Transitioning Out of Sport:
The Psychosocial Effects of Collegiate
Athletes’ Career-Ending Injuries
Amber L. Stoltenburg, Cindra S. Kamphoff, &
Karin Lindstrom Bremer
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Career-ending injuries constitute a unique type of transition that any athlete may face (Wylleman, Alfermann, & Lavallee, 2004). Therefore, the intent of this qualitative study was to examine the psychosocial effects that accompany an athlete’s transition out of sport due to a career-ending injury. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven Division I and II athletes who experienced a career-ending injury in the last five years. After a comprehensive and extensive analysis of the interview transcripts, five themes emerged: 1) Consequences of the injury, 2) Social support, 3) Athletic identity, 4) Nature of the injury, and 5) Pre-retirement planning. In general, findings indicated that athletes experienced a wide array of both positive and negative emotions triggered by the realization that their sport career had come to an end. Findings support the Conceptual Model of Adaptation to Career Transition (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994).
The termination of a career in sports is a significant time in an athlete’s life (Alfermann, 2001) that is accompanied by a process of transition and change (Taylor et al., 2006). The adjustment includes a change in self-perception, the social environment, and emotions and relationships (International Olympic Committee, n.d.). Given the significance of athletic retirement, researchers have begun to examine athletic retirement as more of a life event rather than a single event (Blinde & Greendorfer, 1985; Wylleman, Alfermann, & Lavallee, 2004). Similarly, Taylor and Ogilvie (2001) argued that in order to understand athletic retirement in its entirety, the experience must be viewed as a transition; a process streaming from the beginning of athletic involvement through post-athletic participation.
Researchers have identified many different reasons why athletes leave their sport career; these reasons can generally be categorized into two clusters: normative and non-normative transitions (Schlossberg, 1984). Normative transitions occur when an athlete’s decision to leave sport is anticipated in nature, such as when an athlete graduates. Non-normative transitions, on the other hand, occur unexpectedly such as when an athlete suffers a career-ending injury (Blinde & Greendorfer, 1985). Furthermore, age, de-selection, injury, and free choice were suggested by Taylor et al. to be the four most common reasons as to why athletes leave their sport. Taylor et al. incorporated these four reasons into their Conceptual Model of Adaptation to Career Transition.
Taylor and Ogilvie’s (1994) Conceptual Model of Adaptation to Career Transition, hereafter referred to as the Conceptual Model, provides a thorough framework for examining the transition process. Taylor and Ogilvie’s model includes the following components: the cause for career termination, factors related to the quality of transition, available resources for the athlete experiencing the transition, and interventions that can be used to assist an athlete in their transition. The Conceptual Model is comprised of five different stages; within each stage are factors that influence the successfulness of an athlete’s transition (see Taylor et al., 2006 for a complete description). Stage 1, which covers the reasons of career termination mentioned above, includes age, de-selection, the consequences of an injury, and free choice. Stage 2 centers around factors related to the adaptation to career transition. Developmental contributors, self-identity, perceptions of control, and personal, social, and environmental variables are included as factors in Stage 2. Stage 3 lists available resources for athletes who are adapting to a career transition. Coping strategies, social support, and pre-retirement planning are all noted as adequate resources. Stage 4 addresses the quality of the career transition, resulting in either a healthy or distressful response to retirement. By this stage the athlete’s reaction to the transition will be evident and the quality of the individual’s transition is dependent upon the previous steps of the retirement process. Stage 5 includes intervention strategies that can be implemented by professionals working with athletes to assist the athlete in their transition.
Although several researchers have investigated components of Taylor and Ogilvie’s (1994) model (c.f., Alfermann, Stambulova, & Zemaityte, 2004; Coakley, 2006; Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997; Koukouris, 1991; Stephan, Bilard, Ninot, & Delignieres, 2003), Coakley (2006) is the only researcher to investigate the entire Conceptual Model. Coakley, however, did not specifically investigate career-ending injuries. In her dissertation, Coakley examined the sport-career transition experiences of seven recently retired National Football League (NFL) athletes. She found that most athletes described that their preparations for retirement were inadequate, resulting in negative feelings of subjective well-being. In support of the Conceptual Model, Coakley concluded that “the sport-career transition is a complex, multidimensional process and the outcome is contingent upon the individuals’ cognitive, social, behavioral and emotional resources and level of preparation for the sport-career transition” (p. 2). Since Coakley’s dissertation is the only research study found to date investigating the entire Conceptual Model, we conclude that no study has used the entire model to explain athletes’ experiences with career-ending injuries.
