The finality of your athletic career alone is an obstacle that takes time to wrestle with. Couple that with constantly chasing the dragon of trying to find something to insert into your life to recreate the feelings that life as an athlete gave you. The connections, the motivation, intrinsic and external, the intangibles of bus rides, locker rooms, 5:45 a.m wake ups; these experiences are irreplaceable, the feelings are not truly able to be remade in purity. I am going to slightly spoil the rest of the piece by saying, you cannot fill the void. You can’t do something that brings you the same happiness and desire that 20 years of life as an athlete brought. I wouldn’t do that to you though, I am too hopeful just to leave it there. You will be fine and there will be ways to bring your life balance and give it the recreated purpose you were looking for.
Boy was I looking for it! Once my playing career ended I thought I had all my ducks in row. I was going to be a grad student for some time. Great, I’ll still be a student. That’s one identity that won’t be gone - yet. It wasn’t that easy. I was grasping for competition, glory and camaraderie. I was in a new city, in a ruthless graduate program and feeling lost and isolated with a gaping hole in my life. I decided to do two things in an effort to regain identity, training and purpose. I adopted a vegan diet and decided I would take the next 6 months and train for a marathon. The kicker about these things is that they just made me more socially restricted and isolated. My thought process was that well, I’m a good athlete and have a good work ethic I’ll train for a marathon and finishing it in the end will give me that feeling back. And i’ll eat a vegan diet and be able to identify on an ideological level to something of purpose. Now in the midst of this I was also growing a beard that rivaled Justin Turner or Dallas Keuchel’s beard at the time. So you can imagine that I was in full mid-life crisis mode in my early 20’s with my entire life ahead of me.
I was very wrong about both of my attempted endeavors. To some extent maybe everyone goes through something like this when they lose something or someone. For the record, I finished the NJ marathon in 3 hours and 48 minutes and trained through one of Boston’s worst winters to do it. It was just the athlete in me that pushed for that. There was no connection to it or for it, but I said I was going to do it so I did it. I didn’t eat meat or animal products for a year and a half and there was also no rooted purpose to this, but I said I would do that and it was going to help, so I tried it. I’m partly grateful for going through those things and the process of figuring it out. We all say “trust the process” or “the journey is the destination” but when you’re in it, the quote leaves a lot to be desired. I was having a hard time connecting to something. I was filled with a lot of worry and uncertainty. I went to see a psychologist. I always had my shit figured out, I needed some answers. I work as a mental health professional and encourage people on a daily basis to get themselves help or to come see me for help but there was still something I didn’t want to face about going to get myself help.
Things got better. They can always get better. I started to connect more to my graduate program and put myself almost forcibly under the wing of some of my professors. They seemed to have it all figured out. They both were big time athletes, professional and olympic. I went to their office hours, stayed after class with them. It was about that time that I started coaching. I picked up a job as the assistant varsity baseball coach at the school I was interning at at the time. Coaching has been a tremendous help to me. I have been doing it regularly since. I’ve been coaching or training kids in almost every season for the last 4 years. The idea of having a huge wealth of knowledge about your sport and the intricacies of it and being able to impart it on kids just learning the game is something I truly cherish. Kids hang on to your words like gospel as you sit with them and grind with them day in and day out. In coaching you give up the control you had as a player but you gain the transitive feelings of your player’s development as your own. There are new seasons, and kids you view as “projects”, you work with rigor and spend time outside of the allotted time of games or practice to get better. It is a lot like playing. I look forward to warm nights under the lights and mornings with dew on the grass lining the field. The pressure we put on ourselves as players is lifted because all you want to do is create an athletic experience for your players that was even 1/16th as good as yours. Sure, there is a formative was to evaluate yourself but I know when my players are psyched up to “warrior style” their eye black or make personal handshakes with every player on the team, that something positive is happening.
At about the same time I started coaching, I joined a CrossFit gym. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into with the obvious stigma that surrounds CrossFit as a culture and form of training but I wanted to try it. I knew the whole marathon thing was out of the equation so it was like trial and error at this point. I walked into the gym and haven’t left. I like CrossFit for two main reasons. One is the community effort and camaraderie that is housed in one training facility - there is a branding and prideful identity to that. Sounds a lot like what we use to do. You mostly go to the same class daily, so you then workout with the same group of people. In addition to that there is a slight competitiveness there that I was itching for. In order to be more competitive I had to get better at all these new movements, so I had to train. Sounds a lot like what we use to do. I view all these new olympic lifting movements and gymnastics movements as skills that I have to drill and practice. It continuously feels like honing your craft in your sport. You can only be motivated by wanting to “get a good sweat” for so long. Everyday I walk into the gym with something to work on, with like minded people and get coached in a group setting by coaches. When my squat needs work I do drills. When my toes-to-bar break down I need to strategize and find the loophole. When I’m sore or injured I get treatment and I work on my recovery. Sounds a lot like what we use to do. People usually hit me with the cost factor or some other justification for not trying it out. I justify my monthly payment by making my coffee at home and not buying a large coffee on the way to work which in 30 days adds up to your average monthly fee. It’s manageable and it can help you fill the void.
Everyone will have different things that help them in their life after sport. An intrinsic and authentic engagement in your career I think would be the most beneficial and connective thing but we all know not everyone has that option and it is not always realistic, so we have to look elsewhere. This is what worked for me. It could very well not work for you but something will. In a handful of our interviews we’ve spoken about establishing a work-life balance. In Minyard Culpepper’s episode he talks about the benefits of coaching for himself outside of his law practice. For him it was relaxing and helped him give back to his community. I workout with Haley Jones from JonesBar (Episode 3) at CrossFit. I don’t know her feelings about CrossFit as it relates to her continuing to train and be competitive or feel connected to a community but when we are in class together, pushing each other, it sure feels like it is doing more than giving her or I an excuse to shower later.
Chalk Talk is a weekly What's Next column by Anthony Cinelli, one of our founders. It will be published every Monday morning. Anthony is currently a mental health counselor and baseball coach in New Jersey.