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Throughout their sport careers, athletes invest a great amount of time training in order to improve their athletic performance. This consistent involvement and devotion can potentially lead to sport achievements. However, every athlete in a competitive sport will eventually see their sport career come to an end. Athletic career termination initiates the transition process for an athlete to adapt to life after competitive sport. The transition out of a competitive sport marks an important change in the life of an athlete whether they are in a high school level, college level, or professional level.
It is a transformative and complex process in which former athletes have to adjust to life without competitive sport. This can be dauting to athletes as they need to replace their investment and dedication for a sport with something new and uncertain. A career transition can be a difficult and disruptive experience just like any other significant change in one’s life because accustom routines must change and new ones must evolve.
Some athletes can find the retirement process minimally stressful while others can find it significantly distressful. Thus, it becomes necessary to understand how to aid athletes to successfully and positively transition out of sport. In order to do this, it is essential to identify and assess the factors that contribute to adjustment difficulties which influence the overall quality of a career transition out of sport that an athlete experiences. It also necessary to identify effective coping strategies athletes can use when dealing with the various demands placed on them during their retirement.
The reasoning behind an athletic retirement is an important indicator on the quality of an athlete’s post-retirement adjustment. The decisional process leading to sport retirement is complex and can involve any of the following common reasons: age, injury, voluntary, and deselection. One of the key determinants of the quality of an athlete’s retirement out of sport is whether the decision for career termination was voluntary or involuntary. This decision demonstrates the degree of control an athlete has over their athletic career. The freedom to decide their sport termination contributes to their emotional adaptation during the transition process. For example, athletes who voluntarily retire due to their age may feel like they retired at their own time and have accomplished the sport achievements they wanted. While those who experience career-ending injuries, may deal with the constant questioning whether the injury caused their career to end too soon. Thus, becoming increasingly difficult for athletes to smoothly adapt to life without competitive sport due to the injury’s unexpected nature. A study that examined the associations between career-ending injuries, athletic identity, chronic pain and depressive symptoms among 307 retired male football players reported that career-ending injuries “are strongly associated with higher odds of depressive symptomology during retirement” (Sanders & Stevinson 2017). This illustrates how athletes may experience less life-satisfaction post-athletic career due to their career-ending injuries. These athletes may feel that the injury took an opportunity away from them, something they consistently trained for and were devoted to and now there is nothing else that can be done to get that back. Such an outcome emphasizes that in order to facilitate post-sport career adaptation, an athlete must have the ability or opportunity to decide how their sport career ends. A study by Dementriou, Jago, Gill, Mesagno, and Ali (2017) determined that an athlete’s forced retirement can cause personal distress. They emphasized that the availability to strategies to cope can help improve athletes’ retirement transition. It can help alleviate athletes through the difficult process transition from sport can become. If they are not given choice or opportunity to decide when they end their athletic career, then it becomes essential to use coping strategies to facilitate a positive post-retirement adjustment.
Sport injury is a prominent reason behind career termination for athletes. It is a significant occurrence in the career of an athlete no matter the extent of the injury. In competitive sports, there is always the risk of experiencing an injury. However, the severity of the injury and the length of recovery contributes to the end of an athletic career. An injury that not only ends the career of an athlete but also permanently alters their physical capabilities can negatively influence their transition out of sport. Sanders and Stevinson (2017) reported that former male football players “with depressive symptoms were more likely to cite injury as a retirement reason and report higher levels of on-going injury-related pain” (Sanders & Stevinson 2017). It can be inferred that injury-related pain contributes to the depressive symptoms athletes experience after a career ending injury. This demonstrates that the athlete’s emotional and behavioral responses to the injury contributes to their quality of retirement.
Another cause for career sport termination is deselection which can influence the quality of post-sport adjustment. Deselection occurs when an athlete is eliminated from a sport based on a coach’s decision (Neely, McHugh, Dunn, & Holt 2017). For example, a college athlete who is waiting for coaches’ responses for recruitment to play at a professional level and does not get recruited marks the termination of their athletic career. The constant possibility of deselection after an athlete’s significant investment towards the sport and the potential jeopardy of opportunities that can advance their athletic career can place a particular stressor on the athlete. A study conducted by Neely et al. (2017) assessed how female adolescent athletes and their parents coped with deselection from a competitive sport and highlighted the athletes’ negative responses following deselection. The athletes were asked broad questions such as “How did you react to getting cut?” with some athletes responding as follows “you feel like you just totally lost everything you worked so hard for” and “I felt really angry like, why did this happen” (Neely et al.,2017). Such responses indicate how deselection is associated with negative emotional responses among athletes. This demonstrates how crucial it is for an athlete to be able to cope with such an event in order have a positive transition out of sport.
