When the going gets tough, the tough get going — but which direction they take is the question.
Some forge ahead, some reevaluate their motivations, and for the remainder, quitting is the only way to go.
Those athletes who walk away from their sport choose to do so for a variety of reasons — ranging from conflicts with academics to dissatisfaction with coaching. But for all of them, until the decision was made, personal happiness was sacrificed. Athletes who have walked-off said the choice to quit was at once the hardest and most liberating action they have taken.
Problems with coaching
When a person leaves a team, the first question that comes to mind is the state of the athlete’s relationship with the coach.
For Cassandra Harris ’06, former basketball forward, most of the decision to leave the team was due to conflicts with her head coach Amy Backus.
“If anything it got worse this year. She started being abrasive,” Harris said, “It started taxing on me mentally.”
Harris was disappointed that Backus was only interested in her on a professional level and not as a person.
A senior in Berkeley and former recruited athlete, who left her sport following her sophomore season, also felt that she fell out of favor with her coach for no reason.
“There came a point during the season where I felt like I was not being acknowledged for anything [I did] by the coaches,” the senior said. “I wasn’t yelled at for my mistakes or praised for working as hard as I could.”
In contrast to Harris, the Berkeleyite found the lack of attention — both positive and negative — to be the motivating factor in quitting the team.
“I was definitely one of the quiet girls on the team, and I learned to play just for myself,” the senior said. “I came to practice, said little to nothing during breaks, and just played with the mentality that I was there because I loved playing [my sport] and if this was my only way to stay connected to the sport, I’d suffer through the politics and play.”
For some student-athletes, the decision to quit is made when they realize the “student” part of their identity is being compromised.
For Peter Enestrom ’06, a recruited athlete, the commitment to the lightweight men’s crew team did not end with practices and lifts. During season, lightweight rowers are expected to maintain a low weight, which despite workouts, requires a scant diet. Enestrom found that academically he “started to perform poorly during the season” when, due to his low-calorie diets, he “became unmotivated and apathetic.”
While for Enestrom, academic success was precluded by physical strain, former safety Michael Hurley ’06 found the time constraints imposed by sports to be most frustrating. Recruited to play football by all eight Ivy League schools, Hurley decided on Yale because he believed it would give him the best education. Hurley knew “it was time to hang up the cleats and move on” when he found himself taking gut classes, as opposed to a challenging course load.
“It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t going to get an education; it was that I wasn’t going to get the quality that I could get at Yale,” Hurley said.
One of the most attractive qualities of Yale is its wealth of extracurricular offerings. However, most events and activities like master’s teas, tutoring and musical groups conflict with practices and games. After the fall season, former long-stick midfielder Evan Coughenour ’05 felt that he was compromising his commitment to the lacrosse team through his dedication as music director and pitch of the Baker’s Dozen.
“There comes a time when you can’t do both,” Coughenour, said. “It’s tough. Lacrosse should be first priority.”
While the decision was difficult, Coughenour said that it was necessary to avoid “letting the team down.”
In the same way, Hiromi Yoshida ’06, board member of the volunteer organization DEMOS and former field hockey defender, found that, while playing, “extracurriculars get shafted because you are too tired and don’t have time.”
Yoshida, who walked-on in her freshman year, came to the conclusion that “there are other things out there that I’m better at doing.”
Walk-off to walk-on
For Adele Sweetnam ’06 and Allison Spitzer ’07, the decision to leave one team was prompted by the opportunity to compete for another.
Sweetnam, a member of women’s crew during her freshman year, walked on to the volleyball team this fall. Although she was recruited to play volleyball on the college level elsewhere, Sweetnam said she chose Yale because “a million people told me not to choose a school based on sport because of the risk of injury.”
While the decision to leave crew last spring and spend the summer preparing for fall volleyball tryouts was a gamble, Sweetnam found herself “ridiculously excited” upon making the team. For her, the experience of competing in crew, which she calls “the most intense sport at Yale,” and volleyball has been both challenging and gratifying.
“It’s always worth it for me to go to the gym to play volleyball for two hours,” Sweetnam said.
Faced with a similar dilemma, Spitzer, who called field hockey her passion, spent her fall as a member of the sailing team before walking on to field hockey this spring.
“Once I knew I wanted to play for Yale, I did everything I could to try to make it happen,” Spitzer said.
Although she enjoyed sailing this fall, she was “ecstatic” when the opportunity to play field hockey surfaced.
A change in priorities, a change in lifestyle
Students undergo the process of self-actualization — discovering who they are and finding their place in the world — in college. It seems only natural that in this process they would dissociate from the person they were in high school, even if a big part of their identity was athletics.
For Rehka Natrajan ’04, the decision to leave the tennis team came suddenly in the second semester of her junior year, when she realized “tennis was not for me” and she “didn’t want to be out on the court.” While an athlete at Yale, Natrajan found she relied on the belief that “being busy is directly proportional to your fulfillment as a student at Yale,” but her paradigm changed to “quality over quantity.”
Echoing Natrajan’s sentiment, Kristen Peters ’04, a two-sport high school athlete and recruited swimmer, found that although she practiced up to 20 hours a week in high school, she “did not expect college swimming, with its double sessions, to be so strenuous and mentally and physically draining.” Although much of her time in high school was divided between swimming and soccer, swimming was all she did at Yale, Peters said.
“I felt like all my friendships outside the team suffered,” she said.
Peters left the swim team after freshman year.
Life after sports
“You take that bus, and all those [athletes] are excited about going out to the field,” Natrajan said. “You think your non-athlete friends are missing out, but you are missing out on chilling.”
The transition into “chilling mode” after walking off is not always easy. Athletes claim that empty schedules once dominated by athletic commitments become imposing.
The issue of justification is difficult, Lucy Byrd ’06, a former field hockey defender claimed.
“Your sport defines so much of who you are and how you live,” she said. “Even now justifying having an afternoon free or spending time with friends is hard.”
Natrajan theorizes that “it’s a dilemma for a lot of people thinking about quitting — the loss of identity.”
Enestrom found that some of his old teammates feel “kind of resentful towards you, but others are fine with your decision.”
Harris, who still eats dinner with her old teammates on occasion, says, “I would love to have [the basketball team] back. I’m really upset it didn’t work out.”
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