The Year of the Forgotten Senior

I was going to write a post about the joys and challenges of being a coach’s wife, as this time of year is normally dominated by college basketball. However, when the season was suddenly and sadly cut short due to the Coronavirus, it didn’t seem appropriate or relevant. I feel for the coaches and staff members that work so hard to be successful every year, but I feel even more so for the players. These kids have worked so hard to play well enough to win their conference tournament and/or get to the NCAA tournament, and that opportunity was snatched away from them. Now, I fully understand the reasoning for it, and I fully agree with the precautions. However, it is still very disappointing, and how I feel for these athletes. Being a former collegiate athlete, I can attest that the season ending games result in feelings of great disappointment and sadness, but so much more so when the player is a senior. 

Earlier in the month, their careers were ended just like that. No more practices, no more games, no more teammates, no more locker room talks, no more records, no more uniforms, no more bright lights, and no more opponents.

Gone

They won’t have another chance to recapture that season with those exact teammates and coaches. Those series of moments that were the 2019-2020 season have been converted into memories, because they are no longer part of the present. 

For most of the seniors, a way of life is over. One does not become successful at the college level without high levels of commitment and discipline, which require endless drills, practices, and games. Additional components to athletic success are maintaining a certain fitness level, constantly improving the skill set, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and growing in the technical knowledge of the game. Once a kid is no longer playing on a team, what value is there in spending so much time and effort on the above things? Sure, some of these kids will go on to be professionals, but most of them will not.

What does a kid do when so much of their time has been spent working on their jump shot in the gym or the driveway? When countless hours are spent getting stronger, gaining quickness, improving their ball handling, and improving their shooting accuracy, a huge void results when that need is eliminated.

There is simply nothing like being an athlete. Words cannot explain the required physical and mental toughness to push through fatigue, discouragement, frustration, injuries, and losses. The desire to be better than the opponent cannot be articulated, whomever it may be. The joy that comes from hitting an important shot, or winning an important game cannot be described. Words can’t fully explain how fun that game is, despite everything that is required to play it well. Being an athlete can easily become the sole identity of a kid, and it is a huge loss when that title is taken away.

It’s hard enough when a career ends the way it is supposed to, which is by losing a game in the regular season or the conference/NCAA tournament. It’s unimaginable for the kids who had their careers end without a fight, without a chance to beat their opponent and extend their college careers for one more game. 

There were so many teams that were having a good year. Good enough to win regular season titles. Good enough to do well in conference tournaments. Good enough to make to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, or the first time under a new coach.

I feel for kids like Sabrina Ionescu, who came back to Oregon this year for the sole purpose of winning a championship. I feel for teams like ETSU, Maryland, Liberty, Duke, North Carolina State, Oregon, Florida Gulf Coast, Stephen F. Austin, Florida State, and Yale, who all had great seasons, and were poised to do great things in the Tournament. Those dreams will never be realized for the 2019-2020 season. It will forever be the year of “what ifs”, the year with the asterisk. 

The seniors for these teams may have had their senior nights, but they won’t have had the opportunity to cut down nets, or walk off the floor for the last time. No standing ovations given by fans in recognition of their skill, determination, and success. No sentimental last practices or last games. No last chance to wear that uniform again. Just over and done with in an instant, like these kids didn’t spend immense portions of their lives working to get to this level of play. 

These kids only get four years. Some of them get less. Oftentimes, those four years can be extremely defining in the lives of these kids, especially the ones that play at high levels. They will frequently reflect on their time as college athletes as their life progresses. It will come up frequently, through questions like “where did you go to school”, “what do you do for fun”, or “what team do you root for”. 

It will be brought up by kids and grandkids who are proud of the accomplishments of their parents and grandparents. It will come up at the doctor’s office when joints starting aching and becoming arthritic. It will come up when college sports start up again every year. Our society places such a high value on sports that the resurrection of the collegiate career will be inescapable for these kids. 

For the rest of their lives, this season will be the one that didn’t have a firm resolution to it. There will always be the question of, “who knows what could have been”? The underclassmen and juniors get another crack at it next year, and that will help to dull the effect of this season, but for the seniors, it’s done. No more seasons, no more fresh opportunities, no more “next year”. Their time is up, and it had nothing to do with their skill, talent, or drive.

