Being labelled "a competitive athlete" can be similar to being labelled "the president."
Not because the two roles are at all similar, but in how we use the descriptor even while someone is not actively in that role. After the tenure in the position is over, the common courtesy is to continue to use the label when referring to you. So just as we still call former presidents “Mr. President,” so too is it a contemporary social custom to continue referring to non-competing athletes as “competitive athletes," even long after they have completed their competitive run – and especially during long hiatus between competitive runs.
Now, I have no authority backing these assumptions other than repetitive anecdotal experience. However, anecdotally I see this across all sports, and even many non -sport competitive endeavors. A poet who is not writing is still regarded a poet. A chef who is not in empty for his culinary talents is still called “a chef.” These and other things I see around us make me think that “once a competitive athlete, always a competitive athlete.” At least in naming regard.
But these are the social conventions, and not the internal sense of the self. Often our personal identity concept differs from the way society labels us. This is because, as we know, society’s labels are broad, and designed specifically to help us sort each other out categorically. So while this labelling is useful when we want to discern, say, a surgeon from a tap dancer, it does little in the way of helping us understand our relationship to a particular practice.
This is the root of it for us, whether we conscientiously bring up the thought or not: "How do I regard myself in relationship to the sport? If so much of my relationship was defined by the practices involved with competition, what is my relationship to the sport beyond competitive pursuits?"
Often the very pace of our life has been altered or shifted to accommodate this relationship. But this is predicated on the mutual benefit; I nurture this practice, and in return it (presumably) nurtures my life. Thus it is a complex and evolving relationship we will have with this identity, and one that is only tenuously described by the term “competitive athlete.”
Yet when the relationship changes – and we am not actively competing – how do should we see ourselves? Are we still "competitive bodybuilders"? Is it pretentious to claim that we are "competitive strength athletes"? And what fallout is there in my perception of myself, or towards the practice of the sport itself? Many lose motivation without the identity being active. Some actually degrade into a less vibrant mode of living. Are we destined to become passionless and doleful beings without the precious gifts we get from being "active competitors?
Now, personally, I did not come to these sports originally with any hope of competing. I had no grand plan of conquering some tiny, niche arena in this world. Competing was something I picked up along the journey. It helped me structure the practice and evolve the relationship I had with resources I relied on. It motivated me, educated me and networked me among many other interesting and amazing people and communities. It is easy to see why, then, so much of one’s identity can get wrapped up in that space of “being a competitor.” But this may be where my personal nature comes into play – and where I may be of little help with discerning conflicts one may have with the identity once they have stopped competing.
I am rebellious, that is true. But not blindly rebellious. I don't arbitrarily attempt to tear down powers-that-be, even if my intuition is always to confront authority with a rigorous shake-down. My rebel instinct crops up when confronted with authority, and my impulse is to give it a “truth check” – just to ensure within myself that it is rightful in it’s claim to authority. Thus this quality has very much served me to get a broader perspective on my relationships with the aspects of my life.
This authority-checking most often happens for me as an internal confrontation, rather than as an external fight. If a thought or label is too strong in my head, I start chasing after it to make sure I am not blindly assuming a label and following an ideal that lacks the merit of truth. This is a habit of me, and while many can learn this, I lucked out with it being resident in my mind for, oh, as long as I can recall, really. But it is one tool that helped me not over-invest in the title “competitive athlete’ once it was foisted upon me a few decades ago.
Thus, title “competitive bodybuilder” has always just been something I carried lightly, like an address or a phone number. Yes, it described one place I can be found, but like a phone number does not describe who I am. It is a way to connect with me, and a way for me to connect with parts of the world. But just as my street address does not define the members of the house, so too did the term “competitor” not describe me.
Like my address to my home, it allows people to find me and allows me to plan a trip out into the world; it is useful and kind of awesome to have, but it is merely a tool for connection, not the terms of the connections themselves.
And that is how I see the term “competitor” to this day. It is a tool to connect, not a definition towards which to strive and shape my being. And I advise others to use the term this way in their own life; to see it as a means to connect and explore, not as a locus at which to sit and wait.
