The Difficulty of Working Out as a Former Athlete

In my last article, I wrote about how I held onto throwing after I decided I was moving on. I continued to throw every-so-often until I moved back home. I had been in an Alpha-Male gym culture at Driveline and was making progress towards a 315-pound bench press. As someone who barely scraped 225 lbs during my playing career, I was pumped.

Weightlifting became boring within three weeks of arriving back home. There was no longer the sense of community I once felt around it. The sense of purpose I once had around training was gone. Weightlifting was a means of throwing harder for two years, and after that, it was a way for me to impress my friends and gain new ones.

Suddenly, I was in a gym culture where no one cared about my 5-pound bench PR and I lost out on the drive to stay in there. I was fit enough, so I wasn’t all that worried about getting out of shape. Over time, four weekly workouts turned to three. Three turned to two, and before you know it I had gone a couple weeks without visiting the gym one time.

I know what you’re thinking. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a couple weeks…” You’re right. It really wasn’t a big deal. But as someone who prides myself on habits and discipline, I was annoyed with myself. I struggled to accept that I didn’t care about working out as much as I used to. Training had been my life, and now I had just gone two weeks without getting to the gym one time. I felt like I was betraying myself.

Two Things Research Suggests About Former Athletes

I figured I was not alone in this struggle. Research suggests that integrating exercise into one’s self-identity increases the likelihood that physical activity will remain a part of that person’s life in the future (Springer et al., 2013).

In addition, researchers have found that student-athlete alumni are no more active than non-athlete alumni (Reifsteck, Gill, & Brooks, 2013; Sorenson et al., 2015). Yes, you read that right. Activity in sports is not a viable predictor of future physical activity levels.

This may come as a shock to you. I know it did to me. When I was in college, I was sure that I would continue to train with the same focus and drive that I had during my baseball career and had my sights set on an amateur powerlifting career.

It was easy for me to envision my future self as a powerlifter while I was playing baseball. I was spending well over ten hours in the weight room each week and genuinely enjoyed it. Naturally, I figured my next athletic endeavor after baseball would be maximizing my strength through powerlifting. My identity wouldn’t need that large of a change, and I could pursue something I had already seen success in.

James Clear & Identity-Based Habits

Two days ago, I received a copy of James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits. Early on in the book, Clear speaks to the role of identity in habit formation. Clear makes the statement that there are three layers to forming new habits and creating new behavior. The layers are outcomes, processes, and identity. It looks something like this:

In his observation, most people try to form habits by focusing on the outcomes, working through processes, and hoping that those things change their identity (Beliefs about oneself). Clear proposes people take the opposite route to habit formation and life change.

In what Clear calls Identity-Based Habits, you and I need to focus on who we wish to become. Then, we develop a system (process) to help us get to an outcome. Our mind stays off of the outcome, and we focus on continually carving out our identity and placing inputs into our process.

To illustrate this, I want to quote Clear from page 32 of Atomic Habits.

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.

The second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.

Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, ‘I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).’ They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.

This quote is extraordinary when viewed in light of a former athlete struggling to maintain an exercise habit.

For me, I’m still dealing with the old identity I took on as a strong baseball player. Even though my primary goal is to get very lean and have visible abs for the first time in my life, I still deal with the internal standards of having a double-bodyweight deadlift, a 405+ lb squat, and great mobility. For a soccer player, they might deal with the internal pressure to have excellent cardiovascular fitness. The requirements of our sport became so intertwined with our identity that we still feel like we must demonstrate competency in these areas after we quit our sport.

For example, instead of staying on a lifting program designed to stimulate muscle hypertrophy, I do low-rep sets in a hope to maintain my identity as someone who is strong.

At the end of the day, my old identity formed over 2.5 years of intense training is sabotaging my plans to change and become the type of person who is lean and has visible abs.

I must stop trying to take on a new identity by taking a bunch of actions (exercise, proper nutrition, sleep, etc.). While this is how we commonly think of behavior change being made (identify a goal and work to achieve it, resulting in identity change), there’s a better way.

I can assume the identity of one who is lean and has visible abs and now make my decisions based off of that identity. When faced with a decision, I can ask myself, “What would the person I want to become do?”. This question can help form my decision-making. Some practical examples include:

Would the person I want to become prepare food ahead of time or get fast food for lunch?

Would the person I want to become stick to his program, or would he program-hop every other week?

Would the person I want to become go to the gym even though he doesn’t feel like it, or would he skip the workout to go home?

I don’t know what your unique situation is. Maybe you’ve transitioned smoothly into working out after athletics. If that’s you, why are you still reading this?

Perhaps you’re going through the same struggle as me and thousands of other former athletes. If that’s you, I want you to take a look at your identity.

Are you still identifying with the athlete you once were? Or have you taken steps to unlearn your old identity and start thinking differently about yourself?

Your habits are shaped by your self-identity. And your self-identity is shaped by what you believe about yourself. As I conclude, I want to ask you a simple question.

What are you believing about yourself?


Maintaining physical activity over time: the importance of basic psychological need satisfaction in developing the physically active self:

The Relationship between Athletic Identity and Physical Activity among Former College Athletes:

Life Span Exercise Among Elite Intercollegiate Student Athletes:

Atomic Habits:

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