As Wylleman et al. (2004) argued, perhaps the most unfavorable transition in sport that can cause early retirement is when an athlete experiences a career-ending injury. One of an athlete’s worst fears is being hurt, due to the possibility that the injury will be severe enough to cause early retirement (Baillie, 1993). Researchers acknowledge that an athlete’s reaction to a career-ending injury can include a range of emotions, including grief, identity loss, loneliness, anxiety and fear, loss of confidence, depression, alcohol abuse, and even suicide (Alfermann et al., 2004; Lally, 2007; Pearson & Petitpas, 1990).
A case study detailing an athlete’s experience transitioning out of sport due to a career-ending injury was conducted by Lotysz and Short (2004). Lotysz, a former NFL player, recalled personal details from his experience with a career-ending injury. The findings from this study illustrate how an athlete who was forced to retire due to an injury can encounter serious difficulties adapting to life as a non-athlete. The severity of Lotysz’s injury resulted in long-term physical impairments; social, financial, and employment difficulties were also noted. Lotysz recollected emotional difficulties as well. In general, the non-normative transition and the suddenness of the injury caused a long-term, negative impact on Lotysz’s life.
In another study on career-ending injuries, the authors focused on the general well-being of collegiate athletes (Kleiber & Brock, 1992). More specifically, current life satisfaction and self-esteem were evaluated. It was found that participants who sustained career-ending injuries during college reported lower life satisfaction five to ten years following retirement compared to participants who were not injured. In addition, participants who had a high professional sport orientation while in college (i.e., they believed they would enter a career in professional sport) had lower life satisfaction and self-esteem after college compared to the low professional sport orientation group. When evaluating their experience after college, the high professional sport orientation group showed lower self-perceived success in school, less participation in the selection of their courses, a lower grade point average, and less perceived value of education because they had a greater psychological investment in professional sports (Kleiber & Brock).
Career-ending injuries constitute a unique type of non-normative transition that any athlete has the potential to face (Wylleman et al., 2004). To date, much of the research on sport-career transition has been focused on normative events, whereas research on non-normative events has been neglected (Wylleman et al.). In addition, since a career-ending injury is the least foreseeable cause of athletic retirement (Baillie, 1993), it is imperative to take a more in-depth exploration into the psychosocial effects of an athlete’s transition due to career-ending injury. The purpose of this study was to examine the psychosocial effects that accompany an athlete’s transition out of sport due to a career-ending injury using the entire Conceptual Model of Adaptation to Career Transition (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994; Taylor et al., 2006).
Seven former Division I and II collegiate athletes (5 males, 2 females) were interviewed to gain an in-depth understanding of their transition following a career-ending injury. All interview participants met the following criteria: 1) had been a former collegiate athlete, 2) had experienced a career-ending injury as a collegiate athlete, and 3) transitioned out of collegiate athletics within the last five years. See Table 1 for demographic information.
Upon obtaining IRB approval for the study, a pilot interview was performed with a former collegiate athlete who had suffered a career-ending injury. Following the pilot interview, the participant provided feedback regarding the clarity and applicability of the questions. Through the feedback, the researchers made slight changes to the wording of the interview guide.
Purposive criterion sampling was used to select the main participants of this study (Daly, 2007). Head coaches and university athletic training program coordinators were contacted to acquire the names and contact information of former athletes who had experienced a career-ending injury. The head coaches and athletic training program coordinators were asked to receive permission from the athlete prior to forwarding their contact information to the first author. The first author then contacted each prospective participant via email or phone to explain the purpose of the study and to arrange an interview time. All but one of the individuals contacted agreed to be interviewed.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted either face-to-face (n=4) or via telephone (n=3). Each interview ranged from 35-60 minutes. At the start of the interview, each participant completed a demographic questionnaire (including items such as age, race/ethnicity, sport, education, length of athletic participation, and length of time since their forced retirement from sport) and signed the consent form. If the interview was conducted via telephone, documents were either emailed or sent through the mail and returned to the first author. Each interview was audiotaped and transcribed, and field notes were recorded by the first author.
The interview guide consisted of a set of predetermined questions intended to address the athletes’ experiences with career-ending injuries and their sport-career transition. The interview guide was developed by utilizing The Conceptual Model (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994; Taylor et al., 2006) as a guide and by reviewing interview content from a similar study (Coakley, 2006). See Table 2 for example questions.
