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Exiting Sport Gracefully: Athlete’s Guide

Exit Sport Gracefully

For many athletes, quitting is not in their vocabulary. Athletes work throughout their athletic careers to exceed the demands of their sport and achieve specific performance goals. Many athletes have devoted a significant portion of their life towards their sport. This is represented through work ethic and sacrifices that have been made along the way. Every athlete identifies with the athletic role they take on to a certain extent, which is known as athletic identity. Each athlete’s athletic identity helps shape their goals and decisions. These are connected to the reasons they participate in their sport and their passion. When the time comes, is exiting sport gracefully an option? After all, we have  spent a lot of time developing our athlete identity.

Exiting Sport Gracefully. Can It Happen?

During an athlete’s career, they might consider exiting their sport. Walking away from a sport could be very challenging for some athletes. For others, it’s a simple decision. Some athletes might feel they need to stay in the sport to please others. Are they disappointing their coach and teammates? Leaving sports could also be challenging for athletes as they might worry about the unknown. They may ask themselves: Who am I without my sport? What do I do with my extra time? How do I train and eat now that I’m not in training? How will I structure my future workouts? Am I still an athlete?

Exiting sports is not necessarily a negative thing for an athlete. It can be empowering and perfect for some athletes, especially if the time is right. Athletes need to realize that they are in control of how long they choose to stay in the sport. This also means they are in control of  when they decide to exit sport. Here are a few aspects for an athlete to consider when evaluating if it might be time to take a step back from sport.

What To Consider When Deciding To Exit Sport

  1. They are losing a sense of joy. Being involved in sports should provide an athlete with a feeling of fulfillment. Sports should also be enjoyable and fun! When an athlete struggles to feel fulfilled, they might notice that their sense of joy is lost. The emotions associated with dread and lack of enjoyment could cause an athlete to feel apprehensive. They may also feel unmotivated and nervous about managing what they’re experiencing. Athletes could start to dread practices and competitions as well as feel disengaged.
  2. They are feeling stuck. It’s very easy for an athlete to take on roles associated with their sport. For instance, at some points during an athlete’s career, they might embrace the routine, structure, and demands they take on as an athlete. This also could be connected with an athlete achieving their goals and feeling fulfilled and accomplished. During other times, they might struggle to achieve that same level of accomplishment and connection to their sport. This might be when an athlete starts to feel like they have to participate in their sport because they don’t know what to do without the sport in their life. It might be challenging for an athlete to feel joy and a sense of accomplishment during this time.
  3. They recognize negative emotions. Athletes experience numerous emotions concerning their sport. Emotions can range from feeling excited and happy to frustrated and sad. Of course, these emotions fluctuate daily based on the situations and environments an athlete is exposed to. Most often, feelings will subside. Should negative emotions persist, evaluating what is causing this response is important. The athlete should consider if this is something they can move forward with the sport or if it is time for a break.
  4. They are a people pleaser. Sometimes, an athlete might decide to stay involved in their sport to please someone else. That could be their coach, teammates, parents, partners, etc. The feeling of letting someone down might create an internal conflict for the athlete to address. It is essential to silence the noise from external factors. The athlete can gain clarity from their inner voice.

Exiting Sport On Your Terms. What Is Best For You?

What is one of the most important things to remember as an athlete? The answer to that question is making decisions based on what is best for themselves, both physically and mentally. If an athlete has decided it is time to take a step back from their sport, they must be confident in their decision.Others might need help understanding an athlete’s decision. This can be stressful for the athlete. Staying true to their beliefs and deciding what is best is essential. They will be able to recognize they are making the best decision for themselves. By deciding what is best for them they will be exiting sport gracefully.



Dr JoAnne Bullard Run Tri Bike Magazine Doctor of Sport and Performance Psychology

JoAnne Bullard is a Doctor of Sport and Performance Psychology and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. She is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

She serves as a tenured Associate Professor at Rowan University and is the owner of Absolute Fitness, LLC.  Her goal is to provide a holistically applied approach for clients through performance psychology consulting. She has experience working with athletes of all ages, including endurance athletes, in individual and group sessions.  Her research areas include mindfulness, performance anxiety, goal setting, coping strategies, and mental well-being of athletes.

She has completed five marathons, numerous half-marathons, and is always looking for her next race.