Athletes find ways to cope with life after athletics

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Jake Sterling, a former Michigan State club football wide receiver, is now transitioning into the work force.

Photo courtesy of MSU Club Football

Jake Sterling, a former Michigan State club football wide receiver, is now transitioning into the workforce.

Jake Sterling spent his college career as an athlete.

A 2016 graduate of Michigan State University, Sterling competed in track and field and on the club football team.

But like thousands of other student-athletes who don’t move to the professional level, Sterling, who grew up in Newport, Michigan, had to figure out how to transition into a life that no longer revolves around their sport. He now works as an IT account manager for Randstad Technologies in Troy, Michigan.

“I’ve been competing in sports my whole life, losing that competitive edge that I used to go through every day, like when I was running track and playing club football, is easily the most challenging part,” Sterling said. “On the contrary, the positive part is transitioning that into my work life because I’m now an account manager for a sales position, so being competitive in that position brings out the competitive edge that I learned in sports and now I apply that to my work life.”

Few collegiate athletes will ever play professionally, according to data from NCAA. Only 5.6 percent of men’s ice hockey players will play in the NHL. For football, only 1.5 percent of college athletes will play in the NFL. Fewer than one percent of female collegiate basketball players will play in the WNBA.

“Sport is all encompassing, and an athlete’s life revolves around a cycle of training and competition schedules. And it has revolved around this venue from early stages of childhood adolescents,” said Melinda Harrison, a founding partner of Teal & Co., a consulting firm that can help athletes transition from the college world to the working world.

Harrison was an All-American swimmer at the University of Michigan who attended high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“An athlete that competes at an NCAA level has spent many years perfecting the execution of skills with dedication, desire, grit, and self-regulation,” she said. “These are what I refer to as character skills of sport. They become part of the athlete’s DNA because of the life that they have experienced. When that venue disappears, so does the place to execute that part of their operating DNA.”

Harrison said most athletes who leave their sport go through a period of adjustment.

“This adjustment period can range in intensity from feeling unsure, to lost, or feeling just not normal to severe depression and anxiety,” she said. “One common mistake those on the outside make is the assumption that just because someone has moved on to a job, that they have successfully transition from sport. This is far from reality. A job is a positive step towards transition but does not replace the deep meaning that sport has provided.”

Aaron Stuk, a former Michigan State rugby player and native of Oxford, Michigan, recently moved to Oregon to work at Mount Hill Ski Resort. He has his own way to cope with a new lifestyle after his four years playing rugby.

“I have explored new avenues to challenge myself physically and mentally, like snowboarding, rock climbing and cross country hiking. I also play in men’s rugby leagues and coach youth teams in my spare time to grow the sport,” Stuk said. “Coaching is a great way to give back and stay involved after college ball. Motivating co-workers and teammates to accomplish a common goal is something that I will always attribute to rugby.”