Identity loss is a psychological reaction that athletes may experience due to the end of their career. Athletes can become so highly involved in improving and exceling in their sport that they neglect other aspects of their life. They invest so much time and effort exclusively towards their sport that it “often culminates in the athlete developing a strong and exclusive athletic identity” (Willard and Lavallee 2016). However, what happens when the sport is no longer part of their life. A study by Willard & Lavallee (2016) examined the influence of self-identity and social support on six elite dancers on the quality of their retirement adjustment. The results of the study indicated that those with strong athletic identities experience more difficulties in adjusting. These elite dancers expressed that after all the sacrifice and commitment placed towards their sport they were left with “a sense of irreplaceable loss and a lack of direction in their lives” (Willard & Lavallee 2016). Other than the sense of loss and direction, it is also important to identify other effects a strong athletic identity can have on athletes during the retirement process. Another study conducted by Giannone, Haney, Kealy, and Ogrodniczuk (2017) investigated the relationship between athletic identity and post retirement depression and anxiety among 72 varsity athletes. The study indicated that athletic identity was “positively associated with post-retirement anxiety and depressive symptoms” (Giannone et al., 2017). It is understandable for athletes to experience anxiety and depression post-retirement because they have to accustom their life towards no longer involving something that they invested so much time and effort in and it is possibly all they have ever known. No matter what level an athlete is in, it is crucial for them to accept their new identity in order to facilitate a positive adjustment post-retirement. In a study that assessed former high school athletes transition towards not participating in competitive sport in college, it illustrated that by creating new social networks and bonds athletes were able to have a positive experience transitioning out of sport (Lyons, Dorsh, Bell, and Mason 2018). Some athletes even expressed forming friendships with other former athletes aided them because “they know where I’m coming from” (Lyons et al., 2018). This highlights that athletes can gain a sense of reassurance when being able to share their experience with other former athletes. In order to minimize or avoid psychological challenges for athletes post-retirement, it can be potentially helpful to have “identity-focused screening or psychotherapeutic intervention supporting identity development during sport participation” (Giannone et al., 2017). This emphasizes the need to prevent sport from becoming the center of an athlete’s universe and instead facilitate involvement in other aspects of their life to minimize psychological challenges such as identity loss.
The type, amount, and quality of resources available to athletes during their transition out of sport can contribute to the quality of their post sport adjustment. If athletes have resources that can allow them to cope with and alleviate the psychological difficulties with retirement, the quality of their transition process can significantly improve and transform. This can be specifically useful and necessary for those athletes who experience a sense of identity loss as a result of their retirement. Interventions could minimize the development of a strong athletic identity to the extent in which the competitive sport is not the entire focus in the life of an athlete. However, those with a strong athletic identity can use coping strategies to effectively minimize the anxiety and depressive symptoms that tends to arise as result of career termination. Neely et al., (2017) reported forms of communal coping were used among female adolescents athletes and their parents to overcome deselection. They used rationalization to understand the possible reasoning behind their deselection. Additionally, the use of positive reframing allowed the athletes to turn the negative connotations with deselection into opportunities. Such that, an athlete reported how she gained a sense of resiliency because “you can either let that break you or use it to help make you stronger” (Neely et al., 2017). It is necessary for all competitive sports to have resources available for their athletes to deal with sport retirement. For example, elite dancers reported engaging in the retirement planning service offered through the Dancers Career Development Fund (Willard & Lavallee 2016). This assisted the elite dancers in smoothly transitioning out of sport by helping them form a sense of direction. However, this type of post-career assistance isn’t universally available across all sports. Dos Santos, Nogueira, and Bohme (2016) investigated the perception among 379 athletes on the post sport support services. They concluded that the post sport assistance is not sufficiently developed to help athletes (Dos Santos et al., 2016). Thus, illustrating how important it for there to exist established retirement coping resources among all sports to facilitate a retirement adjustment. Hansen, Perry, Ross, and Montgomery (2018) outlined a workshop designed to transition athletes out of sport after graduating from college. They reported that the workshop includes “education on transition out of sport, coping strategies, discussion to process the loss of sport, and identification of additional resources” (Hansen et al 2018). This workshop is aimed at areas that athletes may not be aware of or have discussed before. The workshop can serve as a foundation to establish a universal workshop available for all athletes to assist them in transitioning out of sport.