The qualitative analysis approach described by Creswell (1998) was utilized to analyze and interpret the interview data. Creswell described the analytic process through a series of stages by: 1) analyzing the specific interview content, 2) developing themes from that content, and 3) making a thorough conclusion to identify each and every possible meaning of the participants. This process first began as the researchers read the transcripts thoroughly. Key phrases that were significant to the purpose of the study were highlighted; corresponding conceptual labels were then written in the margins of the transcripts. For example, the comment, “The best feeling in the world was coming out of the surgery, opening my eyes, and seeing my whole family there…” was labeled as “positive social support.” Significant content from each interview was labeled in this way. The conceptual labels were then placed into a theme along with similar statements, and the theme was named (for example, all comments related to social support were gathered and the theme was named “Social Support”). The three researchers met to discuss and finalize the themes. Statements of the participants were then identified to exemplify each theme. Pseudonyms were used to protect the participants’ identities.
Scholars of qualitative methods are in agreement that the establishment of trustworthiness is essential to determine if the findings are accurate from the standpoint of the researcher(s), participants, and readers (see Creswell, 1998 for a discussion). Specifically, Creswell suggested multiple procedures of establishing trustworthiness should be used. Additionally, Sparkes and Smith (2009) argued that a list of criteria or procedures to establish trustworthiness should “act as a starting point” for judging the research, and this list should not be blindly applied to all situations. Instead, they argued that researcher(s) should explain the trustworthiness techniques used, provide a rationale for why these techniques were relevant to the situation, and offer a description of how these techniques were carried out with care and attention.
In light of these suggestions, the following three procedures were used to verify the data: 1) member checking, 2) prolonged engagement, and 3) triangulation. First, to ensure accuracy of the interview content, each individual was provided a copy of their transcribed interview. Member checking was used in this study to ensure a truthful and accurate depiction of each participant’s experience before the researchers began the data analysis. Each interview was transcribed carefully and then sent to the participant via e-mail to confirm their experience. Second, to ensure the researchers became familiar enough with the interview data to conduct a thorough and accurate data analysis, and to become as familiar as possible with each participant’s experience, the researchers took part in prolonged engagement. To address prolonged engagement, the first author carefully transcribed the interviews and then listened to each interview while simultaneously reviewing the transcript. In addition, each transcript was read multiple times by all three researchers. Third, to ensure the first author interpreted the interviews correctly, the other two researchers, with doctoral degrees and extensive knowledge in qualitative methodology, were used to confirm the identified themes through a process called investigator triangulation (Creswell; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Investigator triangulation was essential to this study to ensure the first author’s biases were minimized as much as possible. Each researcher went through a detailed process of coding the transcripts, which is outlined in the Data Analysis section above.
After a comprehensive analysis of the interview transcripts, five distinct themes emerged: 1) Consequences of the injury, 2) Social support, 3) Athletic identity, 4) Nature of the injury, and 5) Pre-retirement planning.
Consequences of the Injury
It was evident that each participant experienced both negative and positive consequences resulting from the termination of their sport career. The following four consequences greatly impacted their transition: 1) Psychosocial adjustment, 2) Role of education, 3) Role on the team, and 4) Involvement in other activities.
Psychosocial adjustment. Generally, the participants in this study noted the adjustment process to their career-ending injury lasted between six months and one year. Additionally, the majority of participants (6 of 7) said that the unexpected end to their sport career was very difficult to initially accept. A common feeling was that “it wasn’t real at first” and feelings of “disappointment,” “devastation,” “bitterness,” and “depression” were common reactions. Nicholle, a 21 year old hockey player, said that she was “absolutely devastated” when she realized she could no longer play. Nicholle discussed how she reacted when forced to leave sport:
I had worked so hard. I had left home when I was eleven for this sport. It’s something that I love to do… I love it. I would think about not being able to play and break down completely; I would just be sobbing. I couldn’t help myself, and I am not a crier … I took it really, really hard.
While six of the seven participants initially experienced negative emotions after their injury, they agreed that as time passed the transition became more positive and they “accepted it and moved on.” Tyler, a 23 year old hockey player, was the only participant whose injury was life-threatening and he approached the situation more positively. Tyler was just thankful to be alive; he said, “There’s more to life than athletics and they were always going to end someday. You appreciate the little things in life a lot more.”
