I started playing basketball when I was six for the sheer fun of it; my brother and dad were very sports oriented and we had a field and blacktop right next to our house, so naturally we spent many afternoons and evenings playing all kinds of sports out there. I had a special affinity for basketball for an indescribable reason. I started finding myself out on the court all on my own very frequently; there was something so satisfying about picking up a ball and shooting hoops, and, as an inherently athletic person, I was good at it from the get-go. Even at such a young age, I felt so in tune with the sport, as if it had always been running through my blood. There was something so special about the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of basketball. I fell in love. I began going out to the court every night to shoot hoops. My game improved, and I joined my first team at eight. I still played for the love of the sport, but my first coach was an extremely competitive man who treated my teammates and me as if we were high school players. Being too young to have developed critical thinking skills and being a competitive person myself, this didn’t deter me and just felt normal. My coach would boast about my skills when I played well and berate me when I didn’t; I couldn’t help but begin to attach my self-esteem to how well I was playing that week. I was a child.
As the years went on, I started advancing further and further. When I was 11, I joined an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, the highest-level competitive league you can be a part of at that age. At this point, the stakes were already getting so high that if I wasn’t at school, I was practicing basketball. I was playing for my local team, my school team, and my AAU team, which meant that I had practice every night of the week and tournaments on the weekends. Things went on this way until I moved to Europe at 13, at which point I joined a Dutch club team to continue striving towards my goal of being a college athlete. Being on this team was the beginning of the end of my basketball journey. As a newcomer to an established team, my teammates and coaches alike treated me poorly. There was a lot of terrible stuff going on in my personal life which undoubtedly affected my performance on the court. As I mentioned before, from a very early age I had attached my self-worth to how well I was playing lately, so my confidence and happiness took a steep drop around this time. I was 15 at this point and began to realize that this was a turning point; I could either continue to play basketball, devote my entire life to the game, and continue to pin my future to a sport I would likely never fully succeed in, or I could stop playing. I remember distinctly bawling my eyes out after one game in particular in which I had played horribly, miserably realizing that I needed to give up the one thing I had always loved in order to save myself. So, in my sophomore year of high school, I stopped playing basketball.
Now, my reaction to this detachment from my sport played out in a similar way to many other young competitive athletes I’ve talked to who’ve also had to make the choice to give up their sport. Since I had pretty much devoted all of my formative years to perfecting my game, which is mandatory if you ever want to live out your dreams of being a college (or pro) athlete, I was completely at a loss without basketball. I didn’t have any other concrete hobbies, passions, or talents. While the majority of my peers who didn’t play competitive sports had numerous interests and future aspirations, I was left with practically nothing. I started to distract myself from the emptiness with drugs and alcohol. I spent almost all my time socializing and doing fun but risky activities so I didn’t have to face the thought that I would never lead a fulfilling life. I was forced to walk away from my one passion and hadn’t had any time to develop a safety net of options. What was I supposed to do now?
This might seem pathetic and naive to a reader who hasn’t experienced what I’m talking about. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be heartbroken over a child’s game. The easiest way to justify it is to compare a serious athlete’s relationship with their sport to a marriage. You meet, you fall in love, you spend every day together, you commit to each other. And yet, so many marriages end in divorce. Sometimes, your life is heading in a direction that your partner can’t catch up to. Sometimes, your partner starts emotionally abusing you. Sometimes, you realize that in order to relieve yourself of this pain, you need to let the source go.
About 50 percent of married people stay with their partners; however, only a very tiny amount of dedicated competitive athletes stick with their sport. So, unless I’m the only ex-athlete who feels this way, there are millions of other people like me who feel this acute loss at least to some extent. So, what do all of these ex-athletes end up doing with their life? I can’t speak for all of them but from my experience, they pour themselves into another competitive and high-stakes career like business or finance. Many may never develop another real passion in life. A lot of them may become depressed, empty, and hollow. There are many adults that are like this now because of how heavily encouraged getting into competitive sports is during childhood, in all types of cultures all around the world.
Please, don’t get me wrong, I still have a deep love for basketball. I always have and I always will. I was never pushed to start playing basketball, that all came very naturally and wholesomely. The problem lies in the fact that sports, even at such a young age, are not allowed to just be a fun pastime and a good form of exercise like they should be. Whether it's soccer, basketball, baseball, or any other sport, kids are encouraged to take it very seriously and develop a very competitive mindset. Pro athletes, in most cultures, are held in very high regard, which may be the first problem. It is drilled into young children that if we ever want to be the next Lebron James or David Beckham (and what naive sports-loving kid doesn’t have this in the back of their mind?) we need to be aggressive, single-minded, and have exceptional determination. With this highly unrealistic goal in our heads, we become slaves to the sport we once just sheerly loved to play for fun. The problem is staring us right in the face. When will we as a society wake up, let our children be children, and create a generation of happy, creative, and fulfilled adults with multiple passions?
Kate Doxey is a former international school student at the American School of the Hague and International School of Rheinlands Lyceum. She is a fashion stylist currently studying in London. She is multi-passionate, after years of single-minded pursuit of basketball glory.