Dane asked me to write this article to outline some issues with the transition from collegiate track to post-collegiate track. This list if fairly personal, so I'm sure it won't resonate with everyone, but some people might find it helpful!
No one is making the schedule for you
Obviously, in college, the team staff handles scheduling. Deciding the meet schedule, figuring out travel dates and times for those meets, lodging, transportation, etc. For a good long time, someone else is handling all of that for you. Suddenly, you’re the person tasked with making all of this happen. If you’re lucky enough to train with a group, maybe they can help split costs and choose which meets are worthwhile. Even if this is the case, you have much more responsibility than you used to. So pay attention during the meets you might go to in college. Which ones had just collegiate competitors, and which allowed post-collegiate competitors? Are there any in your area that might be offering prize money? If you can’t afford to fly to all the big meets, can you afford to go to at least one? If not, you have to figure out how far you’re willing to drive for a meet, and select your meets more regionally than you might be used to. All of these are important details to take into account when planning your own season schedule.
2. You have to be very internally driven (no one cares)
Many high level athletes already know this well, but intrinsic motivation is absolutely necessary during the transition from collegiate to post-collegiate competition. There is no conference championship to care about, or any home meets to step up for. Now it’s just you, and USATF Nationals is the only meet that really matters (at first). I like to think of myself as having pretty high intrinsic motivation, but I am also a very team-oriented person. Losing the team atmosphere of collegiate track was definitely tough for me. It may sound overly negative, but the external roster of people who really care about what you’re doing seems to shrink a lot. Hopefully, you still have family members, maybe a significant other, your coach, and your training group (if you have one). Especially as a thrower, your sphere of influence in track and field is relatively small, and you won’t become a millionaire doing this sport, so you have to be 100% committed for yourself. If you’re not, things probably aren’t going to work out in the long run.
3. There are far fewer “checkpoints”
While internal confidence and motivation are supremely important, everyone always appreciates a benchmark--a chance to show what you can do. Personally, those meets were always the Penn Relays, the Ivy League Championships, and the NCAA East Regional. These were the “big game” moments, where you can feel the energy, and people step up and hit big throws when it matters. As a first-year post-collegiate thrower, I found there were far fewer of those moments. Particularly not being able to fly around to big elite meets across the country, I mostly found myself competing in open college meets, where I was certainly the oldest competitor, and usually competing just against myself. This point ties into the previous point, in that you are going to have to find that “big game” mentality in yourself, without all of the external cues that you need to step up. It could be a long, hot day in the middle of Pennsylvania at some random University for a meet of no real consequence, but you still need to come in the mindset that this meet is important, and you have to show up.
4. Redefining “success”
This one is more personal, although I’m sure there are some people out there who can empathize with this. For most of my career, I had defined a successful season as having some sort of pretty clear progression in terms of my PR, as well as competitive ability. Then I didn’t PR for almost 2 years. And then I finally PR’d early in my first post-collegiate season, and thought this was finally the moment that I’d make that jump. Then the distances sort of stalled, and I only managed to move my PR up by another 10cm for the rest of the season, all while failing to qualify for the National Championships (more on that below). At times, it was pretty easy for me to say, “well, shit, very little of that went the way I wanted it to. That kind of was a bad season…” But, I had to reflect on the season more positively, and understand that I raised my average competitive distance drastically from the previous years, as well as making great strides physically, technically, and mentally. It didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, but redefining success and continuing to value the small steps are important lessons in their own right.
5. Sometimes things really don’t go your way
I’ve already written about this, so I’ll keep this recap brief. Basically, going into the 2018 USATF National Championships, I was the 19th potential competitor out of an eventual field of the top 18 throwers in the country. I waited not-so-patiently for a scratch that would send me through, and never got it. After the competition, we found out that one of the other athletes on the list had intended to scratch, but for whatever reason never did. So the competition went on with 17 athletes, and I watched, knowing I should have been there. All that to say, sometimes things just go in the exact opposite direction of how you had planned. I was in great shape, throwing well in every practice, and I even PR’d in my last meet of the season, though not by enough to secure my spot in the competition. I felt like I had done everything I could (except throw farther, as one of my former teammates reminded me), and it just didn’t happen for me. Sometimes things just go wrong, and you have to learn to take the positives from those situations. Whether it’s understanding that you can still have a good season while not achieving one of your primary goals, or gaining a little bit of extra motivation from a time you feel like you were screwed over. Whatever it is, understanding that the sport doesn’t promise you anything and learning from the moments when it shows how little it might give you in return for your work are both pretty important ideas to grasp.
6. You have a larger share of responsibility for your success
This point echoes some of the previous, but the expansion of responsibility extends beyond just planning meets. It’s very likely that there will be no one around you to yell at you to go to bed on time, or to stretch regularly, or to give that extra effort in the weight room. A much larger percentage of the success or failure that you experience is now directly attributable to your own actions. You are the person who has to keep you on track, and there aren’t that many other people to point fingers at when the results are poor. If you are the type of person who rationalizes setbacks by displacing blame onto other people, you might want to rethink that strategy before embarking into the world of post-collegiate track. Your support group becomes even more important than ever before, and alienating those people by not taking care of your own business will not do you any favors. Take responsibility for your actions, do what you know you need to in order to succeed, and figure out how to be better if something goes wrong.
7. Leaving NCAA competition!
There are so many differences between collegiate and post-collegiate track, far too many to name here in 7 points. But I think it’s important to note that the change that happens when you go from NCAA competition to open, senior competition can be off-putting, in and of itself. I’ve seen plenty of athletes who seemed to be a lock for post-collegiate success struggle in their first year out. Even if you take all of the best advice into account and plan ahead, post-collegiate throwing is a truly different game, and experience can be the best teacher. Some people will adjust perfectly well, and get off to a hot start. However, I think the majority of athletes will find that they don’t quite hit their stride as well as they would like, even if they are unbelievably detail oriented. Again, it’s a different game, and these adjustments take time.