Beyond Strength Clinic, Palos Hills: Life After Sport

By Jennifer Foust

What would you do if you tore both of your Achilles tendons… at the same time? Athlete, coach, and all-around good human Ingrid Marcum had to answer that question. #BeyondStrength @coach4kindness

Ingrid began her gymnastics career before the age of two and went on to become a competitive college athlete. With a gymnast background and a significant level of strength, she found Olympic Weightlifting and qualified for the American Open and the US National Championships within her first few months of training.

After years of competing she won her first National Weightlifting title in 2009. During this time, Ingrid was also recruited to try out for the US Bobsled team and went earned a spot as an alternate for the 2010 Olympic team.

Earlier this year, when Ingrid completely tore both achilles tendons, she found herself in a wheelchair for several months. Only recently before the clinic was she cleared to walk without boots on her feet. However, her attitude was much different than what might be expected.

She had been working on her mindset. She was ready.

A defining characteristic of good athletes is their ability to break down a big, overarching goal into smaller more manageable tasks. A significant event like winning a state championship or making the Olympic team can be allocated into hours of preparation and performances by an individual willing to take on the demanding processes which are necessary for success. It was this very method which helped Ingrid during her recovery.

“You have to do what [the doctors] ask you to. You just take it day by day, step by step.” Optimism, gratitude, and an appreciation for the process of improvement supported her through this challenging time.

Life After Sports

There always seems to be a next step, a compilation of moments all leading to some romantic finish line. Making a roster. Winning a championship. While those are admirable goals, we too often fail to consider life after athletics. What happens once an athlete finally crossed the finish line they’ve worked so hard to reach? For an individual that has thrived on “next steps,” where are they supposed to go?

Life after sport is often a harsh reality. Coaches very rarely address the issue, leaving former athletes with time on their hands, lack of direction, and talents developed tediously over the years with very few areas to apply those talents in the “real world”. For athletes who have developed their identities through sport, their biggest challenge may be learning to identify themselves as people, not athletes, once competition days are over.

“It’s just the experience I’m going through in life right now. Stuff will come, it’s how we deal with it.”

She admits that developing this way of thinking took many years of practice, suggesting athletes take the time to build a solid foundation, requiring a focus on positive self-talk and reflection. It’s a lesson we can all learn from.

Filling the Hole

All athletes have one thing in common: after their career starts, it one day comes to an end. While every athlete deals with this in their own way, Ingrid found that by opening up to other retired athletes, she wasn’t the only one struggling to fill the hole athletics left.

She reflected on what helped to make her and so many other athletes successful, and that’s the need for drive and achievement. “There has got to be something special that drives you to train by yourself, in the middle of winter.” So often, athletes are willing to do tough things in order to find success in their sport. To become the most competitive version of themselves. What they are really doing, she suggests, is filling a hole in their lives with sport.

“We fill [the hole] and we don’t notice it’s there until the sport is gone.”

Defining “the hole” is completely individual, and is often the work of a lifetime. Since this is a challenge every athlete will ultimately face, Ingrid left the audience with applicable steps she used in this phase of her journey:

1. Ask the right questions.

Get to the heart of the feeling by understanding what it is that made athletics so important in the first place. Ingrid shared her experiences with being bullied at a young age and realized that it was being able to perform well that made her feel “cool.” This, at least in part, led to continuous dedication for many years.

She encourages athletes to get to the root of their love for sport, understanding what it is that actually makes it valuable to them. She also noted the importance of identity and finding who you are outside of athletic ability.

2. Be present.

Developing a focus on the here and now is an important part of moving on. Athletes are notoriously known for their focus and ability to shut out every distraction in the way of winning. When the need to focus on performance is gone, shifting that attention to the present can help fill that void.

We discussed the potential ability sports have to teach life lessons, if applied in the right way by both athlete and coach. Ingrid reframed this thought by asking athletes to understand those lessons and how they still apply post competition. By staying present in the moment and focusing on the right things, athletes may find an easier transition into life after sport.

3. There doesn’t have to be a “next”.

For someone who finds comfort in having a next step, this may be the biggest challenge to conquer. At this point, identifying as someone other than an athlete can become crucial.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with setting goals, athletes should be able to prepare for life after sport knowing there doesn’t always have to be the next practice, the next game, the next finals, etc. It is okay to simply live in that moment and find identity outside of sport, knowing there doesn’t always have to be a next.

Set the Foundation

Successful athletes have a gift. They have the ability to put their head down and work when things get tough. They have an unstoppable determination and a laser-like focus. That drive breeds resilience, grit, and undeniable mental toughness.

However, at the end of a career, an athlete’s greatest qualities work against them… if we fail to recognize the difficulty of the transition.

Coaches should be aware that their role must go Beyond Strength to thoughtfully instill life lessons early on, and encouraging athletes to identify with more than just a life of competition. Coaches should help athletes recognize who they are as human beings, beyond the sport which they will inevitably, one day, be forced to leave behind.

With a proper foundation, athletes can then move forward after their careers, no longer needing a next step, but feeling confident that the lessons they learned through years of training can be successfully applied to a life after sport.

Keep an eye out for the book Ingrid is currently writing on the topic. Until then, feel free to reach out to us for support.