Role of education. The majority of participants admitted to having a lack of dedication toward their education while pursuing a career in sports. However, their career-ending injury forced them to focus on their future. Chase, a 25 year old hockey player, said that he was able to increase his “concentration on school” when his sport career was over. Lance, a 24 year old football player, described an increased interest in education as a positive consequence of the transition. Lance stated: “I was able to focus more on my career goals—on what I wanted to do post-athletics.”
Prior to their career-ending injury, few participants had started planning for a career outside of sports. These participants recalled being encouraged by parents to realize that their sport career would eventually end. The participants that received parental advice took a more realistic approach to sports. More specifically, these participants were advised by their parents to “have something to fall back on.” For example, Tyler talked about how his mother encouraged a balance between sport and education from a young age:
Hockey and sports are terminal; I have been told this from my mother ever since I was a little kid. School, education, and the work you do as a human being last forever…sports will end.
Role on the team. An inevitable consequence of the injury was that each participant had to choose whether or not to stay involved with their team; four of the seven participants chose to stay connected in some way. Two of the interview participants (Lance and Anthony) continued to help out as much as they could. They viewed staying involved with the team as generally positive, and their continued involvement allowed them to experience different roles on the team. As Anthony, a 23 year old basketball player mentioned, it allowed him to become a “motivator and leader” on the bench rather than on the court. Continuing to help out with the team was also a way Lance transitioned away from sport. He stated:
I think that [staying involved with the team] helped me to move on. I think it was a positive thing in the fact that I was not completely um… away from it. I was able to kind of slowly adjust to saying ‘yes, this is the end of it and I need to move on.’
However, not all of the participants who stayed involved with their team thought it helped their transition. Dean, a 22 year old football player, said that he was “stuck doing odd jobs” and it made him feel like “the bitch of the team.” Similarly, Lisa, a 22 year old soccer player who chose to volunteer as coach with her team, thought that being on the coaching side of things “was incredibly difficult.”
Involvement in other activities. All participants agreed that because a collegiate sport career takes up so much time, there is rarely extra time for other activities. Experiencing the end of their sport career made the participants realize the value of getting involved in other activities. After their injuries, the participants had more time to spend on other personal interests, allowing them to have a balanced life. For example, Dean talked about how nice it was to decide what he wanted to do with his free time as opposed to “being forced to do workouts and stuff.”
For two participants, a career in coaching became their new focus. For Chase and Nicholle, coaching was a way for them to transition out of sport, yet stay involved in the sport they loved. Chase reported that coaching immediately after his injury “somewhat filled the void of playing.” Whereas Nicholle stated,
I would have to say that coaching has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. So, if stuff happens for a reason, then this definitely has to be the reason that this [injury] happened to me. To be able to have such a positive influence on these kids … I feel like that’s much more important than me playing my senior year.
In sum, the majority of participants reported difficulty accepting the unexpected end to their sport career, but all agreed that as time passed the transition became more positive. In addition, the career-ending injury allowed the athletes to focus more on their education and future. Around half of the participants remained involved with their team and while staying involved made the transition easier for some, it caused more difficulty for others.
One of the most prominent themes that emerged during the analysis of the interview content was social support. Under social support, two subthemes emerged: 1) Positive social support, and 2) A lack of social support. There was a clear difference in the participants’ adjustment who received positive social support compared to those who lacked social support.
Positive social support. The majority of the athletes interviewed (5 of 7) had a very strong and stable support system that helped them adjust during the transition. These participants concluded that having a strong support system during this time had a significant impact on the adjustment process; they all concurred that the transition would not have “gone as smoothly” without adequate support. Three participants specifically mentioned the impact of family support and how their families “did everything they could to make [the transition] easier.” Tyler, for example, reflected on the major role his family played in his transition:
My family support has been phenomenal. My brothers live in the [state] and they drove all the way down to the [hospital] that night. My other brother plays [professional sports]; he got a leave of absence from his team and took the first flight he could down. My whole family was there supporting me. They have been great.
Two other participants, Lance and Anthony, recalled the positive relationships and social support they had with their teammates after their final injury. Lance described his situation further:
I talked to [my teammates] a lot and they were very supportive of my decision. They understood what was happening and they understood that it was probably for the better that I made this decision [to stop playing]. They were very supportive.
