• Richie O'Reilly

Life After Sport

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

How I struggled to cope with the death of my dream and why I didn't have to.

Chasing a Dream

My baseball evolution

We’re going to start this article with a quick thought exercise. Think back to when you were a child. When someone asked you the dreaded “what do you want to be when you grow up" question, what was your answer? An astronaut? A princess? A superhero? 

For many people, the answer to this question has changed over and over again since the time they were children. But for some of us, there was only ever one answer. I was one of those people.

Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a professional baseball player. From the time I was born, I had a bat and ball in my hand, ready to play with anyone who could keep up with me. In kindergarten, I was the kid yelling at his teammates for not knowing which base to throw to in Tee-Ball (jokes on me, you can’t get people out in Tee-Ball). And when middle school rolled around, I’d spend my afternoons after class throwing the ball off the wall in the street, practicing my pitching and fielding when no one else was around to play with me. By the time I was getting ready for high school, I was playing for two teams at the same time, so my only break from the sport was for a short soccer season. Baseball was my childhood, and I loved every second of it. 

As I grew older, my path to fulfilling my dream became less and less clear. I went to high school with guys who were very clearly pro prospects from the minute they stepped on campus. I was not one of those guys, so I had to work my way onto every team I played for. A defense-first catcher with a weak bat heading into college, I didn’t have a scholarship offer from any schools that I wanted to attend. At that point, my hopes of professional baseball were low, but internally, my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” remained the same. I just wanted to play baseball.

My college career had more ups and downs than The Rock’s morning pushup routine. I didn’t know it was possible to hate and love something so much at the same time, but baseball brought out the strongest of my emotions. Nevertheless, all I ever wanted was to play professional baseball. If a team would have come to me with a contract that would have required me to pay them to play, there’s a decent chance I would have at least considered it. But after 4 years of average numbers and 2 knee surgeries (tough for a catcher), my baseball career was over.

My Senior Day 2018

Now, I’m 23 years old, and I haven’t played the game in over a year. In fact, the only time I’ve picked up a bat or a ball since my final game was to help my girlfriend get ready for her upcoming softball season. At first, I was fine with my “retirement," or at least that’s what I told myself. When people would ask if I missed the game, I would respond with “eh, I guess so.” But eventually, I realized that I was not fine with it. Like so many others, I had to give up on the one and only dream I ever had. And that feeling really sucked.

Addressing the Problem

Marina speaking at the Jox Speaker Series

When I finally came to grips with the fact that I would not be suiting up to head out to the field for the upcoming season, I felt as though someone had ripped out part of who I was, leaving a massive hole in my identity; I felt very, very alone. As someone who is admittedly rather sentimental, I thought I might be overdramatizing the situation, as none of my teammates seemed to be struggling with the same issue. So naturally, I did the healthy thing and talked through my problems with someone.

If only that were true.

Instead, I neglected this massive hole in my identity, choosing to pretend I was relieved I was no longer playing baseball. But I wasn’t. 

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a lucky bit of chance that I began to recognize the emptiness I was feeling. While scrolling through LinkedIn (as any unemployed graduate student does), I noticed a friend from Georgetown, Marina Paul, had started her own podcast site dedicated to creating a community for former athletes who were struggling with the transition into a world without their sport. Hoping to support Marina and JOX , her new site, I reached out to her about how I could help, and she suggested I attend their upcoming speaker series. 

It was at this panel that I realized I was not alone. Surrounded by a room full of athletes sharing their pain both past and present, I finally understood why I hadn’t seen anyone else struggling with their transition away from the field- many of them had chosen to suppress their emotions just as I had. 

Why this Matters

I didn’t write this article because I felt I had a unique sob-story that deserved attention; in fact, it was just the opposite- I wrote this because this is an issue that affects many retired athletes. While some lucky few have the opportunity to make the decision to end their playing days on their own terms, the rest of us are confronted with the reality that our careers are over far more abruptly than we often would like. After dedicating our entire lives to something that we cared about so deeply, having to move on so suddenly is really, really difficult. As the old saying goes, “Every athlete dies twice. Once when they take their last breath, and the other when they hang it up.”

As this issue does not receive the attention it deserves, there currently is not a unified system designed to help athletes with their transition out of the sports world. While the topic of mental health and the use (or lack thereof) of sports psychologists is one I will come back to in a future article, I think it’s important to recognize that retirement from athletics is strongly correlated to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Yet, even with this knowledge, the sports world is still very far behind with how it chooses to discuss these issues. There simply is not enough attention given to the mental health of athletes, both when they are playing and after they have stepped away from their sport. 

In order to really make serious strides with this issue moving forward, it is critical for a system to be established in all NCAA schools and professional leagues across the country. While a more permanent solution would still be necessary, at this point, schools and teams should be required to provide either full-time sports psychologists who are solely dedicated to the post-retirement transition or at the very least some form of subscription to a mental health service like Headspace. Hopefully in due time, someone will develop a clear program specifically designed for retired athletes that can be seamlessly integrated into organizations of all levels of sports. But until then, we need to remain vigilant and put pressure on sports organizations to make the necessary changes. Athletes of all levels need someone to help them through this difficult period in their lives, but at this point, most do not have the ability to do so, and that’s a serious problem. 

But that’s exactly why we can’t ignore these problems and push them to the side. During the Jox speaker series, I chose to remain silent and listen to others share their stories rather than tell my own. I wasn’t yet fully able to process how I was feeling. But now, I want to speak up and share how I felt because I know there are other people out there who are struggling just as I had. 

If you’re having a hard time with your transition away from the sports world, speak up. Communicate your struggles; don’t let them eat at you as you become bitter and miserable inside. It’s okay to admit you’re having a hard time. While there may not be a clear system in place to handle these issues, there is a massive community of athletes and former athletes out there willing to help with your struggles. 

Being an athlete has shaped us into who we are, and that’s a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live a happy life outside of the field or court. Use the competitive nature that you had while playing to become the best at whatever it is you do next. My former teammate told me that he loved interviewing for jobs because it gave him the rush of running out to the mound to close a game. Find your interview rush and use it to help you excel in life. 

At the end of the day, there are plenty of athletes who can seamlessly transition from their playing days to their next job, and I am extremely happy for them. But for those of us that have a harder time with that transition, just know that you’re not alone. Please, reach out to us here at The Pop, or Marina at Jox, or anyone else who you think would be helpful if you are having any issues moving on from your playing career. As the great Zac Efron once said, “We’re all in this together."

Want to follow up on this conversation? Follow us on Twitter at @thepop_network and on Instagram at @thepopnetwork!


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