Perspective From a Quitter

My name is Nate, and I am a quitter.

A couple years ago my friend Austin made a dramatic announcement at the school lunch table. He found a way to play an updated version of NCAA Football 2014 on the PlayStation 3, and he was gathering a league of extraordinary gentlemen to start an online dynasty.

Having grown up on earlier versions of the game - I was in.

In the beginning, there were eight of us in the Springville League. Each player chose a three-star school and was placed in the Midwest Athletic Conference. A group thread was formed. Trash-talk ensued.

Most of us were new to this version of the game, and while a couple players were a bit more familiar than the rest, parity defined the league. Our schools were equally mediocre which made our games closely contested in that first season. 

Having never held a PS3 controller before in my life, I was easily the worst player in the league. Heck, in my first game I took six straight delay of game penalties while I waited for someone to answer my text about how to snap the ball when attempting to punt. Despite running the ball 12 times for -20 yards in the first half, and not converting a first down until the third quarter, the Kent State Golden Flashes found a way to win 15-9 at Virginia Tech, and I was hooked.

Over the next year and a half I soldiered through six seasons of college football. Eventually, I replaced Nick Saban at Alabama despite still being the worst player in the league. At Alabama I had better players at my disposal, but that did little to mitigate the ever-expanding gap between me and the rest of the league.

The gap resulted from a choice I made at the outset - I stubbornly refused to play any games outside of the league. Everyone else was playing in multiple dynasties, many playing every day, and their improvement was rapid. 

In Year One, as we were all learning the game, I played a competitive game against Austin before eventually losing 21-14. By Year Six, I could barely muster a handful of first downs against other players. It became impossible for me to compete unless I devoted more time to the game, and that was a line I was unwilling to cross. 

The league also expanded over the years, eventually ballooning to 12 members. A few of the new arrivals were decidedly more cutthroat than the original gang of eight, and some of the banter became unnecessarily personal and aggressive. As a result, the good-natured ribbing we had grown to love dissipated as fewer were willing to engage. The culture changed, and not for the better.

Finally, the pace of the games accelerated as the other users became more competitive. In the beginning, we played roughly one game per week. That was easy to fit into anyone’s schedule, even during the basketball season. However, as time went on, we were expected to play every couple of days. That became more of a burden than it was worth for me.

And so, after three years at the University of Alabama, South Florida, and Kent State, I announced my retirement from the league.

In other words, I quit.

Reflecting back on that decision, I realize there are a lot of parallels between my situation and players who quit playing sports in the real world. I can make numerous connections to players within our own program.

When we started at Mount Vernon, the team was coming off a one-win season. Our overall skill level was not very high and everyone was learning the system for the first time. Most players did not spend much time on basketball in the off-season, therefore the competition for playing time was relatively even. However, three years later we have more basketball-first players than ever before. Almost half of our team is playing AAU during the summer. Their commitment to basketball has led to a dramatic improvement in the program, but if we are being honest, it has left some players behind.

Last summer we had two upperclassmen decide not to continue their basketball careers. Both were good athletes, but prioritized other sports. In doing so, they could see the gap widening between our projected starters and where they were. That presented two difficult realities. 

First, it was obvious that they were falling behind and probably would be outside the rotation unless they were willing to invest as much time as the others in the off-season. Given their commitment to other sports, that wasn’t something they wanted to do just as I didn’t want to give more of my life to a video game. 

That also contributed to a new feeling about the game itself. 

“Basketball just isn’t fun anymore.” 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase in a retirement meeting, and honestly, until my college football experience, I didn’t understand how something that was fun could stop being fun. 

However, I can appreciate the struggle to compete when you aren’t being competitive. When my user games in Year One were close, it felt like victory was within reach, and that was fun. However, as the other users quickly improved, those head-to-head games became less and less enjoyable for me. In fact, it didn’t take long before I hated user games because nothing I tried worked, and I knew there was no chance of winning.

I imagine that’s how some of our players felt as they saw the overall skill level in our program improve. It was increasingly difficult to compete with those who played basketball ten months out of the year. It’s not as much fun when everyone else around you is better, and the ball doesn’t seem to go in nearly as often when you shoot it. 

It didn’t take these players long to figure out where they would fit as others around them improved. They would scrap for a role on the back end of the rotation, or might be confined to playing another year of JV while being asked to serve on the scout team to help us prepare for our opponents. These roles are important, and we do our best to celebrate them in our program, but they will never feel the same as being in the rotation. 

At this point another reality starts to settle in. 

I could be doing something else with my time.

The less I enjoyed playing college football, the more I began to think about all the other things I could be doing with my time. Most of my games were played late at night after the rest of the family was in bed. Getting a couple extra hours of sleep each week sounded pretty good. There were countless other, less aggravating, more enjoyable things I could do with a few extra hours each week. The more I thought about that, the more I resented the commissioner’s texts asking when I was going to get my game in. 

In a similar way, the biggest obstacle to retaining players in all sports is the sheer number of other things they could be doing. Basketball is a massive time commitment during the season, it doesn’t take long for players who aren’t having fun to think about all the other things they could be doing with their time that would be more fun or rewarding. 

And maybe for the first time I’ve come to realize that’s not always my fault. 

For most of my career I have perceived players quitting as a personal affront. Surely it must be my fault for not creating an experience that they could enjoy. In reality, that’s not always the case. 

There is no one to blame for my retirement from college football. It’s not the commissioner’s fault that the league became more competitive. It’s not the players fault for playing the game more than I did. Even the cultural change brought about by new members bothered me more than most. At the end of the day, I just decided I would be better off doing something else with my time.

I also came to understand that just because someone quits doesn’t automatically mean they regret participating in the first place. I am glad I joined the league when it started. I especially enjoyed the first few seasons. It gave me a way to connect with the other guys in the league, and provided plenty of banter at the lunchroom table. That was fun.

This idea was further reinforced in a thank you card I received from one of those upperclassmen that retired early. She was thankful for the time she spent in our program, for the memories made, and the friendships she developed. 

As I read her note again, I felt a sense of pride replace a nagging feeling of guilt that her retirement was my fault. For the first time I could see that she did have a good experience, and it was also the right time for her to move on. She taught me both of these things can be true at the same time. 

The reality is that retirement is coming for everyone at some point. Until that day, let’s strive to give our players the best experience possible while supporting them at every turn, even when it means turning away from a game they once loved.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

Join Our Weekly Newsletter

The most practical insights on leadership and culture... 

  • 3 Minute Weekly Tools & Tips
  • Notes to the Coaching Culture Podcast
  • FREE Chapter of The Culture System

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.