How Elite Athletes Deal With Retirement: What is the research saying?

by Weaver • November 22, 2016 • No Comments

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With the number of high profile retirements across sports such as soccer and rugby due to injury over the past number of years increasing with names like David Wallace, Jerry Flannery & Dean Ashton all having to retire from their respective sports due to career ending injuries,and with injuries such a part of professional sport these days, how does retirement due to injury impact on the psychological well-being  of the athlete?. This blog will focus on the research into the psychological effects retirement due to injury can have on athletes.


A career within a sporting context is analogous to a shortened version of a normal working life (Lally, 2007). Many sporting careers last between five and ten years, with the careers of soccer players being the shortest in length historically (Lavallee, 2000).This has lead to a considerable increase in the level of research into the area of retirement. However, the majority of accounts only provide anecdotal evidence of the transition into retirement after sports participation. The ability to convey results to the larger population of athletes is a real issue with most of the research conducted. Despite a level of ambiguity in the reactions experienced by athletes, sports psychologists regularly help athletes cope with retirement (Warriner, & Lavallee, 2008). This can be linked to the need of athletes to focus solely on maximizing competitive performances, with little attention given to planning for retirement (Miller, & Kerr 2002).

Initial Attempts to Provide a Retirement Model

Many attempts have been made to provide a model for retirement that defines the process for all athletes. The problem with these attempts is that theorists have drawn from models applied outside of the sporting domain. Originally theorists drew from non- sporting models such as Thanatology, which views retirement as a social death for an athlete (Wylleman, et al., 2004). Although it is plausible to state that an athlete will follow a stereotypical pattern in retirement, it has flaws within it as every individual’s experience of the process will be different. Theorists also applied the Social Gerontology model, which focuses on the life satisfaction and aging process during a life cycle. Both theories are limited however, when applied to sporting retirements due to their non-sport specific nature, and presumption that the event is a singular, abrupt and negative event.

This lead to the development of a conceptual model for retirement which addressed all relevant factors and concerns in retirement from its initiation to its psychological impact. The model suggested that the sport-career transition was multidimensional and involved psychosocial (emotional, social, financial and occupational) factors. The model proposes five key stages:

1. Cause of career retirement.
2. Developmental experiences.
3. Coping resources.
4. Quality of adaptation to retirement.
5. Interventions for retirement difficulties.

The model appears to be the most relevant theoretical explanation of the transition for athletes. This is so because it provides a sport-specific framework for assessing individual experiences during the sport-career transition (Wylleman, et al., 1999), along with identifying markers regarding the quality of sport-career transition. However is it right to just look at retirement from it initiation or should athletes and Sports Psychologists be encouraging athletes to prepare for life post sport from the very beginning of ones rise to the elite level?

Retirement is a transition not an event

There is now a consensus that retirement is a transition which involves development throughout the life cycle (Lavallee, & Robinson, 2007). Withdrawal from sport is not simply a singular event, but instead, a process that begins shortly after an athlete becomes involved in their career (Torregrosa, et al., 2004). Viewing the sport-career transition as a process can help consultants prepare athletes for their transitional period (Lavallee, 2000). In recent times there has been a shift in focus to a life span perspective. Research findings from Wylleman et al. (1999) confirm that athletes encounter multiple stages of transition throughout their careers. These findings recommended of a more ‘holistic’ approach to the study of transitions for athletes, with transitions in other domains of development linked into athletic transitions.

This resulted in the development of a model which incorporated normative transitions faced by athletes at the athletic, individual, psychosocial and academic level of life (Wylleman, & Lavallee, 2003). This model underlines not only the interactive nature of transitions in different domains of life of an athlete, but also that non-athletic transitions that may affect the development of athletes’ sports career and impact on the transition out of the sport.

Now that i have provided a background into retirement and the models applied lets now focus on the psychological effects of injury and the models applied to injuries in the applied setting.

Injury is not just a physical trauma but also a psychological one

An injury is defined as any physical or medical condition that prevents a player from participating in a match or training session (Orchard, & Seward, 2002). Injuries are a major involuntary and unanticipated reason for career termination within sport. This is why an injury which may seem small and non-complicated physically may still affect the athlete psychologically (Urdy, et al., 1997). Interestingly about forty-seven percent (47%) of professional soccer players are forced to retire as a result of injuries (Drawer, & Fuller, 2002). Evans (2005, p24) stated that career ending injuries stem from a combination of the “the never-ending pursuit of achievement and the inability of coaches to understand that the human body can only take so much for so long.” Some famous models applied in the understanding of the psychological trauma of injuries are the Grief Stages Model (Rotella, 1985) and the Cognitive Appraisal Model (Lazuras, & Folkman, 1984) both these models however are very rigid in their make up and have a number of flaws within them. However due to the individual nature of retirement is a model that explains the process for every athlete possible? It may just be wishful thinking of all researchers.

One of the interesting pieces from within the literature is the idea that injury can be seen as a positive for individual athletes. Among common benefits cited by athletes include opportunities for personal growth, development of interests outside of sport, and increased motivation levels (Brewer, 2001). When forced to miss the world cup in 2002 due to injury Robert Pires claimed:
“You see things differently after something like that. Compared to people who have really bad accidents, what happened to me was nothing, so at a certain point I need to be aware of how lucky I am, I can keep doing what I am doing and what I have always loved doing – life goes on, I still have two legs and I’ll play again.” (Fotheringham, 2002, p3)

Psychological impact of injury

Research has noted that the rise in publications on the topic of career transitions has been sparked by an increase in the level of elite athletes requiring clinical interventions post professional participation in sport. What is the impact of retirement on an athlete and what resources can both help and hinder the transition into a life outside of sport?