I had a tough time when my career was ended, and it ended like it was supposed to, with a loss. I loved everything about basketball for many years, but towards the end of my career, I began feeling burned out, and playing basketball had begun to lose some of its appeal. The game wasn’t coming to me as easily as it had in the past, and I was losing my competitive edge. I had also found other fun ways to occupy my time. Basketball was slowly moving down the list of priorities, and it showed in the way I was playing. Even so, when my team lost that last game, it was hard. Really hard.

I had played nearly year round for over ten years, and it’s just what I did. It’s who I was. I loved playing basketball, and I loved being part of a team. Everything about it had been so fun for so many years, from the practices, to the pre-season workouts, to the games. A lot of players are not huge fans of practice, but I was. I just loved it.

When you go from having a structured year, month, week, and day to having a lot of free time, it is hard to figure out what to do. It’s hard enough when you know that immense change to your identity and routine is coming, but it’s even harder when it happens before it’s supposed to. That’s what these seniors have to wrap their heads around. Not only do they have to deal with disappointment, unfulfilled expectations, lingering “what ifs”, and uncertainty about the future, but they have to deal with a restructuring of their identity.

It’s easy to say that our identity shouldn’t be in a hobby, and as a Christian, our identity should be in Christ alone. It’s not always that easy to live out. As a kid, you don’t really understand what it means to place your identity in something until it’s taken away. For me, the first time I really understood this truth is when I stopped playing basketball. Being an athlete was my identity, and it was simple. That’s who I was, and that’s what I did. It was how I made my friends, and it was how I spent my time. If I wasn’t playing basketball, chances are, I was watching it.

That transition to a more adult and normal life wasn’t easy, and I missed basketball for many years before that wound healed. Ironically, I married someone more obsessed with basketball than I was at the time. I get to live vicariously through him and through the players on his team. I love it, and I think it is a really cool thing. I believe that when one of the spouses in a marriage is a coach, it is really helpful for the other spouse to have a genuine interest in the sport. It is certainly true for us.

To many people, sports are nothing more than a bunch of people running after a ball, but it is so much more than that. It’s an outlet, it’s an escape from the doldrums of daily life, it’s a social network, it improves discipline, it teaches accountability, it’s a way to see the world, it develops the ability to work in a team, it requires toughness, it helps develop healthy body images in girls, it fosters a lifelong love of physical activity, it’s humbling, it fosters confidence, and above all, it’s just fun.

With all of the seriousness in the world today, we need to remember to engage in something that is simply fun. There are a lot of things to enjoy in this world, and we needn’t forget that. We can’t be too busy or anxious that we forget to be lighthearted and joyful. 

I feel for these seniors that had life hit them in an unexpected way. I hate it for them, especially the walk ons, the role players, the DII players, and the DIII players; the players that are not going on to a professional career in sports. Knowing what is coming their way in the form of sizable voids, changed identities, disappointments, and what-could-have-beens, I hope they can see the big picture. 

While this year was their last one, it was not the only one. While this year was disappointing, it does not have to be defining. It is an opportunity for them to change gears and tackle a challenge, and it is an opportunity to grow. Life has plenty of challenges waiting in the wings, and the older we get, the more we know this to be true. This will be one of many trials for these kids during their lives, and I hope that the wounds and disappointments are not excruciating. With time, I hope that this year becomes a small part of the athletic history of each kid, instead of becoming a defining moment in their lives. The 2019-2020 basketball season will make a great 30 for 30 episode one day.

On a lighter note, this humorous (and very true) article on the plight of coach’s wives who suddenly have their always-working-husbands at home is well worth the read.

https://theathletic.com/1681969/2020/03/18/honey-im-home-the-sanity-of-coaches-wives-is-being-tested-like-never-before/

It has a paywall, but The Athletic delivers excellent content. It’s well worth the time and money, in my opinion. After all, since we can’t go out and do much these days, we had better find good stuff to read 🙂

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