Finding your place after athletics

By Margaret Johnson

I don’t know exactly when it was that I became an “athlete,” but somewhere between fourth grade community programs and college varsity athletics, I evolved into one. That was my label, my identifier. Throughout my academic career I had always been involved in a variety of things, but athletics was a primary staple that followed me throughout my education. Before I knew it, athletics had taken over a large part of my life and played a great role in influencing my character and social life.

I don’t remember athletics ever being a passion of mine, however. It was just something that I did. And it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it—I did. But I didn’t have that raw enthusiasm and craving to play that so many players did. I was never in love with the game.

As a child, it was simply an activity to get me out of the house to socialize with other kids. And then I played the next year. And the next, and the next. Soon, it was just understood that I would play because that’s who I was—a player, an athlete. Playing sports was what I did; when I was given the opportunity to play basketball in college, it was understood that I would take that opportunity, because that’s what I did. I played basketball.

Don’t misunderstand me; I was grateful and still remain fully grateful for my experience and for the strong friendships I created over those three years in college as well as all the years I spent playing while growing up. Nonetheless, I often found myself wondering what else I could be. If I wasn’t an athlete, would I have become someone else? What would my label have been?

In high school, I wouldn’t have dreamt of quitting athletics. Coming from a town of 1,500, there wasn’t much else to do, and the small town culture was so entrenched in athletics that playing sports was just something you and all your friends did.

Playing college basketball, on the other hand, was a much bigger step than I had anticipated. The physical and mental exhaustion was something I had never experienced, nor was it something I was ever fully able to adapt to. So I quit. And it was probably the most difficult thing I had to do. I’d never quit anything in my life, with maybe the exception of my exit from Girl Scouts when I realized you do more selling of the cookies than eating them.

I had been buying into the negative stigma surrounding quitting my entire life. As an athlete, perhaps the most important message drilled into your head is that you never quit under any circumstances—you don’t quit on your teammates, you don’t give less than 100 percent when you step on that court. That had always been my frame of mind. But it became all too much and I began doubting that frame of mind, finally acknowledging that quitting was an option.

When I discussed quitting with my coach, she acknowledged that our priorities change, and that it is just a part of growing up. We change.

The things that we value and enjoy don’t necessarily become any less important to us, but new things begin to take a greater precedence. I feel that’s a lesson many Lawrentians neglect to realize, just as I did for years.

As Lawrentians, we’ve always been the over-achievers, the ones who juggle multiple extra-curriculars and interests on top of our challenging course-work. We’re individuals that have shown a strong commitment and dedication to a multiplicity of aspects throughout our lives while simultaneously striving to do even more.

But it’s important to take a step back and take note of your own mental state. I don’t believe most Lawrence students fall into the quality vs. quantity binary, leaning only toward one or the other. In fact, our efforts can often be described as extending quality across the quantity of activities we participate in—a valiant effort that often leaves you with nothing left to give.

For me, the idea of quitting, once a reality, brought a sense of relief in that I was free to spend time focusing on the things that I’d never had a chance to focus on.

Quitting was also a grieving process. I was grieving for a part of myself that had been with me for nearly 15 years; it was upsetting and confusing. If I wasn’t an athlete, who was I? I felt lost—like I had not only cut ties with my team, but with a large part of myself.

Especially at Lawrence where the socially constructed binary of Athletics vs. The Conservatory was prominent in my perspective of our community, I didn’t know where I would fit. I was no longer an athlete and I was not a part of the Con, so where was it that I belonged? I was afraid of existing in some sort of limbo, or rather falling through the cracks of this binary and having no place at all.

Sometimes I still struggle with this concept of having fallen through the cracks in regard to my identity, but I’m slowly coming to the realization that being a Lawrentian is an identity itself that doesn’t need to be broken down into more exclusive, separate identities. Being a Lawrentian—someone who strives to excel and explore new priorities—is more than enough of an honor for me. This liberal arts college is the perfect place to liberate yourself and explore the possibility of new identities.