Outdoor Football field in a public park

Life After Sports

Examing how quitting, or not being able to play sports, at any level, can negatively affect a person's mental health.

Table of Contents

We often make the mistake of perceiving happiness as a specific state of being, that once reached will make us feel complete. “Once I get this job, I’ll be happy”. “Once I move into that big house, I’ll be happy”. Happiness is always just around the corner, just out of our reach.  The truth is, real happiness stems from pursuing those goals and overcoming obstacles along the way. 

Think about your time in high school or college. Is it your graduation day that first comes to mind? Or was it the memories you made with your friends, a particular teacher who inspired you, or perhaps a romantic partner who still has a special place in your heart? 

Even though graduating was the end goal, chances are graduation day doesn’t sum up your entire experience of high school or college. 

Clichés become clichés because there is so much truth to be found in them. “It’s about the journey, not the destination” is quite possibly one of the most poignant and important clichés that exists.

Imagine dedicating your entire life to achieving a particular goal, and then failing to reach that goal…now what?

This is a predicament that athletes all over the world face every single day. Between 1 and 1.5% of college athletes go on to play at the professional level. Not every talented athlete strives towards professional status, but the majority of athletes who shine in high school and college dedicate much of their waking lives towards excelling at their sport.

What happens after the ability to take part in that sport is taken away? Whether due to injury, age, or life circumstances, losing the thing that got you out of bed in the mornings, drove you through your days, and had so much to do with your sense of identity can be devastating. 

If you or someone you care for have recently experienced this situation, know that you are not alone and that the feelings of loss and unknowing do not have to last forever.

Interview With Johnnie Peeples, CATC-I

We interviewed Johnnie Peeples to gain personal insight into his mental health struggles after a catastrophic injury halted his football career.

Johnnie is a CATC-I CAADE Certified Addictions Counselor and is working towards an MBA in Leadership at Grand Canyon University.  He works as a Group Facilitator at D’Amore Mental Health.  Johnnie is from Ft. Pierce Fl. and is a Marine Corps Veteran. He is the owner of Peeples Coaching and the Defensive Back Coach at Santa Ana College.

I started sports when I was probably about five years old in Fort Pierce, Florida, little peewee football. It started there and then up through elementary school and high school playing basketball, football and track down in Florida. So I started really early and went all the way to football at University of Montana. I got a full ride scholarship and we won a national championship.

In October 2003, I tore my quad, a three tier rupture of the medial, anterior and the lateral muscles. And so that just pretty much derailed everything I'd ever wanted to do. Thats when I was deemed unfit to play football again. Any hopes for the NFL ended real quick.

Loss of Identity

Athletic Identity refers to the extent to which a person feels aligned with their role of “athlete” in their daily life. We all have various identities; student, mother, husband – and the emphasis on each of those identities can vary over the years, or even the weeks.

For an aspiring professional athlete, the athletic identity often becomes their core identity, and all the other roles revolve around that one. It defines how they perceive themselves, and how they believe others perceive them as well. It becomes the basis for their sense of self-worth.

We live in a culture that glorifies strength, endurance, and the ability to overcome. If any identity embodies these attributes, it’s that of an athlete. 

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to say that these attributes will remain in place even after the sport is no longer an option, but for the athlete losing their status can feel like losing their own sense of self.

It’s important for everyone (not just athletes) to realize that they are not defined by one characteristic, or one single aspect of their lives, however focalized it is. 

When you play football, your whole identity and your whole life is around football. That comes with a sense of pride and ego and, you know, a lot of entitlement. I never really had to pay for anything the people were paying. They pretty much take care of you. And when that ceases, when it stopped for me, no more accolades and no more rah rah and hooting and hollering for me, I started frequenting parties and going out and trying to create a new identity and trying to become the center of attention in those types of environments.

Loss of Purpose

Serious athletes show serious dedication. From the time they wake up in the morning, until the time they go to bed at night, they are focused on training for their sport. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean training all hours of the day (though for many it does), but it does mean that each part of the day is somehow centered around being an athlete. 

Meals need to be healthy and capable of sustaining energy levels. Relationships need to have clear boundaries, and possibly strict time constraints. Social lives are often pushed aside completely. Even television, reading, and other forms of entertainment and relaxation are often centered around their particular sport.

We’ve all questioned our “purpose” at some point in our lives, some of us more than others. It often comes up during big changes, such as a death of a family member, a divorce, or the loss of a job.

Most serious athletes have had the fortune of feeling quite clear about their purpose from a young age. Especially those born with a natural talent, and the support of family and loved ones. There is always the next big game or meet to train for, work towards, and look forward to. 

When an athlete stops participating in their sport it can all seem a bit meaningless. What’s the point of eating that nutritious breakfast if you don’t need the energy? Why bother going to bed early if you don’t have to wake up early? 

This loss of purpose can lead to a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse.

