There is a large contingency of students at Yale who were once student-athletes. These former varsity competitors are no longer on the team to which they once belonged. Unlike other schools, where athletes sign contracts in the form of scholarships, no Yale athlete’s position at the school is in jeopardy should she or he quit.
What does it mean to walk away? How does it change your time at Yale? How does it change you? This column focuses on the accounts of former varsity athletes who shared their experiences, on the condition of anonymity, about stepping outside the lines of their team. I spoke to men and women, to highly touted prospects and to walk-ons. I spoke to those who left because of injury and those who burnt out. I spoke to those of numerous races, ethnicities and nationalities. I spoke to those who left the team entirely, to those who stayed on as managers, to those who remained attached to their former crews socially and to those who were ostracized.
For each athlete, coming to Yale is entirely unique. That said, the overwhelming majority of them loved their respective sports when they stepped on campus. They loved “reveling in the sweat, the smell of skin doused in sunscreen, the conditioning, characterized by miles-long warmups and pre-workout sprints” according to one former varsity athlete.
Many, especially but not limited to those recruited, spoke about their sport like they would their identity. They knew this in high school and coming into Yale. “Growing up, tennis was literally my life. I started competing at age six, and began traveling to national tournaments, usually twice a month, when I turned eight. I couldn’t fathom not playing or giving up something that meant so much to me.”
Some only realized how sports had come to define them after they walked away. “Now that I am not a varsity athlete, I see how much I used to define myself in terms of the sport I played. My identity was solely tied to my athletic affiliation.”
And, upon arriving at Yale, most athletes viewed their teams as providing immediate access to best friends — a bond forged in the crucible. A bond forged through the brutal rhythm of “wake up, work out, go to class, work out, go to dinner, go to the library and go to sleep.” A bond sometimes forged through tragedy, such as the suicide of a teammate. A bond forged through countless hours of practice, wins and losses, highs and lows, through a shared commitment to a team, to a greater cause.
Being an athlete here, many contend, can be isolating. “I think the athlete bubble at Yale is real,” wrote one. “And while you may branch out into different social circles, sometimes only your teammates and other athletes understand the level of commitment that it takes.” It is a sentiment confirmed by others. When you don’t have much free time, and the schedule which occupies your days is the exact same as 30 others’, it is only natural that your teammates might become your only friends. This feeling is exacerbated when “you may branch out into different social circles,” but yet, “sometimes only your teammates and other athletes understand the level of commitment that it takes.”
So how do you walk away? How do you walk away from the thing that has come to define you, that was once the greatest source of joy in your life? How do you walk away unsure as to “whom you would eat dinner with every day, whom you would study with in the library or whom you would go out with?” And when, in some cases, “the fact that you are a part of the team and you know your coach worked hard to recruit you definitely doesn’t make the decision any easier.”
For some, injury forced their hand in one way or another. “I faced unrelenting injuries that sidelined me for most of my remaining two years,” said one. “I was unbelievably frustrated, sad and at times very hopeless.” How can you stand to watch as people get to do the very thing you had dedicated your life to doing, the thing that had been within your grasp, but fell through your fingers? How can you watch when you are entirely powerless, a prisoner of your broken body?
For some, the fire that drove their passion for the sport burnt out. For some, their sport is “absolutely not fun unless you love it.” And when you start losing that feeling, you might not be really be able to point out why. “It may have been that you just burn out, or perhaps coming to college was the first time when you had to focus on so many other aspects of your life … . Whatever the reason was, I just know that the hole that I use to feel if I didn’t practice every day, started becoming the hole when I had to go to practice.”
For some the decision to walk away was not attenuated by the love of the team. In fact, some felt alienated from the team. This could be the result of injury. “I spent every day at practice on the spin bike in the corner of the indoor track,” one said. “I watched my teammates train, improve and race together. I watched them head out for runs and, after clocking in the miles, return with new inside jokes that I didn’t understand and stories that I never heard. When I was ‘on the team,’ I felt very much separated.”
Still, others felt alienated because they felt unwanted, separated because of socioeconomic factors or race. “My decision to leave the team was driven by my feelings of being unwanted and unappreciated by the coaching staff,” said one former athlete. “Feeling ostracized because of race and background only added to my negative experience. I often felt that I wasn’t ‘fit’ to be a varsity athlete because I wasn’t recruited from a well-known high school or travel team, I didn’t know about (let alone have) the newest gear … . Until high school, the majority of sports facilities I played on were mostly dirt, had potholes and were uneven. This only served to separate me more from the team. Spending two or more hours per day being in a place in which I felt like I didn’t belong was terrible for my mental health … so I decided to leave.”
Others felt alienated from themselves as a result of playing a sport at Yale. “I reached a boiling point,” another said. “I felt lost and broken. Life was moving too fast and I had no idea who I was … I had no time for self-reflection or introspection. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to be or even what interested me academically.”
Leaving can be incredibly hard. Finding yourself after is even harder. But with time, and self-reflection, it is possible. In almost every case, these stories end happily. Some found new friends and new groups — in club teams, in Greek life, in other extracurriculars and in academics. Oh, and a fair bit of sleeping and partying too. “This year, I spend all the time I would be at practice in a neurology lab,” one proclaimed. “I have a more flexible schedule, can take classes at any hour, can attend office hours and can take naps when I want to. I party more often than I did while I was a varsity athlete, and generally feel more like a college student.” Another articulated that “as I engaged with new fields of study and immersed myself in the arts, I no longer identified with my former self-referents. I became interested in the historical exploration of relationships between visual art and religious practices, literature as a form of artistic expression and providing fellowship to others.”
Or, as one candidly put it, “For the first time in my college career, I felt free.”
Kevin Bendesky | email@example.com .