An Open Letter to Student-Athletes: Who Are You Without Sports? – Jill Kochanek

My name is Jill, but everyone calls me Jake. No one ever called me Jake, however, until I joined the Amherst College Women’s Soccer Team.  As a timid freshman, I was eager to prove myself and determined to play the sport that I love. With an upperclassman named Jill already on the team, during preseason my coaches asked me if I went by another name. I hesitated; I had always been Jill. Shortly after though, in the chaos of competition, my teammates’ commanding calls blended my initials, “J-K” into “Jake.”  

In the beginning, I accepted Jake but did not fully embrace the nickname.  I recall a teammate commenting that her brother’s name was Jake and another teammate telling me that her dog was named Jake. Great— I thought—there goes the cool first impression I was trying to make. Over the course of four seasons though, I would answer to Jake more than Jill on the field, in the classroom, and even at home. Eight years later, the name has stuck. My parents, siblings, old friends from Amherst and new friends extending from those Amherst ties all call me Jake.

Jake would stick with me in more ways than one: just as Jake grew on me, so did I as a player, teammate, and person. As Jake, an inexorable force outside of me but inseparably linked to me pushed me. It kept me tirelessly attacking and defending, following and leading, in formation with twenty other women in Amherst purple. As number 26, I felt that force drive me across the darkening grass—six and back, eighteen and back, half field and back, full field and back.  At the end of each practice as the sun set on Hitchcock field, sweat poured down our necks leaving our bodies as we set ourselves on the line to sprint again. Nourishing the field below our tired feet, sweat was the one thing we all agreed to sacrifice. In my senior season, that sacrifice would prove worthwhile and culminate in a league championship, NCAA Elite Eight match, and a record of 20-0-1. These tangible gains were just the beginning.  

On the field with my teammates, I learned how to be selfless; how to trust and be trusted; how to embrace my strengths and fearlessly confront my weaknesses; how to commit, be patient, and own my/our process: the next achievable step. I learned that what you communicate matters but “how” (you say something) given the “who” (you say something to) makes all the difference. And, I learned how important it is to control life’s controllables. My teammates challenged me to be a leader—a servant: someone who does not stop with bringing out the best in themselves but lifts others up. Inspired by their sacrifice, I grew to be a better player, teammate, and person. I grew to be Jake.

My student-athlete story seems to have a happy ending. It does. And—not but—and, it’s not without some unexpected challenge. In the last 10 minutes of our NCAA Elite Eight match against Messiah College, we were down 0-1. I was physically and mentally drained. I awkwardly, stretched out my right leg across my body to go for a loose ball. Off-balance, I tore my ACL and meniscus. I hobbled off the field and knew something was wrong but didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t want to concede. I asked our athletic trainer to try and tape my knee up to give me support and go back in. But I couldn’t walk. I was done.

Tears rushed down my cheeks and fell to the grass like the collective sweat that rushed down our necks. I wanted to be inside the lines again. I yearned to still be a part of our sacrifice. To be living the collective commitment we made to one another. To be on the field playing the game that we loved. In those final moments, I was flooded with a sense of loss. 

I am fortunate to have played injury-free for most of my high school and college career. We were fortunate to have made such a deep run into the NCAA playoffs alongside teammates and coaches who I’d do anything for. In those final moments and months to follow during my recovery process I felt a range of strong emotions. I felt gratitude for my experience, for the protected time I’d have to fully recover rather than rush back to play at the start of the next season. I felt relief that my body had held out. And, I also felt loss. I felt lost. 

I knew our season and my soccer career were soon coming to an end. But, I was not prepared for when it actually did. When the final whistle blew. 

I share my student-athlete story with you because at some point for all of us, sports will stop. There will be a day when the final whistle blows for all of us. A day when we all play our last game, when we are—like I was—left asking: Who am I?

For all student-athletes, not just our graduating seniors, this shutdown presents us with a unique opportunity to pause. To reflect and remember: why do you love sports? 

Maybe it’s the power of movement—the sense of freedom and empowerment you feel moving your body and seeing what you can do. 

Maybe it’s a love of competition—of the process, of challenge, of taking risks and testing your limits, of learning new skills and game strategies. 

Maybe it’s being a part of a team. Working together through adversity—making lasting friendships, building trust and having fun through all the little moments: the team dinners, bus rides, and locker room dance parties.

If it helps, we have 3 basic psychological needs as humans, the need to: 

(A) feel a sense of autonomy (“I have choice, control and agency”). 

