For years, Jenny Wilson set her alarm clock for 4:11 a.m. She rose before the sun so she could be in the pool by 4:45 a.m., a routine that started in the sixth grade. When she started swimming for Northwestern University in 2008, she was out of bed by 5:21 a.m.
Those early practices paid off. Wilson set school records in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. She competed at the 2012 NCAA championship meet and in the 2012 Olympic trials. As a senior, she was first-team All American. Her name is etched on a plaque that hangs on the wall by the Northwestern pool.
But since Wilson graduated last June, her alarm blares at 7 a.m., but she no longer heads to the pool. She goes to her job as a reporter at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut.
“I miss it so much,” Wilson said. “There is a huge void in my life.”
Wilson is one of thousands of NCAA student-athletes who struggle with the emotional and physical transition from a life centered on athletics. Sports psychologists say that even though many student-athletes initially feel relief after finishing their athletic career, some still suffer depression and other mental-health issues for several years after graduation.
Despite the pervasive, predictable symptoms that affect so many of their athletes, many Big Ten athletic departments do not directly offer mental-health services for their seniors.
Dealing with the transition? “Unfortunately, we don’t really talk about it very much or prepare athletes for it,” said Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland. Silby is a former U.S. national figure skater and has worked with many U.S. Olympians and national champions.
Many college athletes just finishing their careers feel relieved. After seven years of competitive track, Alex Fisher is ready to unlace his cleats. In May, he finished his last season of running hurdles at DePaul University in Chicago, after also running three years at High Point University in North Carolina and three years in high school.
At DePaul, “I’m in graduate school, but this whole first year, I’ve basically been focusing on track, so now that it’s done, I have time to finally try to find a job,” he said. Leaving the sport behind seems exciting, at least for now, especially after a disappointing final season.
Marybeth Hall and Taylor Reynolds, both Northwestern swimmers, will accept their diplomas in late June. Their reactions are bittersweet, yet relieved. Both said that leaving swimming would allow them to invest in new personal and professional directions.
“It’s such a grueling sport that by senior year, I was very broken down,” said Hall, who plans to attend medical school at the University of Michigan in the fall. “But I’ve learned to find as much excitement in science, which is really nerdy, so I know that’s going to be a good replacement for me.”
Reynolds, who competed at the NCAA meet this year, said, “The more you devote yourself to something, like swimming, and the more sacrifices you make for it, the harder it is to let it go.”
However, many athletes who feel relief immediately after the sport is over can fall into some level of depression later on. Silby equates the psychological stages that recently retired athletes go through to those of someone who lost a loved one or other tragic events, because the stages of reaching acceptance are very similar.
“Even when athletes are happy about moving on and starting the next phase of their life and excited about that possibility they’re also simultaneously experiencing the sense of loss,” Silby said.
“A lot of athletes will tell you they’re relived but when you start pulling back the layers they start to also experience this sense of loss,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s unhealthy or that it always leads to depression, but there’s this period of adjustment.”
But Northwestern’s athletic department does not offer mental-health services for student-athletes. Instead, it sends students to the campus-wide Counseling and Psychiatric Services office, said Julie Dunn, assistant athletic director. A spokesman for the University of Illinois Athletic Department said it does not have an athlete-centered mental-health service, either; instead, it is handled on a case-by-case basis.
Student-athletes not only experience emotional changes, but physical injuries can also linger after their career ends. In a 2013 study by Michigan State University, researchers found nearly 30 percent of student-athletes' injuries were from overuse, or the repetitive re-injuring that can often remain a problem after graduation.
Madalyn Shalter, a Northwestern volleyball player who graduated in 2012, sprained her ankle multiple times before she was finally diagnosed with a sublexing post-tibial tendon on her right ankle. More than a year after leaving the sport, she still uses the ankle delicately.
“Only 15 people in the U.S. have had this injury. Lucky for me, I’ve been good, it hasn’t bothered me too much,” Shalter said. “I think it was a mixture of overuse and impact. I went to go jump and it popped. My tendon came out of the crevice and slipped over my bone.”
Silby, who counsels injured athletes, said major career-ending injuries can make depression worse, as an athlete copes with the abrupt ending to a sport-focused lifestyle and, in many cases, a dream.
“The key to how an athlete feels about his or her departure from sports is how much perceived control they have over that decision,” Silby said. “The difference between choosing to stop playing versus being cut or becoming injured and then that taking you out of the sport, so the way in which that determination occurs and how much control the athlete has over that decision making process really does impact how they do next with the transition.”
When student-athletes no longer compete, some lose their sense of “sports self-esteem,” said Mark Anshel, a sports psychologist at Middle Tennessee State University. Sports self-esteem, he said, is when a person’s value is mirrored by their success in sports.
“When you take that away, the very core of their importance ... you take that away from their lives, they feel they become less of a person,” said Anshel, who has worked with student-athletes for more than 30 years. “They’re less valued as an individual and it’s a real blow to their personality, to their self-esteem, to their sense of importance to the world.”
Anshel said many athletes he sees on campus reach a point of being ready to put away the sport, some because of a nagging injury, some because of realize they were not as successful as they would have hoped, and some just to see where life takes them next. However, even if they are able to find happiness in other parts of life, some athletes find it hard to clean out the locker for the last time.
Wilson has been off the student-athlete schedule for a year, but she still fantasizes about returning to serious competition. She hopes to make a comeback in July at the National U.S. Open Swimming Championships in California.
“My qualifying times are still good for this summer, so if I wanted to go, I could,” Wilson said. “I think about it when I really, really miss the sport.”
But psychologists said the best way to cope with this transition is to find a new activity to invest in.
“You’ve got to be able to cope with it and the only way to do that is to realize that life goes on,” Anshel said. “It’s so important to realize sports is a component in life, a part of being happy, a component, but it’s not all of what life is and there’s so much more to life than just sports.”