After the Whistle Blows: What happens when athletes are forced to give up the game that shaped them

Pro soccer’s Rachel Breton’s new column “After the Whistle Blows” explores the issues, emotions and tough decisions that soccer players and all athletes face when forced to retire from the sport that shaped them. 

“I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone.”

The familiar and famous line in Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” replays in my head, yet always at different times and moments in my life. The beauty about music is that you can always find lyrics that get you. You always find that perfect song for what you’re feeling right there in that instant, something that says, “Yes, I understand.”

I believe the same thing applies in sports. Because for me as a professional soccer player, the Kansas line embodies an important part of the competitive athlete’s experience.

As athletes, we live for moments. We push and grow. We get stronger. We struggle. We suffer. Not too long ago, I came across an article in the Huffington Post entitled, “The Most Important Question You Can Ask Yourself Today.”  Writer Mark Manson asks a loaded question, not “What happiness do you want?,” but “What pain do you want?” He details it like this:

What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives end up. Everybody wants to have an amazing job and financial independence—but  not everyone is willing to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. People want to be rich without the risk, with the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.

When I read that, I thought back to the practices, the staying after, the coming earlier, the “off-seasons” (there are really no off-seasons in soccer), the ups and the very downs. I thought of every fragment of emotion, time and effort ever put into what I do.

Sweet bun Rach. 4 years ago. Life is weird. #whatsmyageagain #tbt

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[More from Excelle Sports: Reaction: Heather O’Reilly closes her USWNT career after 15 years]

If you are a player, you are OK with the struggle and the pain for that very moment, for that fraction of victory—the medal, the teammates, the wave you give to your parents in the crowd, the friends coming to your game, the simple happiness of performing for what you love … But what happens when all that is done? Some train and practice like it is going to be their last, but what happens when it really is the last one?

Sometimes you have an earlier ending than you imagined. Sometimes the road takes an unexpected turn and your trajectory comes to a sudden halt due to injury, job opportunities, age, experiences, unexpected “road closures” and unavoidable “detours.”  You base your entire life on your sport, from as young as age 4. And then after 20 or more years, it ends.

Before that, your life revolved around soccer. You played club, high school, ODP and so on. It was a tough balancing act with so many tournaments and events while trying to keep up with school while traveling around the country and even overseas for games. There were exams and papers you tried to do in advance or you made up the work as immediately as you could.

If you kept playing in college, you chose your classes based on team practices and scheduled make-ups for any classes you’d miss during away games. It never stopped. After college, if you didn’t stop, you played overseas or went semi-pro or even pro.

But sooner or later, there comes a time when it stops. So how do you adjust? It’s a panic mode everyone goes through, as they think, “Now what?”

HAPPY TO ANNOUNCE …… that …… it's Friday (what's more important than that ?✅).

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[More from Excelle Sports: Sinead Farrelly retires from pro soccer, one year after car accident]

In response to Manson’s question about what kind of pain you’re looking for, the competitive athlete wants daily pain—the struggles and sacrifices that, in the end, ironically become a key part of the happiness in the sports journey. As an athlete, it seems natural to push towards your goals, without focusing on all you must overcome to achieve them.

Yet it’s not only about the goals you set for yourself, but also also about owning the journey along the way. You want the pain because the goals seem worth it. But what you don’t foresee—and what no practice, training or match prepares you for—is when the “moment” is gone and you have to let go of the journey, including that sweet pain that you, in fact, wanted.  

When athletes move on to other engaging ventures, some do it without the slightest hiccup. For others, though, it proves to be significantly more challenging than anticipated. For others still, the experience falls somewhere in between. Join me on an exploration of this transitional phase in the series of life after the other moment’s gone.

Because there is always hope.

Rachel Breton is a  professional soccer player, most recently for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Sky Blue FC. She has ​been playing soccer since the age of 4. Since then, she has competed nationally and internationally all over the world. She also played soccer at Rutgers and Villanova University, where she was a four-time Big East Conference Academic All-Star.

Jump To Comments
  • Marissa Tomei

    I have had to read this article over and over again. What a compelling
    voice! Thank you for giving a voice to the many, many athletes who
    sooner or later experienced this transition. So paradoxically poignant
    and comforting all at once–because you realize you’re not alone in this
    feeling…”I always knew looking back on my
    tears would bring me laughter, but I never knew looking back on my
    laughter would make me cry.”