Beyond the Field: Rediscovering Identity After a Sport

Renee Sainz #11 (Credit: Arianna Grainey)

The Integral Role of Soccer in My Life

Soccer meant a lot to me (Renee Sainz). It was a part of my identity, something I looked forward to every day. It taught me many lessons and was a constant in my life—until it wasn’t. This isn’t the story of how I stopped playing; that’s for another time. This is about how I realized I had fallen into the trap of defining myself through my sport, as many athletes do.

The All-Consuming Nature of Athletic Identity

Athletes are deeply dedicated to their sport, building habits and fueling their passion. As an athlete, my mornings were always active—whether for recovery, lifting, or training. Rising early and staying on the go became routine. Balancing soccer, school, and a job was my daily challenge. This experience had a significant impact on me, mostly positive. I learned to contribute to my team, developed resilience, and became hardworking in all aspects of my life. However, I never addressed the negative impact it had on me. It was not the sport itself, but my thoughts and dedication to it that caused this.

As Kendall Martin explains in a TED Talk, “it is the constant and widespread reinforcement of solely athletic identity that often keeps athletes from being able to maintain their mental well-being.” Many athletes have adopted a mindset that primarily benefits their performance in their sport. As a college athlete, we were expected to avoid anything that could negatively affect our performance. The actions we chose and our competitive spirit determined whether we stayed in the lineup or ended up on the bench. Martin also touches on the phrase, “no pain, no gain,” which was something I frequently said and practiced during my playing days.

The Turning Point: Injury and Identity Crisis

Then, I could no longer play. An injury forced me into medical retirement, but again, that’s a story for another time. If you had asked me while I was still playing if my identity was tied to soccer, I would have said, “no, of course not.” However, if you asked me now, after I’ve stopped playing, I would hesitate to answer.

Days began to pass following my retirement. My alarm was no longer set for 5 a.m., yet I lay in bed wide awake. My presence and contributions were no longer needed at training. I was no longer introduced as “Renee who plays D1 soccer.” What hurt me the most was the fear that my mom and family now saw me as just me, without my talent. I know my family, and I know they would never see me like that, yet those thoughts kept creeping into my mind. Allowing these thoughts to consume me, frustrated me even more.

All my life, I have spent trying to get better at soccer and improve my skills. There was a point after my injury when I wanted to touch the ball again, just for fun. As I was dribbling, thoughts crept in: “What are you doing, Renee? This is no longer who you are, and there’s no reason you should be touching a ball.” That was one of the moments I realized that soccer had become too much of my identity. Soccer was a part of me, but not all of me. I wish I could go back and tell myself that. I could have cherished it more without letting it consume me, but I can’t go back; I can only move forward.

Renee Sainz with her soccer team
Renee Sainz with her teammates (Credit: GCU Media)

A Message to Current and Former Athletes

I write this for those athletes who have gone through similar experiences and those who are still playing. Remember, as the saying goes, “one bad game does not define you as a player.” The sport you play and give your all to does not define you as a person. Lemmon states, “ your ability as an athlete and the success you used to have should never overshadow your other abilities as a person.” Embrace your entire self, beyond the field or court, and recognize that your true worth extends far beyond any single achievement or role.

3 comments
  1. Beautifully written, Renee. Wishing you all the best in any endeavor you pursue. You’ll always be an awesome woman.❤️❤️

  2. Beautifully written. What an insight into yourself. I hope young girls read this and see themselves in your message. Love you for who you are as a person not the sport you played.

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