Lack of social support. Two participants did not have as much social support as they wanted or needed. Chase described his social support as deficient, stating that “There wasn’t a lot of support to be honest. It was a pretty crappy time for a couple years there.” With parents living 37 hours away and teammates who “just don’t get why [I wasn’t playing],” Chase found it difficult to find the social support he needed. Lisa did not tell her family about her injury, and did not seek out support from coaches, teammates and friends, even though she knew they “would have been there.” Instead, Lisa tried to go through the transition on her own. Lisa expressed the impact that not seeking social support had on her during this time:
So, I felt very alienated and alone, and that probably was why it felt so negative. When it’s just you and your thoughts it’s like… ugh. There was no one… there was no one there to get [anything] for you. It was horrible.
In sum, all of the participants discussed the importance of social support throughout their transition. Participants reported considerably easier transitions when they received positive social support from teammates and parents. Those who lacked social support, however, recognized the negative impact this had on their transition after the career-ending injury occurred.
All of the participants were asked to rate their level of athletic identity on a scale of 1 (very weak) to 5 (very strong). Each athlete discussed the impact their athletic and social identities had on adjusting to the end of their sport career.
Impact of an athletic identity. Five of the seven participants rated themselves as a 5 and stated they had a very strong athletic identity during their sport career. Each of these athletes agreed that having such a strong athletic identity “made the transition a lot harder” because their sport “was very important” to them. Lisa, for example, discussed how her strong athletic identity impacted her transition stating, “I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I really didn’t know what else I was besides an athlete.” Tyler was the only athlete with a relatively weak athletic identity (rating himself a 2). He stated that he wanted to be known as more than “just a hockey player” and attributed his successful transition to his weak athletic identity,
I think it helped me because my whole identity wasn’t just as a hockey player. When you consider yourself, and measure yourself as a person just based on how good of a hockey player you are, then what’s really there? So, [not having a strong athletic identity has] helped me out big time during this transition.
Importance of a social identity. Five of the seven participants interviewed described their social network as being very limited in regards to the diversity of people they spent time with during their sport career. All of the participants with a very strong athletic identity were “surrounded by athletes” and many of these participants admitted that they did not spend time with friends outside of sport. Therefore, when they had to transition away from sport they had to create and adjust to a new social network.
Instead of spending large amounts of time with athletes and teammates, two participants (Tyler and Lance) chose to have a social identity outside of athletics during their sport career. For Tyler and Lance, expanding their social network contributed to a positive adjustment because they did not have to create a new group of friends once their sport career was over. Lance expressed his feelings about having a social identity beyond the athletic realm. He stated:
I think it actually helped quite a bit. I had always hung out with people who weren’t athletes so I had a life away from the people who experience nothing but athletics…It made it very different and helped a lot.
In sum, the majority of the participants rated their athletic identity as very strong. Consequently, this made the transition out of sport difficult because their social network only included former teammates. The participants who had a weaker athletic identity stated that this made their transition easier because they already had the support system outside of athletics.
Nature of the Injury
Although each participant had a unique story regarding their injury, all identified three factors related to the nature of the injury which impacted their transition: 1) Prevalence of past recurring injuries, 2) Seriousness of the career-ending injury, and 3) The decision to not play.
Prevalence of past recurring injuries. Nearly all of the participants (6 of 7) experienced multiple injuries before their sport career officially came to an end. More specifically, five of the seven participants had been dealing with injuries for a considerable amount of time. Several participants also experienced multiple surgeries during their sport careers. For example, Dean reported a long history of dealing with concussions, the injury that ultimately ended his sport career. He stated that his first concussion occurred “in the fourth or fifth grade” and continued to plague him over the years. Two participants (Nicholle and Chase) had been injured on and off since they were 15 years old. In general, the experiences of having multiple injuries allowed the athletes to be prepared for the end of their sport career, which generally made their transition easier. With each injury the athletes felt they were forced to accept that because they were prone to injuries, they may experience a premature end to their sport career.
Seriousness of the career-ending injury. All of the injuries reported by the participants were severe enough to end their careers; a few were even life-threatening. Generally, the transition out of sport was facilitated when the injury was more life-threatening or physically debilitating. For these participants, being alive and healthy was much more important than a potential future in sports. The realization that an injury could end their life, or result in severe, life-long impairments, put into perspective how important it was for them to move on. Chase, for example, discussed the long-term effects of his career-ending injury. At only 25 years of age, the physical condition of Chase’s shoulder was diagnosed as one that resembled the shoulder of a 70 year old man. Chase described the long-term effects of his shoulder injury:
My personal thing is my shoulder and not being able to lift 5 lbs. I know to be a hockey player you need the use of your shoulder. I’m 25 years old right now and what is going to happen when I’m older? Am I going to be able to hold my baby? It’s terrible; I already have arthritis.