I was in the Marine Corps for a long time, so I kind of still had structure and discipline, but the purpose was gone. There was no more goal. I didn't have a goal like in football where you want to win the Championship. Or week to week, you want to prepare to beat the opponent. When that was taken away I was trying to find new opponents, new challenges in my life, but it wasn't the same.

Being able to meet at the same time, being around the guys and having that same common goal and same purpose and same mindset. When that's gone you've got to reinvent yourself, you've got to create a new structure, which I knew how to do. But it still wasn't to that real high level as it was with sports. It was just like I lost everything that I knew to be true of myself. And that routinized structure and disciplined person that I was went to the wayside.

The Biological Aspect

Exercise produces a number of neurotransmitters that have a positive effect on mood and feelings of well-being. Athletes exercise more often and more strenuously than the average person, and they get used to having those mood-boosting chemicals in their system almost all of the time. 

Once they stop participating in their sport they may not be as dedicated to exercise and fitness.  The decrease of those neurotransmitters can lead to feelings of depression and sadness, as well as lowered motivation and focus.

Here are some of those neurotransmitters and how they affect you:


 Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, they prevent muscles from feeling pain and can reduce stress by creating a sedative effect.


 These Neurotransmitters move easily between the cellular barrier between the bloodstream and the brain and are thought to cause what’s known as “runners high” as well as feelings of calm and reduced anxiety.


Dopamine affects how you feel pleasure, but also plays a role in heart rate regulation, sleep cycles, mood, attention, motivation, working memory, learning, and pain processing.

Exercise also promotes neuroplasticity, which is the ability your brain and nervous system have to react to stress caused by internal or external stimuli.

Your heart rate is faster during exercise, which increases the supply of oxygen to your brain. This helps to improve executive functioning, which involves working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. 

Exercise also reduces certain stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. It improves self-confidence, improves body image, and enhances self-compassion. It helps you sleep better, sharpens your memory and focus, and improves your attention span (1).

These are all byproducts of being a serious athlete and can be taken for granted. When your purpose and identity are tied to the sport you play, you’re focused on the sport, and not necessarily the fact that you’re strenuously exercising every single day. 

Once the sport is taken out of the equation, exercise will likely fall to the wayside as well (not in all cases, of course), which leads to a huge drop in all those feel-good neurotransmitters and ample blood oxygen levels. Which can lead to depression and other mental health struggles.

Physically, I lost a lot of weight from the injury. You know, heavy depression, anxiety, not being able to do the things that I used to do. And once the doctor told me how long I was going to be out. That really threw me in a tailspin. And while I was a highly motivated, highly functioning guy, to be set on a shelf ... he said, you probably are going to be out for about 18 months. I was like, I couldn't even comprehend that, 18 months. Physically, I wasn't able to do anything for a long time. When I think about it today, it was really a bad time of my life.

Depression After Sports

Depression is not temporary sadness or “the blues”, but rather a potentially disabling mental health disorder that can leave the sufferer unable to function in their daily lives. It can affect work, sleeping and eating habits, and interpersonal relationships (3).

Professional athletes are at high risk of experiencing anxiety after retiring (2). But it’s safe to say that high school and college students, and anyone who experiences a loss of identity event is susceptible to depression after the fact.

Years of reaching for a goal have given the athlete purpose and a sense of drive. When that is suddenly taken away it can be a shock; mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Student-athletes may lose their circle of friends if they are forced to stop competing because of injury, for example. They may feel isolated and alone. Injury and the resulting pain can also lead to depression.

Even if the sport is discontinued by choice there can still be a sense of loss and grief, for losing something that had been the focal point of life for so many years. 

What Depression Can Look Like

If you or a loved one are currently living with depression, reach out for help. You are not alone and you don’t have to feel this way forever. If you are having thoughts of suicide, or you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, the suicide prevention hotline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.

Being a high functioning guy, when I open my eyes in the morning my first thought is, I want to go to the gym. When I was depressed my first thought was, my life is over. I mean, why wake up like this? Is this a nightmare? I'm blaming others and then I'm blaming myself. Feelings of, I'm less than now. I can't be who I used to be. So why bother? And when you're depressed it feels like impending doom. Like these intrusive negative thoughts constantly run in your mind. I was fighting that spiritual battle of, how do I get out of this darkness? It's like a fog on you. You know you're in it, but there's nothing you can really do about it and you isolate.

Substance Abuse After Sports

Athletes are perceived as being incredibly healthy, and conscious of what they put in their bodies – this does not mean that they aren’t vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction. In fact, a study involving 2,300 high school athletes found that 12% of males and 8% of females had used prescription painkillers in the past year (4).

Substance abuse is also surprisingly prevalent in athletes during their careers. Often it starts with a legitimate injury and a prescription to painkillers, but addiction does not discriminate; even strong athletes can succumb to the allure of addiction.

Performance-enhancing drugs are also a concern. Between 0.7% and 6.6% of high school students have used anabolic steroids in a given year. 

