When the lights go down: The mental challenges of leaving the game one loves

Story by Alex Tumalip. Audio by Kyle Renmund and Alex Tumalip.

Every athlete dreams of the biggest stage. The pulsing energy of a cheering crowd is unmatched. The adrenaline rush of making the deciding play in a huge game is unforgettable.

But what happens when that goes away?

“You base your worth off of your accomplishments; that’s what your whole life as an athlete is about,” said former BYU women’s volleyball player Kenzie Koerber-Dahle.

Koerber-Dahle knows her accomplishments. She was a four-time AVCA All-American and a five-year starter with both BYU and Utah. And now she’s a sideline reporter for BYU volleyball matches on ESPN+.

Yet she felt lost after hanging up her shoes. She had no direction and lost her motivation.

And the road to get to where she wanted was full of roadblocks.

BYU women’s volleyball outside hitter Kenzie Koerber-Dahle is introduced before an NCAA Tournament match in 2021. (BYU Photo)

Similarly, former BYU men’s basketball forward Jeff Chatman had dreams of playing in the NBA. Chatman is sixth all-time in BYU scoring with 1,824 points. He holds the ninth-highest field goal percentage ever in Cougar history at .549, and was an honorable mention All-American.

Yet after spending a single season overseas professionally, he changed his mind.

“I knew at that point that it was over,” Chatman said.

The sudden change left Chatman with little direction – until a young man named Jason Christensen changed his life, and his perspective.

Christensen, who passed away shortly after a procedure in attempting to correct complications from Marfan’s syndrome, provided Chatman the outlet to share his love of basketball with the community.

But it still took some work outside of those interactions to get where he wanted.

Every athlete, like Koerber-Dahle or Chatman, will reach the point in their career when they must leave the game behind. Sometimes it comes suddenly or over time. 

And when it does come, the transition to life after sports can be frightening. It can leave athletes, like Koerber-Dahle and Chatman, adrift.

Why does something as small as a transition to life after sports matter?

It matters because most athletes don’t ever think the day will come. Some unfortunately believe they can play their sport forever. And while NBA star LeBron James and former NFL quarterback Tom Brady certainly stand as good examples of long careers, it rarely works that way.

A common theme many athletes believe is, “A sport is what you do. It isn’t who you are.” For Cole Gambill, it certainly was true. He recalled how his mother wanted him to be a “well-rounded person” in his life.

“Things like service in the community and playing an instrument in school, I was heavily involved in that because of her,” Gambill said.

For others, their sport may be all they have.

A sport is what you do, it’s not who you are.”

BYU softball player Taryn Lennon said sports should be an enhancement in people’s relationships with their parents. And if that enhancement isn’t there, leaving the sport a person plays can have a profound impact on that relationship with their family – and even others they know.

BYU swimming and diving coach Shari Skabelund had this experience when she was at Springville High School.

BYU swimming and diving coach Shari Skabelund gives instructions from the pool deck. (BYU Photo)

She recalled how her father, the principal at Springville at the time, would make time to come watch her swim meets. That included her victory in the state championship in the 100-meter fly.

“I had no idea how passionate he was,” Skabelund said.

Now as a coach, Skabelund can channel that same passion to what she does with her team daily.

Being a Division I student-athlete has its challenges too. Former BYU baseball pitcher Cooper McKeehan explained how college sports can become a full-time job.

To be disciplined in both sports and school seems like an oxymoron. But for former BYU Cougarette dancer Lauren Gambill, it was just what she did.

“If I wanted to go to dance class, I had to do my school work, too,” she recalled. “I had expectations that I had to have straight A’s, if I wanted to.”

Meanwhile, Koerber-Dahle, with the convincing of a neighbor in her native Chino Hills, California, had also set her eyes on becoming a star on the volleyball court.

Former BYU pitcher Cooper McKeehan winds up his delivery against San Diego in 2022. (BYU Photo)

Despite not being able to get her way into the West Coast powerhouses UCLA and USC, then led by coaches like Andy Banachowski and former Olympic coach Mick Haley, she still became a standout for the Utah Utes for four seasons.