Furthermore, two of the participants (Nicholle and Tyler) had injuries that resulted in hospitalization. Tyler’s injury resulted in a life-threatening situation. If surgery would not have been performed in time, Tyler’s head injury would have ultimately ended in death. In addition, Nicholle developed a severe staph infection after her ACL reconstruction surgery.
The decision to not play. Each of the participants’ decision to not play was extremely difficult and was based on the circumstances surrounding the injury. Four of the seven participants felt that they had no control over the decision to end their sport career. Tyler talked about his situation in a more positive light and thought this was a way for him to walk away without any regrets: “Here’s the nice thing about it. The decision to not play was made for me, so I can’t sit here and teeter about whether or not I should still be playing.” Whereas two of the participants (Chase and Dean) had to end their sport career due to doctors refusing to clear them because of the potential physical consequences if they continued to play.
The remaining participants ultimately had the final say in whether or not they continued their collegiate sport career. For each of these individuals, the final decision to not play was “tough to make.” These athletes knew they could continue to play, but also knew there was the potential of significant and negative physical long-term consequences. Lance, for example, explained his choice to end his career this way:
It was my decision. I chose to stop playing because they said if I chose to play my last year it would take the rest of my meniscus and I’d have to have a fake knee within the next 10 years. It was pretty much an overnight decision, where I finally decided that enough was enough…There was no way that I could play this last year knowing that I would permanently, severely jeopardize my health later on.
In sum, the majority of the participants experienced multiple injuries before the final injury that ended their sport career. Around half of the participants felt that they had no control over the decision to stop playing, whereas the other participants had to make the final decision to stop playing. For those who chose to discontinue playing, they struggled with weighing the long-term consequences of their injury with their desire to play. For these athletes, this internal struggle made the transition more difficult.
Two factors that emerged, which clarified if the participants had taken an active role in planning for the end of their sport career, included: 1) The timing of injury and 2) “Plan B.”
The timing of injury. The majority of athletes did not think about their future without sports until after the career ending injury occurred. One participant (Lance) who was injured later on in his sport career talked about not thinking “that far ahead” because he assumed he would have the whole season to plan for his future. When compared to the athletes who were injured during their last season of competition, those who were injured early in their collegiate sport career felt they had more time to prepare for life outside of sports. Furthermore, the participants that experienced multiple or reoccurring injuries did consider the end of their sport career and engaged in pre-retirement planning more frequently. In general, this made their transition easier. Chase, for instance, suggested that multiple injuries made him realize the importance of engaging in pre-retirement planning.
Every little injury, and every little thing…it just got tougher and tougher. I think then I started looking to the future. I’m a smart enough guy, I wanted to try and play hockey forever, but I knew either way it wasn’t going to go forever. I started mentally preparing for when I was done playing.
“Plan B.” Because the majority of the participants did not start planning for life after their sport career, they had not developed their “Plan B”. For those participants who did actively prepare for life after sport, the process of transition was seen as more positive; these former athletes recalled experiencing a shorter adjustment period when compared to those who did not develop an alternate plan. In general, most of the participants failed to prepare for life after sport because they did not “expect [their sport career] to go as fast as it [did]”. Lisa said that she did not take a practical approach to planning, stating: “I guess I always knew I should be getting ready, but I never did anything actively to actually get ready.”
Two participants had specifically developed a “Plan B” and both talked about this extensively during the interviews. Tyler and Anthony both knew the importance of developing “ground work” in terms of setting up opportunities for their future. Tyler elaborated on his approach to “taking school seriously” and the importance to “prepare far earlier.” During Anthony’s interview, he also commented on how important it is to “build your resume” and start “looking for internships” well before the sport career ends. Anthony said that being prepared allowed him to have “more of a positive transition.” He shared his thoughts about developing a “Plan B”:
Always think about the real world; always have two plans. ‘Plan A’ being that you’re going to be that professional athlete; you’re going to control the world with your athletics and stuff. ‘Plan B’ meaning, you know, that sport is not always going to be there for you. Eventually you’re going to get tired, or get old; athletes are going to get quicker or faster than you. Your body playing for that long, time is going to take a toll on it. So you should always have a ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B.’
Overall, the majority of athletes did not think about their future without sports and had not developed a “Plan B” before their career-ending injury. Those who were injured early in their collegiate sport career felt they had more time to prepare for life outside of sports compared to those who were injured during their last season of competition.
