Yeong-Jun (YJ) Seo spent most of his childhood playing ice hockey – including in the 2018 Winter Olympics where he competed on the South Korean team in PyeongChang. However, the UNC Greensboro kinesiology doctoral student says his biggest challenge wasn’t competing on the world stage but stepping off it.
“As I transitioned out of the sport, I felt I wasn’t really prepared because there wasn’t a lot of support,” says Seo, who retired from ice hockey in 2021. “I didn’t know athletes go through these hard times during that transition.”
Seo, a native of South Korea, began playing ice hockey at just six years old and spent much of his childhood playing the sport in Canada. He returned to South Korea for college where he also played hockey and, at age 20, he made the national ice hockey team and was able to travel around the world competing. In 2018, he competed with the South Korean national ice hockey team in the Olympic Games where both North and South Korea marched under one unified Korean flag during the opening ceremony. The women’s team even played as one.
But for Seo, the intensity of the Games was nothing compared to life after the sport ended.
“I thought I was losing who I am,” he says of life after retirement. “I was in my room lying in my bed for two to three months. I didn’t want to eat a lot because I always had to force myself to eat a lot to maintain muscle in my body. I was sick of eating and moving.”
It was the research of two-time alumna and UNCG Kinesiology Professor Dr. Erin Reifsteck ’11 M.S. ’14 Ph.D, that helped Seo get moving again and eventually come to UNCG. Dr. Reifsteck’s research specifically focuses on student athletes’ transition out of college sports and how to best support them.
“I became interested in that area of focus. The transition out of sports is not a popular topic in South Korea so I couldn’t find any faculty interested there,” says Seo. “That’s when I found Dr. Reifsteck.”
With his own experience, Seo is focusing his doctoral research on athletes sport transition and Dr. Reifsteck is now his doctoral advisor. Seo received the Foreign Study Fellowship from the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation – a government funded independently operated company run by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. The grant is given to a former South Korean athlete to support academic research, education, and training. The recipient must contribute to the development of future Korean sports and assist the next generation.
In October, Seo also presented his research at the annual Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) conference courtesy of the Diversity Travel Grant.
“I’m comparing social and cultural factors – like cultural differences. I want to adopt what I learn here to a Korean context,” he says.
One of those cultural differences is the academic policy for athletes in South Korea. Seo says South Korean student-athletes are only allowed to study majors directly related to sports.
“It really limits student-athletes ability to develop their future career outside of sports,” says Seo.
While his initial transition out of sports was challenging, Seo says coming to UNCG was a welcome change.
“I was amazed at how supportive and welcoming people are,” Seo says. “Hockey is very competitive and tense; I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to interact with people outside of the sport. At UNCG, I’ve made a lot of friends and had the opportunity to interact with so many faculty members,” says Seo.
In 2022, Seo married his wife in South Korea and they both came to the United States to study separately. Greensboro was a pleasant change of pace for Seo, who previously lived in Seoul, the capital of South Korea with a population of more than 9 million people. He says he’s thankful for Greensboro’s small city atmosphere.
“It’s a safe place and is quiet and peaceful,” he says. “I don’t have to get stressed about driving either.”
Seo does wish Greensboro had some more ice rinks for playing, but he’s still figuring out his relationship with the sport. It’s a journey he’s tackling personally and academically.
“Until last year, I didn’t want to see hockey or any sports, but these days I do start to miss hockey” he says. “I’m still in the process of redefining who I am, but coming to UNCG and studying here has helped me.”
Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by David Lee Row, University Communications
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