[My Personal Story]
I wish someone took the time to explain that to me when I was younger. Perhaps they did, perhaps I just wasn’t able to understand life outside of sports. We all have those things that can become all-consuming in our lives and prevent us from seeing the big picture.
Why I even started writing at all was to help others drop those misconceptions of life, challenge them, and see if, PERHAPS, there could be another way to see things.
From a young age, the most common question from family and friends was: “How’s wrestling going?”
Though I loved wrestling with a deep passion, and those around me were merely trying to relate or simply begin a conversation, this was slowly how I began to define myself.
“Dominic Jontony, the wrestler.”
I would love to say that when I eventually quit my sport (which I was fortunate enough to have had the choice, it was not taken away from me by injury or a coach’s decision) it was easy! I sure thought it would be, as I pictured myself walking to the coach’s office. In my mind, the conversation was going to go something like this:
“Hey coach, do you have a second? I need to talk to you about something important (as we comfortably take seat in his office). You know this sport has meant the world to me, I’ve learned so many lessons. I’ve grown, matured and couldn’t be more grateful, but as I look at the future and what I want, wrestling does not fit within that anymore and I’m ready to move on.”
Simple. Respectable. Easy.
I imagined walking out, completely confident of my decision, going back to finish my last year of college. Preparing for the rest of my life with all my decisions neat and clean before me, happily ever after…
This is how it really went…
As I got to the wrestling facility, this lump made a solid landing place in my throat, and weird sensation sunk to the bottom of my stomach. My chest tightened, I tried deep breathing as I made my way inside. “I must be getting sick or something…” I assured myself to try and hide the truth I really knew deep down.
As I walked in I saw one of my coaches heading down the hallway. With that lump in my throat I barley squeaked out, “Hey c-c-coach” with my head down. [Wow, I’m already failing this one!]
He turned around, a little puzzled, and said, “Hey, is everything alright?” [Was it that obvious? Crap, this is gonna be hard!] I
calmly asked awkwardly gestured to his office, hoping for a private place to talk. With grace, he understood this was serious and opened his office door, “Let’s get out of the hallway so we can chat.”
We sat down and I immediately burst into tears. [Real smooth Dominic, way to keep it together…] I couldn’t say anything for what felt like forever. Embarrassed, I wondered if this was a mistake and it hits me:
“Dominic, what are you without wrestling?
Everything I did for the last 15 years was living and breathing wrestling. I missed out on family functions, hang outs with friends, amazing homemade meals while cutting weight! I read wrestling books, I had a training journal, watched film on drills and technique. Hours of practice, extra practice, weight lifting, the 4:30am early morning workouts, 2-a-days, 3-a-days… All of my clothes! My “style” was basically sweatpants and wrestling gear. Most of my friends were because of wrestling. My conversations centered around this sport.
I assumed many things, things that don’t even make sense when I look back at it now:
“How would my family be proud of me now?”
“What will they think of me that I actually followed through with quitting?”
“Will my friends think I’m a quitter?”
All lies, but sometimes that’s what happens in an identity crisis.
As our conversation ended, the coach offered his deepest support in my decision and reassured me that if I needed anything, he would always be available. Feeling like I could at least breath at a normal pace again, I realized I had to make my way to the locker room [I didn’t think about this in my plan of attack!] to clear out what accumulates over 3 years of collegiate wrestling.
As I’m finishing up, the most painful thing possible happened:
In walked my drill partner, the guy I spent the most time with wrestling and even hanging out outside off the mats. I wanted to disappear in that very moment [Maybe if I don’t move, he wont see me?] I never wanted to face him with this, especially today. With disappointment on his face and already knowing full well, he asked, “What are you doing?” Again went a painful explanation how I had to move on and start thinking about the future…
What was I thinking! Did I really imagine I would avoid him forever? No, I’m sure I was a lot more confused and just trying to handle a really difficult decision on my own.
What did I realize through all of this? I thought I knew who I was. I absolutely believed I was more than a wrestler, that I had an identity in things that were more important: my family, my friends, my faith. All of these things were infinitely significant to me, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to let go of Dominic, the wrestler.
Of course, not every athlete develops such a deep emotional attachment or identity defined by their sport, but one thing I have learned over the years is that I know I’m not alone. I know there are others that also have difficulty letting go of the image they saw themselves as. Often times, there is a grieving period for something that has been such a major part of our life. This goes even for the family. If we try to move past it without acknowledging the good and the bad, I believe we do a disservice to ourselves and ultimately leave a gaping wound in our identity.
As athletes, we must identify ourselves as more than just an athlete. The conversation around the dinner table must be more than just how we’re doing in sports. Our conversations should be filled to a healthy degree with what we’re learning in school, the friends we have made, our hobbies and interests…
You are more than an athlete. Lean into those deeper conversations about experiencing the world around you. You are created for a purpose much larger than a sport!