When athletes discontinue their sport, they also discontinue the constant influx of feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin. Alcohol and other drugs also induce those feelings of euphoria and peace, but only temporarily, and at a much higher price in the long run.

The loss of identity and loss of purpose can lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, making it even easier to succumb to drug and alcohol misuse. 

Substances can be incredibly effective at masking feelings, but only temporarily. And the longer a person misuses drugs and alcohol, the harder it is to break the habit, and the more likely it is that physical and mental repercussions will arise

Effects of Substance Abuse

Addiction is cunning, and no one is immune to its effects. Some of the most successful athletes in the world have found themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol after retirement or injury. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse issues, reach out to a doctor, therapist, or trusted friend. You are not alone and there are ample resources available to support you in recovery, both from addiction and the loss of your sport.

I was just seeking out something to make me feel different and maybe try to cover up the way I was feeling. A big reason why I was using was because I had lost who I was. The way I competed on the football field is the way I competed with drugs and alcohol. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it at a high level. Like, there was no half step. I was out there ripping and running, and they told me in Montana I was running amuck. I didn't know what the heck that meant, but I knew it was bad.

Moving Forward After Sports

Life after sports can be a tough road for an athlete to navigate at the end of their career; loss of identity and purpose can leave you feeling untethered and devastated. You may feel hopeless and useless, and not know where to begin.

First of all, ask for help. There is such a stigma placed upon athletes, that they are “tougher”, “stronger”, more capable, and independent than the average person. This can make it tough to reach out.

 If you have a child, friend, or loved one who has recently given up their athletic aspirations, check in on them and make sure that they are doing ok. They may need help and not know how to ask for it. 

Examine the aspects of athleticism and sports that you loved so much, and try to carry those traits into the rest of your life.


Discover other hobbies and pleasurable activities. There is a whole other world out there aside from your sport; take a class, join a club, learn to meditate, and sit still. There is self-discovery to be had in stillness.


Athletes possess ambition and discipline, amazing traits to have. Education is so important. Now you have the time to dedicate to pursuing a degree or trade, and that ambition and drive will take you further than you know.


Cultivate your relationships. You have been hyper-focused on one thing for so long, your friends and loved ones will welcome your whole presence. Stay in touch with old teammates and coaches – you likely have friends from your athletic days that will remain important to you for the rest of your life. Treasure them.


If you need more support, start therapy. Not only will it help you to reconcile and process the grief of losing a vitally important part of your life, but it will also help you to look forward and into the future. We all need a little help sometimes, and a professional perspective from an outsider can be incredibly freeing.

Give Back

If your passion was for the sport itself, consider becoming a coach or teacher. Your experience and passion will be invaluable for those following in your footsteps.

“When one door closes another door opens” is another cliché that deserves more respect than it gets. Your identity as an athlete may be fading, but you still have all of those wonderful attributes that made you a great athlete to begin with.

Sportsmanship, discipline, determination, endurance, just to name a few, are remarkable traits that you have already cultivated. If you can learn to embody those traits outside of your sport, then more doors will open for you than you can imagine. 

It may feel as though your sport defined you, but in reality, the sport was just the outlet. Those defining characteristics still live within you. Embody them outside of your athletic prowess and watch the world open up. You have more inner resources than a lot of people, use them. 

For the guys that can no longer play, I would say find a new identity, find some things that you are happy doing. Always have a plan B and C. Someone once told me, just have an alphabet, have A to Z plans. Don't limit yourself. Find what makes you joyful and happy.

I believe you have the desire in your heart whenever you're ready to listen to yourself and do the things that you've done before in your life. You've got to recreate those things. It's going to be trying and tempting out there. There are ways that you can combat that stuff with positive affirmations, believing in yourself, believing in what you're cut from and what you came from, and what your purpose in life is. Nothing's impossible. All things are possible with God.


  1. Preiato, R. D. D. (2022, January 31). Exercise and the Brain: The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/exercise/
  2. Glashow, C. (2021, February 23). Life Of The Retired Athlete: How To Fight Depression And Anxiety. Anchor Therapy, LLC. https://www.anchortherapy.org/blog/retired-professional-athlete-anxiety-depression-mental-health-hoboken-jerseycity-hudson-county-nj-therapist-counselor#:%7E:text=Professional%20athletes%20face%20a%20high,the%20best%20at%20their%20sport

  3. Weigand, S. (2013, May 3). Susceptibility for Depression in Current and Retired Student-Athletes. National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658399/

  4. High School Sports Participation and Substance Use: Differences by Sport, Race, and Gender. (2014, April 9). Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/1067828X.2012.750974

  5. High School Sports Participation and Substance Use: Differences by Sport, Race, and Gender. (2014, April 9). Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/1067828X.2012.750974

  6. Trammell, K. (2021, December 28). Navigating Life After Sports For College Athletes – Ascent Publication. Medium. https://medium.com/the-ascent/navigating-life-after-sports-for-college-athletes-e70dfdcd32f0