and sport, most are wondering what’s next, as they realize they are not in that year’s drafted class. Since less than 2 percent of college athletes go on to play professional sports, that career too is often short-lived, with an average of just 3 years.
The end of playing sports in college can feel devastating, whether through injury or graduation, especially since most have been playing the sport since youth. Being around the team on a day-to-day basis, and more, such as the loss of identity, routine, clubhouse or locker room, sports family, and no longer playing can all combine for a massive letdown and can feel like the whole world is turned upside down.
While you probably have known this day was coming, the actual reality of it brings a host of feelings that are important to process. Some can look back and cherish their playing moments. Often, mixed into reality are feelings of failure and other negative-energy vibes, which often combine to create funky, clunky, and an unrealistic adjustment for most student-athletes. In case after case, we see athletes who have been playing since they were very young and parents who have been alongside for years.... lost. Suddenly, when that last playing moment is over, whatever sport one plays, you may find yourself wondering what in the world is next for your life.
While all part of the process, here are ten ways to smooth out the often-abrupt transition from student-athlete to the next phase of your life. The first five will help you sort out and assess what you are feeling. The next five will help you take action to continue forward.
Assess and Process
Understand Your Identity: At some point every athlete must learn how to transition from their sport in one way or another and perhaps from their athletic identity. There is no doubt that a lot of your identity is wrapped around being a student-athlete. When things are over, just like that, an identity crisis might follow. Answer this question: Who am I without the sport or who will I be without this sport? If you don’t know the answer to this question, it’s a starting point to begin to assess. For example, it might be time to write down a few things, in addition to your sport, that you really love to do. You might answer with the student part of your student-athlete side of you. If you put more energy into being an athlete than your studies, maybe you want to remedy that. Perhaps you want to move on and get a master’s degree. Consider pivoting to do something entirely different. It’s time to grow and expand your horizons, interests, passions, talents, and skills, and awareness.
Pause: Boost your self-awareness. Take a moment to pause and to assess your current self and the situation. Take a look at yourself in your entirety, not just athletics. You are processing a big change. Are you in tune with it or not? Taking a moment to assess where you’re at is a big step. There is an assessment on my website that is free to everyone, at besteveryou.com/changeguidebook.
Root in Gratitude: You may or may not already have heard about a gratitude practice. However, it’s time to start or ramp it up. Grab a journal and each day, like you would go to lift weights or practice, write down five things you are grateful for. It can be as simple as breathing, your family, friends, teammates or as detailed as a great play you made. It’s time to really understand how special you are and frame your perspective in gratitude and appreciation for what you have accomplished. It may be a moment to reflect on how exceptional it is that you have become a college athlete, since so few people even accomplish and experience that.
Follow Your Intuition, Drive, and Path: Often someone’s assessment of you on the field, in college, or during college isn’t the way you feel about yourself. It might be time to find a way and find a route to your dreams and goals and continue on. This never give up attitude should serve you. However, do set a realistic time frame and backup plan at this point if you are going to try to continue on. At a point, if it isn’t happening for you and you’ve exhausted all options, it will be time, just like every athlete faces at some point, to shift your focus to something else.
Keep Your Athletic Identity: Having an athletic identity means striving to become the best at what you do and doing what needs to be done to get there. It’s about the process. It’s about becoming a better version of yourself by exercising the determination and motivation to become the best. Because as an athlete, you know there is always a chance that the outcome won't be in your favor. However, your never give up attitude has served you in athletics and school. Continue to be tenacious in pursuit of your goal, even with the knowledge that you might need a backup plan. You may no longer be directly involved playing, but the mindset you have developed can be applied in life and in situations. Take Action
Graduate. Finish school: When I asked our son, Cam Guarino, who pitched at Georgetown University and earlier at New Haven, earning master’s degrees at both schools, he said, “Graduate. Invest in yourself and finish school.” Sound advice. Whether you finish up your undergraduate degree or an advanced degree, finish school. For those with undergraduate degrees, consider continuing on with more advanced degrees in a field that interests you. In some cases, this is a way to stay in your sport as a graduate assistant or volunteer coach. Ask questions and keep Learning. After you graduate, whatever you learned in school will be put to the real test by actually living and doing.
Get Involved Any Way You Can: Not everything in a sport is about becoming a professional at it. Perhaps there are ways to consider staying involved with the sport in various capacities. Discover interests and abilities for activities beyond your sport. You may consider coaching or mentoring other athletes.
