February 5, 2023

BERNSTEIN | The Death of the Athlete

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There comes a time in almost every high school-to college-aged kid’s life where they stop playing organized sports.

For some, it’s a moment of relief. You never really wanted to play soccer anyway, you only really did it because you weren’t half-bad and you knew your teammates and parents would be a little disappointed if you quit. Besides, it looked good on the college app. Maybe you were done after freshman year of high school because you worked up the courage to say no, this isn’t for me. Or maybe you enjoyed your time playing your sport, but you were just ready. It’d been a long season, and it was bittersweet to be done, but it was right.

For others, it’s a moment of pain. You broke your ankle playing pick-up basketball and from the sideline blew a somber kiss goodbye to your senior baseball or softball season. Or you lost a big game — maybe even a playoff game — you could have sworn you should have won. You walked away from your respective field, court, track, rink, dock, pool or piste speechless, trying to keep your chin up because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Or you cried with your teammates in the locker room after your final game or match, whatever the outcome was — you might not even remember.

It’d be easy to write this column with the main takeaway being that the athlete in you never really dies. You are always moving, you are always needing exercise, and your body is always athletic. No matter when you finish playing your sport, varsity, junior varsity, club, whatever level you achieved, you are always an athlete. The competition transforms from a blank-faced opponent like your high school or college rival into a previous version of yourself, and the game you play against this opponent is some form of physical or mental training as opposed to lacrosse.

I believe this to be mostly true. I don’t always think that athletics and exercise need to be competitive, even in a bettering-of-self sort of way, but I recognize and appreciate how we are always athletes on an individual basis.

I find it, however, that what’s more fascinating than the idea of how we continue to be athletic beyond the end of each of our respective athletic careers is what happens in the moment those careers die. What changes inside of us? At this turning point, I think there’s a necessary point of introspection. You evaluate your own motivations, goals, skills picked up along the way, how good of a teammate you are and how much fun you have and are able to have.

Here’s an example. I often find myself thinking about how a journeyman back-up who plays at the professional level deals with internal evaluation at the end of their career. They were a top recruit out of high school, a superstar at the collegiate level and then made their promise to be the best there ever was. Then, they got to the pros and by all means stunk. When they retire, how do they look back? How do they suppress regret and instead find pride in what fans and pundits might call a failure? Maybe more importantly, how do they look forward? How do they learn from their success and mistakes to move on and be better?

It wasn’t until I finished my senior year playing Sprint Football this past fall that I began to realize how broadly these questions apply. Not just to the back-up, but to the superstar and the role player. To me, my teammates, my peers and anyone who has ever played a sport at any organized level.

I spent 13 years playing football, and it’s pretty unlikely that I will ever have to kick slide into a pass set again in my life. It’s a skill I’ve practiced so much that I do it in my dreams, just gone. What I will have to do, however, is learn how to harness the energy and effort that I’ve put into niche skills for my sport and apply them elsewhere. The same goes for the devotion towards being a good teammate, committing to personal growth, attaining specific goals and having fun playing a game I love. Now, I have to figure out how to redirect that devotion.

I think this applies for anyone who has ever played a sport, and I think athletics in particular are powerful for this reason — whether or not you even enjoyed the game you played, or regardless of how hard you think you tried — they require so much of us, and then they just end.

Time runs out on the game clock, the final out is caught, the match point is won, the sun sets and it’s over. The journeyman back-up sleeps well at night knowing that their athletic career, despite its appearance of triviality, has been profound. Our careers, regardless of how passionate or successful, have too been profound. May their deaths only bolster their legacies.

Daniel Bernstein is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs alternate Sundays this semester.