Even with the accomplishments one garners, from individual awards to even national championships, there are still personal challenges to balance. From school commitments to even family commitments, athletes are still human beings.

But what happens when those things are all you can focus on because there’s nothing else left?

That, in reality, is where the real game begins.

“A sport is what you do, it isn’t who you are.”

Kenzie Koerber-Dahle froze when she saw the email from her agent.

Expecting it to be her flight itinerary to travel to Puerto Rico for training camp, she discovered her season would be delayed due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was almost like, ‘What do I do now?’,” Koerber-Dahle recalled.

Jeff Chatman, on the other hand, was unhappy playing professional basketball abroad. 

He had dreams of being in the NBA, but instead was in Spain attempting to make a name for himself in a foreign country and a foreign league. He was one of the most efficient shooters in BYU men’s basketball history, and yet he was an unknown rookie trying to find his place.

Jeff Chatman (24) goes up for a block in a basketball game for BYU. (Photo courtesy of the Deseret News)

Then he decided to hang up his shoes – and change the direction of his life.

That didn’t mean anyone let him forget about what happened to his professional dream.

“I felt like a failure,” Chatman recalled. “It was tough, especially when people brought it up.”

Chatman felt uncomfortable discussing leaving the game with others since he had been working for it his entire life. And yet, Chatman didn’t forget the game of basketball had gotten him to where he was.

That was how he met Jason Christensen.

“His mother had passed away, and his father wasn’t really in his life,” Chatman said about Christensen.

And yet, Chatman became an influential part of Christensen’s life. He ended up helping Christensen plan out his dream to go to college and eventually play basketball, not letting his Marfan syndrome diagnosis get in the way.

Christensen passed away shortly after a medical procedure attempting to correct his spinal curve and limit the effects of Marfan syndrome on him. Yet, Chatman is keeping Christensen’s memory alive in everything he does to give back to the game.

“[Jason] saw me as this great guy because I played at BYU,” Chatman said. “But the biggest thing I learned is to love and respect others.”

Chatman admitted without basketball giving him this perspective – especially after his time with Jason Christensen, he would never have learned it on his own.

“There are a lot of problems in our world,” Chatman explained. “If we loved one another, we wouldn’t have these problems that we are having, and basketball allowed me to do that across many social and ethnic channels.”

Meanwhile, Kenzie Koerber-Dahle was struggling to find motivation to get back in a rhythm again.

“I went from practicing for two to three hours a day to working constantly eight hours a day,” she recalled. “It’s a transition that nobody prepares you for.”

Thankfully, her husband, former BYU baseball player Nate Dahle, was there to pick her up and get her moving during that transition.

“Especially when I was getting back into exercising again, it was almost a, ‘I’ll show you I can do this’ attitude,” she said. “He knew that this wasn’t me he knew.”

While she was getting physically fit again, Koerber-Dahle still didn’t know which direction she wanted to go with her life. She had graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Utah in communications, but had no opportunities lined up to hone her talent.

Kenzie Koerber-Dahle stands with her parents and head coach Heather Olmstead on Senior Night in 2021. (BYU Photo)

That changed when she was at her charity golf tournament at Riverside Country Club.

“We had invited all the big names at BYUtv Sports, including Jarom Jordan and Spencer Linton,” Koerber-Dahle said. “And Spencer just came up and asked me if I wanted to do sideline reporting.”

Admittedly a bit bemused, Koerber-Dahle accepted the offer anyway, knowing it would jumpstart her life and give her a new direction.

Within a few months, she found herself at the Smith Fieldhouse on live TV for BYU women’s and men’s volleyball matches.

The problem was without any hands-on experience, Koerber-Dahle was left on her own to learn the trade.

“It was definitely a lot of trial-and-error, for sure,” Koerber-Dahle said.

That included the first six games where Koerber-Dahle learned the opening was recorded before the game. “I thought I was live the whole time,” she recalled.

