photo credit: Courtesy of the Office of Athletics photo location: Memorial Hall Kassidy Stout #40 '23 about to pass the ball

Kassidy Stout ‘23, number 40, stands on the free-throw line for her first-ever collegiate foul shots. It is her freshman season, and coming off of major success in her high school career, expectations are high. She takes her first shot. A miss. Second shot? Miss. Heart sinking slightly, Stout jogs back as the opposing team takes the ball. It was only two missed shots, how much would it really matter? But for Stout, this moment was the spark that led to over a year of questioning whether her commitment to playing basketball was worth the stress it caused.

Three years before, this same feeling of doubt was consuming Sarah Duffy ‘23, a freshman on the Saucon Valley High School women’s basketball team and current Muhlenberg lacrosse player. She had a starting spot on the basketball team— something that many athletes strive to achieve their whole career. At her first high school scrimmage, it only took two minutes for Duffy to make a mistake that caused her coach to angrily pull her from the court. On the sideline, Duffy’s motivation and excitement for the game began to plummet; basketball was not giving her the chance to have fun. Although a starting spot and playing time as a freshman would be enough to keep many on the team, Duffy wrestled with the idea that playing this sport may cause more negatives than positives.

More people quit a sport than one might think. Studies show that around 94 percent of kids have quit at least one sport in their lifetime. There are many reasons why people decide to withdraw from sports — lack of fun, overbearing time commitments, and injuries are just a few examples. However, for many athletes, sports are the source of heightening anxiety and depression. A study done by the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that around 25 percent of all collegiate athletes show signs of depression. Because of this, it is not surprising that around 33 percent of college athletes quit their sport. 

Stout, now a junior and retired student athlete at Muhlenberg College, lays on the couch in her apartment recollecting her basketball experience. She sighs, but not disappointedly. Stout made the decision to stop playing collegiate basketball right before her third season. At a glance, two missed free throws may not look like much of a setback. However, when Stout stepped up to the line the following season and the same thing happened, the feeling of embarrassment returned, along with a newfound avoidance of aggression, which stemmed from her fear of getting fouled and given other opportunities at the free-throw line. This became a problem because, as a post player, Stout needed to be aggressive to be successful. 

“It started to get to the point where I didn’t want to be as aggressive because I didn’t want to get fouled and go to the free-throw line,” she says. “It took a huge part of my game away.” 

Just as a part of her game was taken away, a part of her love of the sport also left. So when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled most college sports seasons, Stout used this time to train with a private coach — who helped her with basketball skills and also with her mindset. “Every time I would go train with him, I would feel like how I did when I was playing in high school. I felt confident. I wasn’t nervous,” she says while remembering her training sessions. Without the eyes of coaches, teammates and fans, basketball seemed so much more enjoyable and easy. “But I just knew in the back of my head… gametime. This could be totally different when there’s people watching. Thinking about the pressure of everyone watching me kind of freaked me out still.” 

At the beginning of her junior year, the nerves and anxiety returned. Stout decided to talk to the College’s sports psychologist and after three visits he helped her realize that she loved playing the game of basketball, but the stress brought on by competition was not worth putting her mental health in danger. The newfound freedom Stout gained from deciding to stop playing competitively allowed her to work more, focus on school and continue to be active in her own way. 

Although Stout knew that quitting would overall be the healthiest option for her mental health, part of her still did not want to let anyone down. Possibly the hardest part about choosing to quit her sport was potentially disappointing her parents. “They spent so much time and money on me playing. It was never a matter of whether or not I was going to play in college, I knew I was going to, and partly because I felt like I owed it to them. And I wanted to, of course,” she says, thinking about how much her parents had also been a part of her basketball journey. When her parents did find out, the only worry was that she would regret the decision.  However, besides that, her parents were not disappointed in any way — they chose to stand by Stout no matter what decision she made. “The reaction surprised me. But deep down, I knew that they just wanted me to be happy.”

At the end of Duffy’s freshman basketball season, the physical and mental exhaustion she experienced after every game caused her to rethink her commitment to the team. “I ultimately finished freshman year basketball, but I was coming home every night crying,” Duffy says. “I was a little bit nervous to quit. I thought people were gonna be mad at me. And my best friend was mad at me, she didn’t understand how I could do that to them.”

The pressure from teammates and coaches often stops players from quitting, even if it would be the right choice for them in the end. Knowing that a teammate is being let down makes the situation even harder to process. Although in the moment quitting a sport that has been such a prominent part of their life may feel as though a piece of the person’s self is being taken away, the possibility of moving onto other things that better support and suit the person makes the decision even better. For Duffy, leaving the commitment of basketball, which caused her high stress and low self esteem, allowed her to pursue other opportunities. “It was definitely the best decision for me to quit basketball because I then started coaching youth basketball and working with kids with autism. That’s how I solidified what I wanted to do in life.” 

In her new role as a student-assistant coach of the women’s basketball team, Stout gets the opportunity to help her former teammates from the side of the court and still be an important part of the team without putting her mental health on the line. Although she misses the feeling of playing in or winning a really close game, Stout does not regret her decision to quit basketball. “Maybe if I saw a sports psychologist more often I could have stopped my anxiety, but part of me just didn’t want to be fixed,” she says, furthering her opinion that she made the right decision. 

Tim Silvestri, a licensed psychologist, performance counselor, and the head of counseling services at Muhlenberg College, believes that “mission” is what drives athletes to continue to play and put so much effort into a sport. When athletes come to Silvestri to seek guidance about potentially quitting their sport, he analyzes whether they have lost the mission they previously had for the sport, or if they have simply moved on to a better mission.

“The question is, what were your reasons for loss of mission? Can we get that back? Or did you lose your mission because you are obsessed with becoming an artist, a doctor or a chef, and the previous mission of the sport is holding you back from that?” he asks. Athletes who simply lose their original mission can easily get it back with support and counseling if they choose that path. However, in many cases, leaving their sport behind may create endless opportunities. There is a difference between those who love being an athlete and have temporarily lost the drive to play, and those who no longer have their mission. Drive and mission can be recovered, but if the person has no connection to being an athlete anymore, their mission in their sport has ended, and it allows them to find a new mission in life and move on.

In Duffy’s case, she had lost mission for basketball but had found a new mission helping kids on the autism spectrum and volunteering in hospitals. The decision to leave behind a big part of her life was difficult, but it resulted in her getting the opportunity to discover what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. For Stout, her loss of mission for basketball came when she realized that she was happier on the sideline coaching than on the court with the eyes of the crowd on her and the constant pressure of the competition.

When both Stout and Duffy reflected on their decision to quit the sports that they were once extremely successful in, neither had any regret or unease about what they chose to do. Although coming to this realization may have been difficult, the result will have lasting positive effects on their mental health. For Stout, being afraid to quit stemmed from the possibility of disappointing her parents and the worry that she may regret the decision herself. For Duffy, the possibility of disappointing her teammates and friends caused added pressure, along with the lasting feeling that she may never achieve the level of enjoyment while playing that she should. Quitting may be the healthier option for many athletes, as long as they have the strength to realize it.

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