After the Whistle Blows: Learning to love life when you’re forced to say goodbye to your sport

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. 

In the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Housman stings the reader with these two lines:

Runners whom renown outran/
And the name died before the man.

How verifiably profound. The moment, the times, the glory days—these all outlive athletes; their fame dies long before they do.

It’s an ongoing theme in sports and the subject of many books and articles: “Why Players Can’t Stay Retired,” “How Athlete Deals With Retirement,” “Life After Sport,” “The Athlete Transition,” “Struggling with Identity After Sport,” “Fallen Idols” … The list goes on, but the problem remains. How do athletes cope? What is the remedy? Is there even a remedy?

Who is going through the same thing?

Everyone at some point is yearning for someone who knows the song in their heart and can sing it back to them.

The first singer? Christie Welsh.

[More from Excelle Sports: After the Whistle Blows: What happens when athletes are forced to give up the game that shaped them]

Christie Welsh plays for the U.S. women’s national team. (Photo courtesy of Christie Welsh.)

For those who only know the current slew of U.S. soccer stars—Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo—before them there were many others. Their names may have “died,” but their history, success and struggles have not.

Welsh debuted for the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) in 2000. During her first season with the team, she scored 11 goals in 15 games, scoring the first 10 goals faster than any other female player in American soccer history. In 2005, Welsh won the Golden Boot Award after sinking five goals, including the game-winning goal, in the championship match against Germany at the Algarve Cup.

Before joining the national team, Welsh played soccer at Penn State University, where she was awarded the Hermann Trophy, given annually to the top collegiate soccer player. She finished her career with two NCAA national titles, three consecutive Soccer America Collegiate MVP’s, three Big Ten Player of the Year honors and four NSCAA All-America honors. Today, Welsh continues to be the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer.

After she graduated, Welsh spent years playing for various professional teams, finishing her national career with the USWNT in 2008 and her professional career in the Women’s Professional Soccer league for Washington Freedom in 2010.

The year before she retired, Welsh knew it would be her last year playing professionally and she wanted to make the most of it as a player and, moreover, as a teammate. By focusing on having fun, she ended up having one of her favorite seasons.

Though she ended her career with zest, giving up soccer was anything but easy for Welsh.

Retirement is like losing a love,” Welsh told me. “You walk away from it, but you know it’s still there every day going on and moving forward, and that you’re just not a part of it anymore.”

For Welsh—and for so many other players—it’s not just losing a love, but losing their identity, their routine, the thing that drives them to get out of bed in the morning.

“There is not a day that goes by when I don’t wake up and my first thoughts are ‘What’s the workout for today?’ and ‘How am I going to make my fitness better?,’” Welsh said. “That’s the most interesting thing now, not having to answer to a set standard anymore, but trying to set a new standard altogether … Mentally, your identity shifts big time. You walk out into the world and have to redefine yourself all over again.”

Christie Welsh. (Photo courtesy of Christie Welsh.)

[More from Excelle Sports: FC Kansas City’s Caroline Kastor announces retirement]

Elite athletes are wired to train and compete. So when they have to give up their sport, they struggle with the transition. Do they train the same? Do they even train at all?

“You invest wholeheartedly into something at a very high level and that’s hard to step away from,” Welsh said. “You train your brain every day for almost 15 to 20 years to act a certain way, eat a certain way, sleep a certain amount, etcetera, and then one day you yell at yourself to stop thinking that way and just expect that you can change. All of my focus while playing was achieving goals I had set out as an athlete—to be an Olympian, to be a World Cup champion. When you decide to stop playing or are forced to stop playing and don’t achieve those goals … It’s tough, very tough. I have probably contemplated coming back and playing about 100 times since I actually stepped away from the game.”

When you love something deeply, no one else can put a value on that love. You miss it, you try to see it or be a part of it from afar, and it’s hard. Every athlete copes with it differently. For Welsh, it meant not watching soccer for a while. “When I retired I didn’t watch a USWNT game live until four years later,” she said. “And even watching on TV was hard. There were just too many emotions.”

Navigating through the transition, Welsh says she’s experienced a shift in perspective and self-love.

“I am more kind to myself [now] and give myself breaks more than I did as an athlete,” she said. “I also think I changed internally on how competitive I am. I think that is different for individuals. I know some people who have stopped playing and they are still as competitive as they were when they played. I think, for me, once I stopped, I stopped.

“It’s always nice to win, but now I think I enjoy the process of achieving something more than the actual achievement part,” she said.

The physical, mental and emotional aftermath of giving up a sport is challenging enough, but there’s another part that Welsh says most elite athletes overlook.

Most of my concerns [when I retired] centered around finances and what I was going to do next, career wise,” Welsh said. “I received a lot of, ‘Well you don’t have experience’ when it came to finding a job—it was like I was a 22-year old in terms of just coming out of school and trying to find a job and career, yet I was 30. It took some poking and prodding to find the right people to take a chance on me.”

Today, Welsh is the head varsity coach at Montclair Kimberley Academy, a New Jersey prep school, and coaches local youth teams.

“Some people get to decide when their career is over, but for others, it just shows up one day,” she said. “The scariest thing is being left there with no plan. You lose your entire identity, your support network—and sometimes your confidence just goes straight out the door.”

Not having a plan, as it turns out, is a fairly common theme for athletes. When I asked other players in the National Women’s Soccer League what they planned to do after they retired from soccer, I heard three common answers:

  1. “I guess I’ll coach”
  2. “Maybe I’ll marry rich”
  3. “I have no idea what I want to do.”  

These are all passionately driven players with big dreams, aspirations and skills. How can they let the next three-quarters of their lives rest on “no idea,” “I guess,” or “maybe”? A tunnel-minded vision of their identity can drive athletes into the abyss of who they think they are, which is defined by what they do. Focusing only on the ephemeral qualities of identity can amount to a psychological death for athletes, even though they are very much alive: “the name died before the [wo]man.”

Welsh gets it. Undergoing the transition, she has some critical advice for current and former athletes.

“I know so many athletes are stuck,” she said. “They get to a point in their life and they feel they should move on, but they have identified so closely with being a professional soccer player. I tell those athletes that don’t know what to do, ‘Take one small step … And then another.’ One major thing I told my athletes when I first became a coach is to have a plan for after soccer. Have a plan! Have another plan!”

Even with a plan, some athletes will also want to build another aspect of their lives: self-love.

“You have to be kind to yourself during this transition process because so many of us are not,” Welsh said. “We are used to being critical of ourselves and our surroundings in order to be the best we can be.

Christie Welsh. (Photo courtesy of Christie Welsh.)

Life doesn’t end after your sport does. It can get better.

“I have always said I will never love something as much as I loved playing soccer, except for my future wife and family,” Welsh said. “What I have found in my life after sport is that the relationships in my life are what matters most to me now. I think there are different phases of retirement and I’ve pushed into a new one now. I’ve gotten over the initial hump of what my identity is and how I talk to myself each day and I’ve moved into a new phase of finding happiness and a niche in a new community.”

Some athletes, however, never get over the loss of identity when they retire. Welsh reminds them that what you think you may lose, you never really do. Again, for Welsh, it’s like losing someone you love.

“They will always be there,” she said. “You will always love them, but they sit in a corner of your heart that some days you don’t tap into. And as time passes, you tap into that corner less and less, but it’s always there and you will always love it. And you miss it… bad.”

Over time, I have become close friends with Christie. After our last chat, she texted me something I will never forget:

In that corner we wait with you.

*Main image courtesy of Christie Welsh

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