After those six games, Koerber-Dahle would do her opens on the fly. She would bring a typed-out version of it if the opening was difficult to memorize or contained important information to not leave out.

“I’ve just learned new techniques to incorporate over the past two years,” she said. “When I look back at the first game I did, it’s completely different, what I was doing.”

Even though Koerber-Dahle and Chatman are thriving in their new surroundings, one question remains:

Is it possible to prepare for a life after sports?

More importantly, can an athlete fill the void left when they leave the game they love?

“A sport is what you do, it’s not who you are.”

“Life happens rarely how we want it to,” former BYU basketball forward Eric Mika said.

A former national champion at Lone Peak High School in 2013, Mika remembers how he was cut several times in one season after he turned professional in 2017.

But like Koerber-Dahle, Mika had a strong support system starting with his wife, Gabrielle, who has quite literally been “all over the world” with him.

“This job gives ups and downs freely, and it’s so easy to be too down or too high on yourself,” he said. “She’s the perfect person to keep me balanced.”

He would need that support. Mika remembered calling his wife just after Christmas in 2019 following his release by the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, a professional team in China, leaving him “absolutely devastated.” 

It was Mika’s third time being cut in a calendar year, after both the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, and their G-League affiliate, the Stockton Kings, also released him.

“She was the first person I called,” Mika said.

However, Gabrielle was not about to let her husband give up on his dream.

“I just needed to look at the big picture,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but after we hung up, I knew it was going to be okay.”

Just after New Year’s in 2020, Mika was brought back by Stockton for another stint.

A month later, on February 1, 2020, he made his NBA debut for Sacramento, coming just a few weeks before the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mika said he never would have had those opportunities if it wasn’t for his wife’s encouragement. “It’s very special; I wouldn’t have been even able to make it this far without her,” he explained.

Another opportunity that came his way made him rethink the answer to the question of if it’s possible to prepare for life after sports.

Mika, now playing for the G-League’s Team Ignite, knows because he came face-to-face with the realization his playing days would eventually end while in the offseason last spring.

“I got an internship with a venture capital firm in Salt Lake, and it was totally out of my wheelhouse,” Mika recalled.

For the first few months, it was a difficult transition. Mika had to learn new social situations and even new vocabulary he had never heard before.

But he embraced the challenge.

“While it was hard, I felt that experience was super beneficial for me,” he said.

While adjusting to this unfamiliar ground, Mika continually thought about why he hadn’t thought about preparing for such a situation sooner.

A short time later, Mika was approached about starting a podcast. There was no hesitation to what he wanted it to be about.

“The transition to life after sports was just on my mind the whole time,” he recalled.

Mika launched “Now For Later” this past July, and has now released 22 episodes. His guests have ranged from his wife, Gabrielle, to former athletes like BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi and NBA point guard Deron Williams.

But the focus always remains on the transition to life after sports.

“I want to know, ‘What did they do to prepare while they were still playing?’” Mika said. “It’s been awesome to have guests come on and be willing to share.”

One of the most impactful guests on “Now For Later” happened to be former BYU quarterback, Super Bowl champion, and NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young.

“He shared how his father instilled in him this mindset of, ‘you need to have a dream and you need to have a plan’,” Mika explained.

Young told Mika that while his dream was to play football professionally, he also had a plan to continually take school seriously.

“He didn’t have to think about what was coming in his life after sports, because he was having so much success for so long,” Mika added. “But even he was still doing it.”

For a modern generation of athletes, Mika believes they have more opportunities to network because of the introduction of social media platforms such as LinkedIn.

“There’s something you can always be doing as an athlete,” he said. “Just having social media at your fingertips gives you the ability to connect with almost anyone in the world.”

This is while today’s athletes are facing greater pressure than ever.

“You have kids that are trying to specialize in certain sports before they’re even teenagers, which is insane,” Mika said.

BYU softball player Taryn Lennon said that sports should be an enhancement in a family relationship, and Mika has seen the same thing occur in some athletes he’s talked to.