There has been no conflict of feelings for me in terms of this label, which is why I feel a little useless addressing this concern for long-term competitors. yet that is not to say i can not understand the conflict. How does one keep enthusiasm and continue priority for a practice when the “mission” to compete is no longer the skeletal structure of the enterprise? How can one continue a process that is (to push the analogy) all meat and no bones?
My societal "summer home" address
Let’s return to the idea of labeling as a tool, rather than labeling as a result. What can my “status” as a competitor avail me while I am not competing? Anything of interest? And am I willing to allow my engagement to evolve, or am I stubbornly assuming that the only good stuff is the stuff I already got – the good stuff I received while competing?
This is the crux of the conflict with identity-shifting: the belief that all the good already happened, and I will lose whatever good is left if I allow an evolution of self-perception. So much of “yourself” in the endeavor was based on a set of practices and goals that are now no longer resident. How can anything good come now? It’s all gone. It’s all done.
I am not who I was any more, right?
The identity was always and still is merely a social address. it is not only a way you can be reached, but a spot from which you can journey. The problem lies in the fact that people think that if they leave this address they will not be welcomed back home. So, like hoarders and shut-ins, we live in our dust and clutter, with practices and efforts piling up and becoming dusty, crowded and old. Broken edges scrape us. Bugs start stuttering about the corners. Rust and mildew and mold fester in the dark corners that we can’t even reach because we are so impacted in this address of “competitive athlete.” Staying here hurts us. We have to get out of this damn house! But if we go, does that mean we abandon this address forever?
People found us here. We hosted great parties. We slept sound nights. There was light and warmth once, and a brilliant conversations. We nursed illnesses to wellness and created love all around. This address was great! How can I bear to leave . . . but for the clutter that now fills these once great walls!
You can see how there is a strange mourning to the process; a sense of letting go of something brilliant and meaningful that has expired. The address is still good; we can still be found here and use the location as a point on new journeys. But we must now let this identity only be part-time residence; a summer home or a sabbatical house. We can not center our journey at this address, even though we can still use it as a stop towards new directions.
This is what touches the experience of the “noncompetitive” competitive athlete. There is a sadness to not being able to stay in this glorious spot, and that sadness needs to be honored. it is a real mourning; it is a real emotional loss. But we don’t lose the house; we only move out of it. That is what must be emphasized; this is not a zero-sum transition. Just because you are feeling a loss or pain from departure does not mean it is permanent. The stress of change is real, but the feeling is temporary. We do not lose the address just because we can not live there year round.
This is the best way I can explain it. When I am not competing – even for long periods as I am experiencing now – the ideas behind the identity of “competitive athlete” may not be where I take up residence, but I know they are not lost. I know how it is to live life at that address, and can do so again when it seems my other properties are settled. I mean, i wouldn’t go on vacation in a summer home if my city apartment was in need to repair, right? Two different addresses which help me enter the world, yet only one resident who decides which address is best for “right now.”
We are many things, and can be found at many addresses
We have many more addresses than just two. We have many identifiers that help society locate us and help us navigate society. Why should one be favored when they all have their vantage points? Yes, it is sad when I have to sit up one of my addresses for a few seasons, but the mail can still come there, and I can still stop in to tidy up some of the dust from time to time. It is sad and a real loss when it is time to go, but do not panic and sell the house just because you won’t be summering there for a few seasons. You’ll be exploring the world from other addresses as your start point.
But every once in a while we will swing by the old ranch and step onto the porch and survey the land from that perspective. Pick up the mail, reconnect with old neighbors, eat the fruits that grow in that yard. The identity is not gone just because we are no longer “year-rounders.”
All your identities are yours. They all are places we can connect with he world and where the world can find us. But not one of them are the definition of our lives. Just as your street address only hints at the idea that there is more to the person than their location, so too is there more advantage to keeping all these social “addresses” while we explore the the world around us.
Have your bit of mourning for the fact that you may not hang out at the old ranch for a while. But don’t burn down the house too fast. It is yours. It identifies a part of you, just like the term “president” identifies those guys who USED to run the USA. But the forever own the title because they forever have that perspective.
You are the same: you will forever own this title – this social “address” – because you beautiful and amazing work gave you a valuable asset of perspective.
And it will again.
I hope at least some of this is useful.