Pre-retirement planning is a factor that can influence the quality of athletes’ transition out of sport. Many athletes tend not to look or plan ahead as to the time to when their career will come to an end. They are so focused into improving their athletic performance and continuing to advance their athletic career. Angelo, Reverberi, Gazzaroli, and Gozzoli (2017) assessed the retirement of fourteen Italian football players and indicated how the athletes felt unable to plan their retirement in advance. A player reported that “if you really want to be a football player, you must think only that” (Angelo et al. 2017). Thus, demonstrating how the demand of a sport can inhibit athletes from planning in advance. Pre-retirement planning can serve as a resource for athletes because it allows them to mentally, emotionally, and physically prepare for their life after sport. Sometimes, events that result in athletes involuntary retirement can be shocking and result in increased difficulties with adjusting. This is why it is necessary for athletes to at least consider what their life will be following their athletic career termination. It can help put into perspective the options available to them such as “continuing education and occupational endeavours” (Erpic, Wylleman, and Zupancic 2004). It will allow them to realize that their life still continues following the end of their involvement in competitive sport. An elite dancer shared how the retirement planning resource available through her sport “took away that fear element of god what am I going to do” (Willard & Lavallee 2016). Pre-retirement planning can serve as tool for those who voluntarily retire. For example, those athletes can look for opportunities in “reengaging in sport or physical activity” (Lyons et al., 2018). This in turn will ease their transition out of their competitive sport. Post-sport life planning can facilitate an athlete’s adjustment to life without competitive sport.
Throughout the transition process out of sport, the social support available for athletes is a determinant in the quality of their post-sport adjustment. The source of social support most common is from family and friends. Parents can be very supportive during an athlete’s retirement because they are aware of all the dedication and hard work athletes put towards their sport. Parents also “make a significant commitment to their children’s sport” by taking them to practice and competition events and being a source of motivation (Neely et al., 2017). A study by Neely et al., (2017) that assessed how fourteen female adolescent athletes and their parents cope with deselection, highlighted how athletes and parents can work together to deal with it. For example, parents can be there to console athletes for their career termination and help them rationalize why things came to an end. The female athletes were able to gain a positive perspective on deselection because of their parents focus on what an accomplishment it was to make it that far and how it could serve as a learning experience (Neely et al., 2017). However, athletes who are completely immersed into their sport to the point that their social network and friendships revolves around it, can have a difficult time adjusting when their career comes to an end. Dementriou, et al., (2017) evaluated an Australian football player’s experience on his forced retirement process. They emphasized that “recognizing retirement as a potential grieving period for loss of community” can help improve athletes’ retirement transition (Dementriou et al., 2017). It is also important to understand how athletes perceive and manage social support available to them. Brown, Webb, Robinson, and Cotgreave (2018) asked eight former British elite athletes in Olympic sports about the social support they received during their retirement process. The athletes reported that the support fostered a sense of growth which in turn facilitated their post-sport adjustment. Their perception of “feeling cared for and understood enabled support to be effective” (Brown et al., 2018). The amount and quality of support available to athletes are important indicators to how they transition out of competitive sport.
Retirement from sport can be a particularly stressful process for athletes. Athletes work consistently to improve and advance their athletic career. For some athletes, their competitive sport is all they have ever known. However, when the time comes to retire will these athletes be able to successfully adapt to life without competitive sport. The transition out of sport involves many demands that an athlete needs to be able to cope with in order to successfully adapt. It is essential to identify and assess what factors contribute to the quality of athletic retirement. The factors that influence whether athletes have a healthy or distressful transition include the reasons behind career termination, factors related to retirement adaptation and the availability of coping resources. A key determinant towards the quality of post-sport adjustment is if sport retirement was voluntary or involuntary. Also, other major reasons behind sport termination that influence the retirement process is age, deselection, and injury. An important factor known to influence how an athlete adapts to retirement is athletic identity. Those with a strong athletic identity experience increased difficulties in adjusting. Thus, it is necessary for athletes to have access to resources such as coping strategies, social support, and pre-retirement planning to alleviate or minimize the stressors that emerge during the transition out of sport. These factors influence the overall quality and length of the transition out of sport. There needs to exist universally established resources for athletes to use in order to facilitate a smooth and healthy transition out of sport.
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