BYU softball player Taryn Lennon turns the corner at first base against Pacific in 2022. (BYU Photo)

“They were encouraged to play multiple sports and just be kids,” Mika said, “then they would find their niche organically.”

Lennon said she’s seen the darker side of being an athlete nowadays.

“A lot of kids I played travel ball with, if they had a bad game or bad practice, their relationship with their parents was strained,” she recalled. 

Lennon has been playing softball since she was four, and it ended up becoming a huge part of her life – and of those she knew, too.

“Some parents would get so upset and wonder, ‘why aren’t they performing?’ if their kids didn’t play well,” Lennon explained.

Lennon added how some parents try to live their dream of playing sports through their children, when this should never be the case.

“Whatever sport you play, however you perform, it’s never – and should never – be a perception of what your family is,” she said.

“A sport is what you do, it’s not who you are.”

That refrain was drilled into former BYU baseball outfielder Cole Gambill’s head over and over when he was young.

And yet when he decided to hang up his cleats this past season, it wasn’t an easy choice to make.

He recalled counseling with his wife Lauren constantly about whether professional baseball was viable for him.

“She said, ‘Cole, if you want to do it, just do it,’” Gambill said about his wife’s encouragement.

Cole Gambill hits a home run in his final at-bat for BYU baseball vs. Pepperdine. (BYU Photo)

At the same time, Lauren was feeling the support of Cole during her time as a Cougarette.

“Cole is my biggest cheerleader,” she said of her husband. “Whenever he said he would be there, he was.”

Lauren also said seeing her husband leave the game of baseball was a difficult transition.

“I’ve only seen Cole cry three times,” she said. “One of them was when he finished baseball.”

And what a way to finish it – Cole hit a home run on Senior Day in his final at-bat against Pepperdine.

It was a prayer that Lauren had been saying for weeks that had been answered.

“I just wanted him to remember BYU positively,” Lauren said.

To help her husband reinforce that positivity, Lauren and Cole began trying new hobbies – including golf.

For Cole, however, knowing he would miss the game he had been playing since he was young was a good sign.

“I did way more in the game of baseball than I ever thought I would,” Gambill said. “I gave it what I had through everything.”

One of his former teammates, Cooper McKeehan, could say the same.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be the most talented person on the field or in the room, but I won’t let anyone outwork me,” he said.

BYU women’s volleyball assistant coach Jonny Neeley believes anyone can carry that too. “You can be the best version of yourself, whatever you put your mind to,” he said.

Many athletes who leave the game, especially those like Koerber-Dahle, Chatman, and more, are slowly coming to that realization.

BYU women’s volleyball assistant Jonny Neeley gives instructions during a timeout versus Houston. (BYU Photo)

And for some, like Lauren Gambill, the rewards are tremendous. She currently works as a dance teacher – she started when she was 15 – and knows what it’s like to see things pay off.

“I was raised to be a dream chaser, and I love helping people do that,” she explained.

Gambill certainly is a dream chaser herself – she wanted to be a dancer since she was two years old.

It wasn’t until she was in high school, however, that her plans became set in stone. 

Gambill recalled a visit from one of the Cougarettes – who ironically was also her dance teacher – to Lone Peak that set her feet on the path she’s on now.

“I wanted everything she had and to be just where she was,” Gambill said.

Now, she teaches dance for ages four to 18 or 19. And while the experience of watching her girls perform at a high level is different, the joy of watching them achieve something doesn’t change.

“That fulfillment you get when you see someone pull something off is like you won the lottery,” Gambill said. “I love it so much, and I can’t wait to do it forever.”

And forever is what she will have – along with every other athlete – when they decide to leave the game they love.

But the decisions they make now are the precursors to set them on the path to their future.

A sport is what you do, it’s not who you are…

How do you prepare for life after sports? Listen to this excerpt featuring Kenzie Koerber-Dahle and Eric Mika from the award-winning External Discussions, now available where you get your podcasts.
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