At small schools like St. Olaf, student athletes don’t play in front of sold out crowds chanting their names or dream of making it to the professional level. There are no scholarships on the line. They have to go to class like everyone else because they are everyone else. And yet, day after day, they practice, brought together by a seemingly illogical force – their love for the game.
But what happens when that love begins to fade? The enjoyment of a lifelong sport starts consuming time that feels like it should be spent elsewhere. The sacrifices of early morning lifts and late night practices get in the way of new opportunities, turning the game into a burden that feels as stressful as it does optional. So people quit.
Our culture does not celebrate the quitters. We memorialize the athletes that overcome injury, tragedy or were counted out – we are inspired by their inability to give up. Quitting is often said to be the easy way out, but that could not be further from the truth.
Quitting comes with baggage. From the earliest point in an athlete’s career, they are told not to be a quitter. Sports are said to be the greatest teachers in life not only because they teach failure, but perseverance. Losing is bad, but quitting is worse. Quitting is a reflection of character.
Like a breakup from a long time relationship, quitting a sport in college is a deeply personal matter, realized months or years before its finality. It’s an abrupt change in identity during a period of life in between childhood and adulthood, where growth can feel as intimidating as it does exciting.
“It was definitely a hard decision, sophomore year it ate away at me. I could hardly focus on my classes because I was thinking about it so much,” said Rohan Silbaugh ’22.
Rohan left the baseball team after his sophomore year, a decision he said was “difficult, but rational,” and not one he regrets in the least bit.
“I always tell myself I moved on from baseball, and I didn’t quit. That feels more accurate. I know if I hadn’t given everything I had, I’d feel defeated. But I know I worked my hardest and could walk away knowing I made the right decision.”
Rohan added that quitting probably isn’t for everyone. Some careers, he said, are worth pushing through, and people shouldn’t be deterred by the wrong reasons. But if they know it’s the logical choice to pursue other interests, they should “absolutely do it.”
After all, every athletic career, no matter how decorated, comes to an end. And while it’s convenient when that end happens to line up with other milestones – like the end of highschool or college – it’s just as natural for it to not.
Marissa Ruppe ’21, a senior from Northfield who quit the hockey team right before her sophomore season, recalled quitting as “the best decision of her life.” After coming to college, she described feeling a similar pain felt from the sport she had grown up identifying with.
“I’d been playing sports since I was three years old, so it was definitely a large part of my identity,” Marissa said. “Sophomore year, I would wake up dreading hockey practice everyday, in the same arena it had become my first love.”
Like others who had contemplated quitting, Marissa reached out to her family to ask them if they’d be okay with it. She remembers her dad being overwhelmingly supportive, citing how she would have more time to focus on her dream of being a doctor. While liberating to hear, for a moment, she felt the stress of possibly quitting on that dream, too.
“I remember not wanting to be seen as someone who quit things. I didn’t want to quit hockey and then quit pre-med and have people see me as a quitter,” Marissa said.
Two years later, her pre-med dream is still alive, with hockey in the distant past. The decision to quit is looked back on fondly.
“It was the first decision I had ever made for myself. If I could do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Ruppe said.
Every time I watch a team’s senior day celebration, I’m always surprised by how few students are represented. Freshman classes for sports like football or soccer can range anywhere from ten to twenty athletes, but only a handful typically make it through their fourth year in the program. While it’s an accomplishment worth recognizing, I can’t help but think about all the athletes who didn’t make it, choosing to lead lives away from the sport that are just as worthy of celebrating as the ones who stayed.
In a lot of ways, quitters are inspirational. While it’s sad to see someone lose their love for the sport that helped raise them, it’s equally empowering to see them take back agency over their own life. Perseverance is important, but so is knowing when to step away from unhappiness in spite of external pressure. As I conducted these interviews, I was moved by the feeling of liberation that quitting brought. And that while we can construct pressures around us that say “keep going,” whether it’s from family, teammates, or coaches, more often than not, what they are rooting for is not an athlete – but a person. Whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, or even in a doctor’s office, that support will remain genuine.