Take Willie Baker at Georgetown University, for example. Baker, who walked onto the varsity baseball team during his freshman year at Georgetown University and was later released at the end of the fall. However, his involvement did not. He stayed on with the Georgetown team, albeit in a different capacity, by swapping his spot on the roster for a position as the student manager. This position, as it turned out, was not dissimilar to the one he now holds for the Falmouth Commodores in the prestigious Cape Cod League. Now in his second season with the organization, Baker is one of the few players to return from last summer. He officially wears the title of bullpen coach and catcher, but his contributions to the Commodores go far beyond the catcher’s mitt. As the Commodores said in their blog post about Willie from August 3, 2023, “ For the people who know and love him, there are no doubts that he will find a way to do exactly that.”
Move On, Dream Big, Set New Goals: Sometimes this is it and the sport goes into the rear-view mirror. It doesn’t mean it has to be permanent and it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to dream big. However, it might be time to get a job and become an adult working in society. For many, because you’ve essentially worked two full-time jobs for so long as a student-athlete, this can also feel like you have more time on your hands than you are used to. This is one huge reason why hiring managers often say they seek student athletes for positions because of their work ethic and so many other skills they have learned above and beyond others. You have a guidance center at college to help you find a position and you also have something so many people don’t have: student-athlete on your resume. It’s time to set some new goals!
Transfer Your Skills: Here's the thing, college athletes often derive their personal identity from their sport. Your diploma doesn’t say your major was the sport you played. While it may feel you spent much of every minute of the day and perhaps your dreams thinking of baseball or some other sport, you have an incredible number of skills that transfer into the workplace, such as timeliness, drive, teamwork, goal-setting, leadership, intangibles, and more. It’s a moment to count the blessings the sport has taught you and use them in the real world to help yourself and others. You may even decide to coach and mentor others in their quest to be the best in the sport of baseball and life.
Keep in Touch: Sure, everyone says they are going to keep in touch, but often we really don’t. People go their separate ways and back to all places in the country. Distance becomes a factor where it wasn’t before with your teammates being there day in and day out. Consider keeping in touch with several teammates above and beyond texting to really keep in touch with. Speak each week by phone and arrange time to visit each other now and then. Build strong relationships with people in both baseball and outside of the sport. Perhaps add a few professors, mentors and parents to the mix. This will help you move forward into all you do next with people who know the flight path, whatever you choose.
Quick Tips for Parents of Student-Athletes:
Encourage the student part of student-athlete.
Give your son or daughter the space to unwind.
Allow them time for change and growth.
Encourage the transfer of skills and to follow their passions whether in a job or in their sport. For Coaches:
Keep your former student-athletes and alumni involved. Offer them an opportunity to buy next year’s gear that you order. Hold video calls. Pick their brains for local talent. Make time.
Recognize everyone for what they are doing next, not just the ones drafted or the superstars. In your coach’s blog or social media, add a section for what they are doing now or create a LinkedIn networking group for your team and alumni. Don’t just have a group for those in the pros; create one that is inclusive with those in the pros and those who are succeeding after college life, since most have not been drafted.
Change your bio to not just include accolades or those drafted or who have post season honors, but also honor what people are doing in business and in life.
Complete the bio sections for each student-athlete on your roster. Add a personal note. See Coach Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt for an excellent example of this. He adds a personal note to each bio on the roster.
Invite your alumni to camps, alumni days or other opportunities to engage each other and especially to help reinforce the culture of year’s past with this year’s team.
Being a student athlete is a multi-faceted endeavor. A student-athlete develops a wide range of skills that when combined with properly managing their education, career development and more are successful in life beyond the field.
About Elizabeth Hamilton-Guarino
Since 2008, as the Founder of Best Ever You, Elizabeth Hamilton-Guarino has been helping people be their best and find success. She is a Master Life Coach and author of multiple books on the topic of change, success and peace, including the bestsellers, The Change Guidebook - How To Align Your Heart, Truths, and Energy to Find Success in All Areas of Your Life and PERCOLATE - Let Your Best Self Filter Through .Her next book, The Success Guidebook – How to Visualize, Actualize and Amplify You will be released in April 2024 by HCI/Simon & Schuster and is available to pre-order. The Best Ever You Network provides personal and professional development in multi-media format and has grown into a brand with more than one million followers on verified social media platforms and millions of radio listens and downloads on The Best Ever You Show. Her hashtags, #BestEverYou, #TipstoBeYourBest are widely circulated.