Using the Conceptual Model of Adaptation to Career Transition (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994; Taylor et al., 2006), the purpose of this study was to examine the psychosocial effects that accompany an athlete’s transition out of sport due to a career-ending injury. The current findings help to identify factors that contributed to how former collegiate athletes experienced the adjustment process; their reported experiences support portions of the Conceptual Model. The first two sections below reflect the purpose of the study.
The participants experienced a range of emotional, psychological, social, and behavioral effects during the adjustment process. For example, participants in the current study expressed a myriad of negative feelings such as sadness, devastation, anger, bitterness, helplessness and loss, to more positive feelings of appreciation and gratitude. The feelings the participants identified are consistent with the previous literature (Alfermann et al., 2004; Baillie, 1993; Blinde & Stratta, 1992; Koukouris, 1991; Lotysz & Short, 2004; Taylor et al., 2006).
Koukouris (1991) suggested that athletes experience initial stages of adjustment problems, but as time moves on the transition is viewed more positively. The majority (6 of 7) of athletes in this study initially struggled with their sport career ending, but eventually viewed their transition positively. Therefore, the current findings support the idea that negative feelings an athlete experiences after a career-ending injury gradually diminish over time. However, the current findings do indicate that the seriousness of a career-ending injury can impact the adjustment process. For example, the athlete (Tyler) in this study who suffered a life-threatening injury was more accepting and realistic about ending his sport career. Certainly, more research is needed to confirm this finding.
About half of the athletes in the current study chose to stop competing. The pursuit of a career in sports was not worth the potential long-term health risks the injury could cause if they continued to play. The participants described the final decision as being “tough to make.” Researchers indicate that athletes who experience ambiguity about ending their sport career face more stress and difficulty when trying to accept their final decision (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000). Our findings support Kerr and Dacyshyn’s claim that a more difficult transition can arise when an athlete has to choose whether or not to retire. In addition, the athletes in the current study who reported a more difficult adjustment had a limited social identity that revolved around their sport. This finding supports previous research that suggested athletes with a high athletic identity experience more severe psychological difficulties (Erpic, Wylleman, & Zupancic, 2004) and greater degrees of emotional and social adjustment when they transition out of sport (Grove et al., 1997).
Support for the Conceptual Model of Adaptation to Career Transition
Interview data from the current study is found to support many components of Taylor and Ogilvie’s (1994) Conceptual Model. More specifically, these findings address Stages 2, 3, and 4.
Support for Stage 2 of the conceptual model. All of the factors related to the adaptation to career transition (developmental contributors, self-identity, perceptions of control, social identity, and tertiary factors) within Stage 2 of the Conceptual Model were addressed by the participants in this study. Developmental contributors, the first factor in Stage 2, are aspects of the athlete’s life that influenced their development since the beginning of their athletic careers (Taylor et al., 2006). Five out of the seven athletes in this study specifically discussed how sport was all they had ever done, and that their lives had a singular focus until their career-ending injury. Taylor and Ogilvie (1994) suggested that the most salient aspect of self-identity, which is the second factor within Stage 2, is athletic identity. The current findings support this area of the model since athletes who had a very strong identification to their role in sports experienced a more difficult time adjusting to the transition.
Social identity, the third factor within Stage 2, described as a broader identity including family, educational, occupational, and friendship aspects, was a salient feature during the transition for the athletes in this study. The two participants who had a balanced social identity, which consisted of both athletic and non-athletic factors, discussed how helpful the non-athletic social identity was to their transition. Tertiary contributors, the fourth factor within Stage 2, are those that are unique to the individual, yet still important in the athlete’s transition (Taylor et al., 2006). Some tertiary contributors that impacted the athletes in this study were their overall health and their years competing in their sport. Perceived control, the final factor in Stage 2, includes the athlete’s perception that she or he either chose to leave sport, or was forced out. Four of the seven participants in this study felt like they had no choice but to stop competing in their sport; the remaining three had to first consider the long-term consequences of continued play. Despite previous literature on perceived control and the view that lack of control could contribute to a difficult transition (Blinde & Greendorfer, 1985), some of the athletes in this study reported relief that the final decision was made by their doctor(s). Therefore, if the decision is out of the athlete’s control, they may in fact experience less difficulty adjusting to the transition.
