Why Do Athletes Quit?

For many athletes, competing in college is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Yet many UChicago athletes choose to step away from their sports in college.

By Brinda Rao

The exacting expectations of being a varsity athlete often cannot coexist with other aspects of college life. Alongside daily practices and lifts, student-athletes have to give up weeks of summer break as well as entire weekends during the school year to compete. When making their social and academic schedules, athletes always have to put in extra effort to consider their athletic commitments. As a first-year, there’s novelty in taking on the demands of such a balancing act. However, as athletes get older, they have to find room for internships and the realities of a post–UChicago future. 

When reflecting on leaving their sport, one former athlete said, “It came down to how busy my schedule was getting. It was making it really hard to enjoy tennis knowing I had a thousand other things to do. Eventually I began to dislike it. I was getting worse with my level of play and it was painful to be out there, knowing I was capable of more but unable to fix it. Because of my decline in level, everything started to fall apart: my confidence, my love for the game, my dedication and determination, and my competitiveness.” 

Second-year Jaida Kenana, a former member of the women’s basketball team, said, “Once you’re not 100 percent all in the sport it makes it difficult to go every day. You spend so much time consumed with the sport. If the sport is not what drives you it becomes hard to stay in. It’s not fair to the team if you’re not 100 percent all in; they deserve 100 percent hard work and focus from you.” 

Time is of the essence at UChicago. There are never enough hours in a day to keep up with the endless possibilities of academic and social opportunities. Athletes dedicate hours a day to practices, lifting sessions, and competition. As student-athletes at a university that demands the most academically, these individuals lose out on pursuing other passions and interests. A third-year who left the women’s tennis team explained, “I’ve gained so much time to do other things I love like art or dancing or rock-climbing. I have more freedom to do things that I enjoy and pursue other things I love that I can do even after I graduate from college.” 

At the same time, student-athletes face the challenge of leaving behind an essential part of their identities when quitting a sport. The majority of student-athletes at UChicago arrive on campus with years of prior competitive experience. Giving up their identity as a student-athlete means leaving behind a time-tested beloved activity and community. One former student-athlete acknowledged, “I’ve also given up on a lot. I feel like I gave up on myself and my athletic abilities, even though I know it was the right thing to do. I feel I gave up on my team and my coach, as well as others that helped me get to college athletics.”

While former athletes give up the perks of athletic lockers and training rooms, a lot of the benefits of being a student-athlete stay. Kenana reflects, “From my time on basketball, I’ve gained form of assurance and agency of how I act on campus. When you’re on a team you represent the team and UChicago. I carry myself differently and always will.” 

Perhaps, as former athletes have noted, the community that they gain through their sport does not leave them. Many teams are built on strong connections between students from all years and walks of life. While former athletes miss out on daily practices and competitions, many are still included in team bonding activities. Kenana comments, “The team is inspirational and a strong community. I am still part of the community but it’s different than going to practice every day—once you’re out of that, it’s not the same. But I haven’t lost my relationship with the team.”

The decision to leave a varsity sport is a heavy one. Athletes gain a sense of identity and community through their sports. However, the physically and mentally demanding schedule of being a student-athlete often hinders endeavors to explore other interests. While some athletes fall out of love with their sport, others have to decide whether committing to a varsity team allows them to prepare for their future beyond college. Regardless of whether they stay on their team or not, athletes at UChicago remain connected to their sports and their tight-knit communities in a novel way.