It’s a pretty common characteristic of getting older that we look back at our lives and think of who we were then and who we are now. We like to think we’re the same person but, the reality is, we are not. Many people redefine their past, recreating memories of the old days in ways that serve them better. Growing up, our parents, teachers, and friends, defined us by placing us into categories such as the student, the athlete, the cheerleader, the “good kid,” and the “troublemaker.” Most of us outgrow these monikers without any residual damage. Perhaps the two categories that can create the most damage to our emotional and physical wellness are the athlete and the cheerleader.
In our youth and adolescence, we often define ourselves through our physicality and our physical prowess. Athletes and cheerleaders enjoy a special place in the hierarchy of most American high schools, finding it easier to make friends, develop an identity, and to have positive self-esteem. For many, it’s one of the first ways that one defines themselves. But, alas, the glory days end and one becomes the former, as in “former athlete,” or “former cheerleader,” or even worse, the dreaded “used to be.” The critical element to this change of identity is how one internalizes this change. Most adjust, create a new self-image, take their life into a different direction, and move on physically and emotionally healthy. Others struggle with the “I used to be syndrome, “as in I used to be in great shape, I used to be 115 pounds, and I used to be able to ___________.” Some even re-create their past with biographical reinventions such as, “I would’ve turned pro but I blew out my knee.”
“Youth is wasted on the young.”-George Bernard Shaw
Young athletes usually take for granted the resiliency of their bodies. Yeah, they train hard at that period of their life, but often abuse their body through poor eating habits, lack of sleep, and ignoring injuries. There’s really no way around it that that age, it’s part of the intellectual makeup of both the youth and the athlete. After playing days are over however, the young athlete must make some adjustments in both lifestyle and self perception. If not, they run the risk of the “What happeneds,” as in “What happened to him?,”or “What happened to her?,” as their weight, health, and looks deteriorate. Athletes often face a problem when their playing days are over with weight control, health, and general levels of fitness. Many make a slow transition from active athlete to sports fan in an attempt to stay in touch with the glory days. We all know that guy, the former athlete who knows their sports inside out, can quote statistics, standings, and trivia as well as any broadcaster on ESPN. He’s carrying about 40 pounds over his best playing weight, sucks in his gut really well, and the most exercise he gets is lugging that 30 pack to his car from the liquor store. He still a great guy, but inside he’s likely to be suffering.
It’s more difficult for former athlete to regain athletic condition than one who discovers athletics and fitness later in life. The former athlete has, more than likely, an array of nagging injuries from his or her competition days. As kids, we all laughed about how we would be hurting when we got older, or never thought we would get older, or looked at our friends who played through injuries in awe. Playing through pain was a source of admiration, status, and pride. We sucked it up, played through it, and now pay the consequences. Starting a fitness regimen for a former athlete is difficult because a former athlete will probably never get back to levels of fitness that they enjoyed as a youth. For all too many, this is the reason that exercise consists of mowing the lawn once a week.
I’ve studied sports psychology and enjoy working with athletes and performers. One of the first things that needs to be identified when working with an athlete is whether they are primarily internally motivated or externally motivated in their pursuit of excellence. Those that are externally motivated tend to focus more on accolades, rewards, trophies, and medals. They enjoy competition and the thrill of victory. They usually hate practice and training, but do it 100% because they want to win and enjoy all that comes with it. Those that are internally motivated also enjoy victory, but they tend to also love the process. To the internally motivated athlete, it doesn’t matter who’s in the stands or what the stakes are, they’re going all out because they love the process. These are the guys love the training, love the practice, and love the pure physicality of it.
If you were once a competitive athlete, think about it for a moment. Which were you? What motivated you to be your best? There are generalities for sure, but before you say “I was a little bit of both,” consider what your motivation was. If you were mostly externally motivated, then it was probably harder for you after your competitive days were over. And, it doesn’t mean anything negative about your motivation either. Muhammed Ali is one of the best examples of an athlete that was externally motivated. He once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” If you were externally motivated, then you’re certainly in good company.
Regardless of what motivated you then, it’s important to find motivation now. The first step is to have some clearly defined health and fitness goals. It is important to assess who you are now, emotionally as well as physically. As a former athlete, it is important to come to grips with the fact that you probably will not be breaking any of your previous personal records in many things. Starting from a new baseline, and throwing away that highlight reel that was your past can be difficult. Get over it Princess! There’s still a tough competitor in there!
If you find it hard to work out just for the sake of it, or being in shape is not motivating for you, then find some competitive activity that you can get better at. Golf, bowling, bocce, horseshoes, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s something physical. Create a training regimen designed to make you more competitive in this activity and train like an athlete. Try some things that you thought you couldn’t do anymore and see if that is really true. Consider some activities that are close to what you once did. For example, if you were a baseball player, then take a look at slow pitch softball. If football was once your thing, then take a look at flag football or two hand touch. If you were once a cheerleader, then consider Zumba or some kind of dance class. Many fitness facilities have classes that are close to, but not exactly the real thing. Boxing training for example, minus the sparring, is a great workout, and if you want a combat sport where you can safely spar, then karate might be exactly what you’re looking for. Becoming an athletic official, a referee, umpire, or judge is another way to stay in touch with your favorite sport. Just try to find one that requires you to be in good physical condition. The attitude in which you approach this return to athletics is very important. Approach it with an open mind, as if starting for the first time. Forget who you were, and focus on who you are in the process of becoming. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/beginners-mind/)
Focus on the pure joy of athletics, get in touch with the experience you enjoyed during the glory days. The goal setting, camaraderie, goal attainment, thrill of victory-agony of defeat process-all of it, it’s never too late to have fun, stay in shape, and put whatever is left in you on the line. Be flexible and realistic, both mentally and physically in your pursuit. Focus more on fun and health, wellness, and life satisfaction will follow.
“And now you gotta get it back, and the way to get it back is to go back to the beginning. You know what I mean?”-Apollo Creed
P. S. Contact me if interested in online mindbody coaching or cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.