Five More Minutes

How high school athletes adapt to the end of their playing days

Five More Minutes

As her volleyball career drew to a close, Liv Clark was already reflecting. Battlefield was struggling to keep up with Colgan at the 2021 VHSL Region 6B Volleyball Final, and she realized that the teammates she’d formed bonds with over several years were helpless against a powerful Sharks squad.

The then-senior setter, playing in what would be her last high school volleyball game, had already begun the process of saying goodbye to the sport she grew up playing. “I went into the game knowing it would be the last volleyball game I would ever play due to the fact that we were playing Colgan, who went on to win states that year,” Clark recalls.

She adds that she was “very calm the whole game, even towards the end, because I was just trying to soak up the last time I would ever play volleyball with Battlefield, play with my teammates, and be coached by my coach who I hold very dear to my heart.” Volleyball had been the center of her life for almost a decade, and suddenly, it was over.

The emotions Liv felt are shared by swarms of senior athletes nationwide as their seasons come to an end, whether in the playoffs or after the last of the guaranteed number of games each team gets in the regular season. For most, their careers end in a loss (unless they reach AND win the elusive state championship), adding a crushing blow to the conclusion of their journeys.

For the majority of these athletes, this is the official end of their time playing their sport in an organized league. Only 7% of student-athletes are both deserving and lucky enough to make the transition from high school to collegiate athletics (scholarshipstats.com); the rest are forced to transition into the society of non-athletes, of which only a portion are avidly interested in sports

Such a drastic change is difficult to handle and time-consuming, especially because of the connections athletes have made with their sports since they first started playing. Liv began playing volleyball at the age of 10: “at first, I actually hated the sport, but clearly, I grew a liking very fast. I grew a huge connection with volleyball to the point where I never want to get out of touch with the sport.

Senior basketball player Sofia Miller, who also played volleyball with Clark, began playing basketball in second grade. “Whether it’s to let out anger or to have fun,” playing has become an important part of her life. Going into her senior season, she is still hoping to get college attention, intending to be able to have the opportunity to play at the next level if she so chooses.

After tearing her ACL in the middle of a statistically successful junior year, Sofia explains that her injury “caused me to miss out on big recruiting opportunities in travel basketball during the spring and summer.” With those opportunities to impress college coaches gone, her chances of recruitment were damaged, all because of an uncontrollable injury. She points out that “there is still a chance for me to play in college if I can stand out this season and make up for lost time.” This is the desire of many athletes injured during their junior and senior seasons, cheated out of valuable time to both play the sport they love and improve the prospects of continuing their journey.

Miller’s future decision and its factors are one of many rationales that athletes deal with as their high school careers conclude and college looms. Whether they lack the size and skill necessary to compete on college-level teams or lose their desire to continue the be involved with the overbearing schedule synonymous with participation in sports, student-athletes must contemplate the positive and negative benefits of their decision.

The time commitment of college athletics is astonishing. Early morning workouts, followed by multiple practices and film sessions scattered between classes and meals, all while student-athletes are trying to maintain a social life and mental well-being. While high school athletics requires an almost year-round commitment, the extent of time is incomparable to the daily routine of collegiate athletes.

A particularly agonizing vindication of not moving on to play in college is not that an athlete lacks the skills to compete with potential peers, but that they have all the skills necessary and lose their love of their sport, or at least enough love to discontinue their playing journey. These athletes, while getting college interest and even offers to play at NCAA schools, are pondering what is most important: athletics or a quality education.

“The main reason I chose not to play in college,” Clark explains, “despite having verbal offers from a few schools, was that I wanted focus all my attention on building my education for my future career, instead of trying to balance a sport and school.” She, and many other athletes, acknowledge that their education be focused on rather than placed second in priority to a sport. If they decline the commitment and stress that comes with being a collegiate student-athlete, they can focus on opportunities to learn about and pursue their chosen career path. Despite the hardship of dealing with the new absence of their sport from their lives, they establish a steppingstone to the next phase of their careers.

All of these reasons, each difficult to handle in their own way, are a necessary stage in any kind of athletes’ lives; the turning point just happens to come at an earlier age than of the college athletes that stop playing four or five years later. Coping with such a change can be managed less arduously; many athletes’ sports can be played recreationally, in backyards or in neighborhood streets and parks. The connections forged over childhoods and teenage years can still be tended to, whether that’s through the continuation of competing (just not in an organized fashion) or following the professional level(s) of the sport.

Liv has pursued the former, joining an adult volleyball league, while also returning to Battlefield as an assistant coach. “When I was playing, I just had to focus on me and doing what was best for my teammates,” she says. “But for coaching I have to focus on my girls.” She admits that there is a lot more to coaching than she originally thought, but she “loved it and coaching is definitely something that I want to keep doing for a long time.”

As for Sofia: “I think taking 9 months to recover allowed me to gain an understanding of my connection to the sport and what it means to me.” While optimistic for the future, she also understands that basketball will never drift away from her life: “I’ll definitely be heart broken when the season ends, but hopefully it won’t be the last time I set foot onto a court, even if it’s just for fun.”