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An Athlete in Recovery

You have to surrender. Admit defeat. You lost. Some difficult words to hear for an athlete in recovery.

In the competitive world of sports, athletes are groomed, and somewhat programmed, to adopt a mindset that is conducive to consistent performance and success on the field, court, or ice.  The phrase “mental toughness” is thrown around often, and athletes are expected to develop an aptitude to never accept failure and always aspire to win. While this inflated sense of confidence can carry athletes a long way in their endeavors, it also imposes some pretty significant challenges for someone with an athletic background entering early recovery.

Athletes believe they can achieve anything; that they can will their way to expected outcomes by sheer drive, motivation, and discipline. With enough work ethic, and a desire win, there is no task that is unattainable. For many athletes, anything less than victory is a black mark on their character, and who they are as a person. It is an assault on their identity. For many, this seems absurd. Just because you lost doesn’t mean you are a failure. Sure, it logically makes sense. But for any athletes out there, you know exactly what we are talking about. The molding between one’s athletic performance and identity become so strong that it is difficult to delineate between the two.

All of this poses a unique challenge for an athlete in recovery, in particular early recovery. Let’s look at this situation through the eyes of a “newcomer,” a commonly used expression for an individual in early recovery.

An elite college athlete has just left detox and is now attending a sober living facility. Throughout his life, he has been the best at every sport in which he has participated. Picked up a basketball. Nothing but net. Grabbed a golf club. Scratch golfer. Lobbed a football to a waiting receiver. Who is this guy? Joe Montana?

Needless to say. This young man has never stared at an obstacle that he couldn’t overcome. Until he met heroin.

After an injury in college, this athlete began dabbling in prescription pills, which then led him directly to heroin. The once 6 foot 3, 220-pound ox became a shell of himself. Throughout his active addiction, he became so convinced that if he exercised the same mental discipline he used in athletics… he could beat his addiction. Perhaps he could stay abstinent for a week or two, but inevitably he returns to the drug. His self-confidence wanes as he fears he is not as “mentally tough” as he used to be. Against his own advice, but to please his family, he admits to rehab and ultimately a sober living.

Now this is where things become difficult.

As the once stoic newcomer enters the room, he is met by a host of friendly faces that welcome him into his new fellowship. Through casual conversation, he hears adages such as, You ready to surrender yet? Your way got you here. You lost. You don’t know what you’re doing. Let someone else do the thinking for you. It’s time to admit defeat. Your addiction beat you. Once you admit powerlessness, you win. 

Are these people out of their mind?

For many former athletes, listening to a bunch of former junkies talk about accepting defeat is enough for a one-way ticket out the door. These old sayings in 12-step fellowship groups go against everything the athlete has absorbed from the time he began playing sports. In such a fragile time in early recovery, it is not easy to listen to such a novel way of thinking, especially when the other mindset is the complete opposite from yours.

However, those bunch of junkies are right.

Accepting defeat is the first step for any alcoholic or addict to start the road to recovery. It requires a small ounce of humility and a kernel of willingness to try something new. For an athlete in recovery, it requires a complete overhaul in the way one thinks.

Luckily, there are some tenants of an “athlete’s mindset” that prove useful in recovery. Let’s break down some of the similarities and differences between the mindset of an athlete and the mindset of someone in recovery, and how an athlete in recovery can adjust his way of thinking.

Similarities

1. Work Ethic

Recovery from addiction is not a free ride. It requires diligent, grueling, pen-to-paper action to uncover the root of the spiritual disease. Those in recovery who take the time to put in the work often see the best long-term results. For any successful athlete, hard work is not unfamiliar territory.

2. Team Sport

You will hear us say it time and time again. Recovery is a team sport. A chronic “lone wolf” who doesn’t need anyone’s help will have a difficult time navigating life’s inevitable obstacles. Much like in sports, the individual must rely on the team. A running back is no good without his offensive line. A point guard benefits from having lethal 3-point shooters. A golfer needs an adequate caddy to help line up a putt. A swimmer relies on his teammates for motivation and drive to win. An individual in recovery has the incredible opportunity to fellowship with a room full of people that have been through the same trials and tribulations, and ultimately came out on the other side. Sort of sounds like a teammate, eh?

3. Discipline

The elite athletes have meticulously developed a disciplined lifestyle to prepare one’s body and mind for athletic challenges. The early morning workouts, the balanced diet, the routine of preparation. Each task, no matter how small, contributes to athletic success. Much like in early recovery, a disciplined lifestyle supplements the wholistic approach to addiction recovery. Making one’s bed in the morning, calling one’s sponsor every day, attending a meeting every day. Small daily recovery-based tasks require discipline, as many of them do not come naturally.

Differences

1. Win at All Costs

The first step in addiction recovery is admitting defeat; admitting that you alone can not beat addiction. Ask any athlete if they have ever accepted losing as an option. Recovery from addiction is the ultimate victory, but you must accept defeat before reaching the mountaintop.

2. Ego

In many 12-step fellowship meetings, you will hear the phrase, leave your ego at the door. Humility, or absence of ego, requires a sincere willingness to accept that maybe you don’t have all the answers; that perhaps you don’t know everything; that maybe you are not the best. Difficult for an athlete in recovery, indeed, who is told from a young age how great he/she is at everything. It is not easy to come into a room full of strangers and be told that you don’t know anything. Leave your ego at the door, kid. You might learn something!

3. Image of Self and Self-Worth

An athlete’s identity is a difficult vault to crack. Many become so self consumed with their stats in the scorebook that they believe those around them judge them the same way. If they miss the buzzer-beater shot, they are a failure… and that others see them as a failure. If they strike out with the bases loaded down by a run, they let the team down… and that others see it the same way. Failure is inherent in athletics, and yet many athletes firmly attach their self worth to their ability to not fail. In recovery, failure is also inevitable. In life, failure is inevitable. You are not judged by how often or how badly you fail. Your self worth is how you respond to the failure, and ultimately how you treat yourself and others in the midst of the hardest of times. You are much more than what the statline shows.

So, for any athlete in recovery, yes you will have to make some changes to your mindset. You will be forced to hear things that are incredibly uncomfortable. You will have to admit defeat.

But, you will be as much a part of a team as you have ever been. You will be giving the best of yourself so that your teammate, the next struggling addict who walks through the door, can have his shot at success. You will be working for something that is much bigger than you… the ultimate championship; helping the next guy beat the odds and find recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out. Our Executive Director is ready for your call to point you in the right direction for treatment services.