(B) feel a sense of belonging (“I am valued and supported”), and 

(C) feel competent (“I am capable”), 

If you look down this list of “maybes”, you’ll notice that these reasons highlight all 3 of our basic needs. What we can call our ABCs—Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence. Meeting these needs supports our inner motivation and overall health and well-being.

So, what are your ABCs? Why do you play your sport/sports? Maybe you’ve got reasons outside the ABCs. Even better. The point is to take this time during the quarantine to reflect and be honest with ourselves. What’s your “why”?

During this shutdown it’s also important for student-athletes (at any age or stage) to ask: who am I without sports? It’s a both-and. Not an either-or.

You can be both an athlete/teammate/competitor and be a:

…painter

…musician

…writer

…singer

Tell me (and— coaches and parents if you’re reading this ask your student-athletes to tell YOU):

What energizes and excites you? What would get you out of bed at 5:30 AM for/to do?

What are you curious to know more about? 

What do you want to spend more time doing? What do you want to try? 

How do you want to connect with people? 

What larger purpose do you want to serve? How do you want to contribute? 

For the high school and college seniors graduating this spring, the COVID-19 shutdown has cut your season short and brought your career to an abrupt end. You are likely feeling a bitter sting: our harsh reality has replaced celebration and closure with COVID-19 restrictions. The senior year you thought you’d have, the special end-of-year events that would seamlessly, properly close this chapter of your life and open a new one may have instead been filled with uncertainty, loss, and sadness. Senior student-athletes I feel with you. And, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. Whatever emotions you are experiencing are valid and understandable. Allow yourself the time and space to acknowledge what you’re thinking and feeling. What you are going through is hard.

When you reflect on why you play and what/who you are grateful for, know that you will always carry with you your reasons for playing, valuable lessons you learned, and memories you made. It took me time after I played my last game to realize that:

My student-athlete experience was a process of discovery. Soccer was a meaningful setting that helped me discover aspects of who I am—a trusted teammate, lifelong learner, and performer who loves to commit to a big-picture vision and goal and to work the small actionable steps needed to get there. Soccer was a context that brought these aspects of “me” into focus. Soccer gave me a supportive, challenging space—and opportunity— to work towards being my best self: to embrace my inner-Jake.

I found so much meaning in, I drew so much of my self-worth from sports. And while I found so much of myself through sports, and—not but—and, I now know that sports are not ALL of me. Sports are not ALL of you. 

Identity is who you are. It’s a word with a paradox at its core (Stryker, 2017). It means that two things that are not exactly the same can be substituted for one another as if they are the same.

When we say “I am a student-athlete” the “am” is like an equals sign. Your individual sense of being something, a category (e.g., student-athlete, musician) that you consider yourself belonging to. You and the category, however, are not the same exactly the same.

You are a student-athlete.

You are also more than a student-athlete. 

Human beings we are weird. Don’t read the term “weird” in the negative sense: we are unique, dynamic, complex, and multi-dimensional.

Know that so many of the reasons you played sports, the lessons that you learned, memories that you made will stick with you. These are forever a part of you. Also know that your life, your identity, and your “why” do not end here. They don’t end with athletics. You might find that an activity, experience, or context fulfills you like sports do or did. You might also find that these different pursuits excite and inspire you in unique ways that sports did/do not offer you. 

You have so many gifts to share with us beyond what you do on the court, field, track, diamond, and pitch. There is a whole world out there with people, place, and opportunities beyond sports to explore. 

This open letter is not a “how-to”—with specific steps on what I think you should do. Only you can determine the steps that are best for you. Only you can chart your course: Be brave. Be curious. Be true to your whole self. Share that whole person with us. Your whole self is your best self, and when we know the true you, we will all be better. 

My name is Jill but everyone calls me Jake; I embrace when they do and I know now that there’s so much more to Jill than Jake. 

Jill Kochanek is a doctoral student at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sport at Michigan State University. She is also a high school soccer coach. As a coach-scholar, Jill is passionate about bridging the research-practice gap to make sport a more inclusive, empowering context. Her research and applied work centers on helping athletes (and coaches) take charge of their own developmental process and social progress. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to visit her youth sport coaching blog, bothandcoaching.blog, for posts that address other topics related to sport psychology and sociology and follow her on Twitter @bothandcoaching.

The IYCA is dedicated to helping create better experiences for young athletes all over the world, and the IYCA Youth Fitness Specialist certification is the industry gold-standard for youth fitness and sports performance.  Click on the image below to learn more about the YFS1 certification program.

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