Support for Stage 3 of the conceptual model. As evident in Stage 3, the transition depends upon available resources utilized by the athletes, which include coping strategies, preretirement planning, and social support (Taylor et al., 2006). The athletes in the current study discussed the coping strategies that they utilized during their transition. While some participants discussed their grateful attitude as a coping strategy, others discussed how they changed focus towards their education and future careers. In fact, the participants in this study who had a “Plan B” experienced a smoother transition. Overall, the utilization of positive coping strategies and having a “Plan B” helped to facilitate their transition out of sport.
Social support, the next element of Stage 3, is another key component that fostered a smooth transition out of sport. Previous researchers have found that social support during the transition process is essential (Grove et al., 1997; Stephen et al., 2003).The athletes in this study reported that social support from family, coaches, teammates, friends, peers, professors, and the community contributed to a healthy adjustment. Being surrounded by a positive environment increased the ability to transition more smoothly. Furthermore, athletes who transition due to career-ending injuries without the presence of adequate support experience more psychological, emotional, and physical distress while trying to adapt to their life outside of college athletics.
Support for Stage 4 of the conceptual model. The fourth stage of the Conceptual Model addresses the overall quality of the career transition. Within this stage, career transition distress, intervention, and whether or not the transition was considered “healthy” are considered. As supported by the findings of this study, the more favorable the athlete experienced components from Stages 2 and 3, the healthier their transition out of sport (Taylor et al., 2006).
As Tyler’s situation illustrates, he had many of the necessary components in Stage 2 and 3 that facilitated a positive transition. Tyler recollected having a strong social identity during his athletic career, as he developed both personally and socially beyond the realm of athletics. Tyler’s athlete identity, in fact, was lower in comparison to the majority of the participants in this study. Tyler recalled his transition after the career ending injury as easier because his life did not completely center on hockey. Furthermore, Tyler coped with his transition by accepting his situation, utilizing social support, and planning for his career after athletics far in advance.
For athletes such as Lisa who lacked specific factors from Stages 2 and 3, the overall quality of the transition was less positive. Lisa lacked a strong social identity and rated herself at the highest level of athletic identity. Lisa’s social network only revolved around the athletes on her team. When Lisa was forced to transition away from soccer, she had to re-develop her social network. Lisa severely lacked social support and failed to engage in pre-retirement planning, both which led to a more difficult adjustment.
There are multiple findings that are unique to this study and provide implications for coaches, sport psychology consultants, and other professionals who work with athletes. First, as several of the athletes discussed, having a “Plan B” allowed for a smoother transition. Sport psychology consultants and coaches can help all their athletes develop a “Plan B” or contingency plan regardless if they think they may experience a career-ending injury. It is imperative for athletes at all levels to understand that there will come a day when their sport career will end; they need to prepare accordingly.
Second, the findings of this study suggest that when athletes do not have control over the decision to play (i.e., the physician has made the decision for them), this allowed for an easier transition. The athletes who experienced a life-threatening injury also appeared to adjust easier because they had an appreciation for life and were less focused on their ability to not play. Physicians, coaches, and sport psychology consultants should recognize that the lack of control over the decision and the severity of the injury can impact the athlete’s transition. If the physician makes the final decision for the athlete to not play, an easier transition may follow.
Third, the findings of this study point to the importance of social support during an athlete’s transition out of sport. In fact, the importance of social support was one of the most prominent themes that emerged from the study. When working with athletes who have experienced a career-ending injury, coaches and sport psychology consultants can not only provide social support to the athlete, but should suggest the athlete turn to family members, friends, and teammates to ease their transition.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
Additional research is needed to confirm the findings of this study. Since this study only included seven participants, future research could examine the psycho-social effects of athletes’ transition out of sport with a larger population. In addition, this study only included athletes from limited sports; future research should include athletes from a variety of sport to examine the potential for sport-specific transitions. Additionally, this study only examined collegiate athletes. High school and/or professional athletes may have different experiences during their transition out of sport. Professionals working with athletes need to understand the transition process of athletes who have experienced a career-ending injury at all levels of participation (i.e., elite non-professional, professional, high school) and of athletes from different sports.
A limitation of the current study is that the athletes experienced a variety of injuries. An athlete’s experience may depend on what type of career ending injury they suffer. Researchers could consider future research that examines transitions based on the type of injury. Furthermore, one athlete (i.e., Tyler) in this study experienced a life-threatening career-ending injury while playing. There appeared to be a difference in his transition compared to others, indicating the need for future research specific to life-threatening injuries.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Cindra S. Kamphoff, Ph.D., Department of Human Performance, 1400 Highland Center, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Mankato, MN 56001 firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: (507) 389-6112, Fax: (507) 389-5618