Severe injuries are seen by athletes as a let down of their well conditioned bodies. This can result in a variety of psychological effects such as fear, anxiety and loss of self-esteem, which can manifest in depression and substance abuse (Gordon, & Lavallee, 2004). When a career threatening injury occurs an athlete must devote considerable effort and time to the rehabilitation process (Ogilvie, & Taylor, 1993).

Athletes have experienced both physical and psychological problems during rehabilitation, which can prevent their return to competitive levels of sport (Johnson, & Bakkioui, 1999). The reason for psychological issues during the rehabilitation process has been linked to a twofold issue. The athlete needs to simultaneously prepare for the potential end of their athletic career, while at the same time remaining in a positive state of mind about a potential return to sport and recovery (Cupal, & Brewer, 2001).

Research supports the belief that retirement due to injury is difficult as it is an event that individuals are usually unprepared to face (Wylleman, & Lavallee, 2008). Elite athletes who have their career ended as a result of an injury have reported experiencing severe psychological distress, which has manifested in episodes of depression, gambling along with suicidal ideation (Taylor, & Ogilvie, 1994).

Reactions to athletic injury include: grief reactions, identity loss, poor identity separation, loneliness, fear and anxiety (Lavallee, & Robinson, 2007). The anguish that some athletes experience when their career ends because of an injury, is summarized best as a bereavement reaction to the loss of part of the self, and the loss of physical prowess.

The next logical question is what resources do athletes have to ease the bereavement reaction?

Resources in retirement

The resources athletes have at their disposal in retirement can be broken down into two classes:
• Available resources such as perceived control, retirement planning and coping skills.
• Developmental resources which include athletic identity, social factors and self esteem.

Below i will discuss some of these


Perceived psychological control was defined as “the extent to which one believes he/she has control of his/her own life outcomes” (Webb, et al., 1998, p336). Athletes who perceive a lack of control over their retirement have been shown to experience increased adjustment difficulties (Alfermann & Gross, 1997); more so than those athletes who perceive control over the timing and circumstances of their retirement. Athletes who perceive a lack of control have been linked to feelings of concern, stress and anxiety (Lavallee, et al., 1997). This ability for an athlete to perceive psychological control is most affected in a retirement caused by injury; because an athlete has limited or no control over the nature or timing of the injury (Lavallee, et al., 2000).


With retirement as one of the only certainties in a sports career, it is surprising that most athletes fail to plan for the event. Brown, et al. (2000, p53) suggest that “the demands of playing, training, and travelling generally compete with adequate post-career preparation, rendering many athletes ill-prepared for life choices outside the sports milieu.” The need to plan is sometimes neglected. This is because coaches feel that the discussion of retirement could detract from athletes’ concentration on sporting commitments (Lavallee, 2005). Planning for retirement provides athletes with a sense of control over the transition process while also broadening their self identity. Planning was also shown to correlate well with more positive and less negative emotional states during the transitional process, with a shortened time of adaptation and higher levels of life satisfaction (Alfermann, et al., 2004). The process of planning is vital to adaptation even though it takes considerable time it is possible without impacting on the performance of the athlete (Talyor, & Ogilvie, 2001).

Coping Skills

The presence or absence of coping skills will impact on an athlete’s ability to adapt to retirement. Coping is defined as “Constantly changing cognitive and behavioural effects to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person” (Grove, et al., 1997, p197). Research has suggested that coping strategies employed by athletes are individual and situation specific. These are strongly influenced by internal and external associated factors such as personality, age and perceived control (Alfermann, et al., 2004). Some coping strategies include searching for new careers and interests (Clemmet, et al., 2010) searching for psychological and social support, (Schwenk, et al., 2007) along with avoidance/denial strategies (Stambulova, et al., 2007). Lavallee, et al. (2002) noted that individuals who possess positive coping resources tend to experience less stress in retirement.

Social Support

Social support has been touted as possibly the single most important factor in the adjustment process for an athlete (Lavallee, & Robinson, 2007). Fernandez et al. (2006) showed that married athletes perceived an increased level of social support in retirement which resulted in an easier transition. In contrast, those athletes with a lack of social support reported feelings of isolation and loneliness, which further manifested into distress for the athlete (Young, et al., 2006). Retired athletes become increasingly vulnerable to the loss of primary support structures, such as contact with team mates. One study found that contact by former team mates was greatly reduced at the end of an athletes’ career, with this found to be a source of distress for retired players (Gearing, 1999). Relationships outside of sport also play a role in the transitional process for many athletes, with these acting as a shield to the potential stressors of retirement (Young, et al., 2006). It has been shown relationships with family and friends outside of sport may suffer during the transition phase. This is due to athletes being so overwhelmed by the psychological distress of retirement that they appear to have no interest in relationships (Young, et al., 2006). Athletes should try and use social support structures as a coping resource, to convey any psychological issues they may be experiencing in their career transition process (Warriner, & Lavallee, 2008).

Athletic Identity

Identities have been described as the social meanings that individuals attribute to themselves in a role (Coakley, 2006). The level of athletic identity an athlete attributes to themselves impacts on their transition out of competitive sports (Lavallee, & Robinson, 2007). Identity can be linked to self-esteem levels. The greater degree of self-esteem athletes derive from sport the larger the loss an athlete will feel once retired (Warriner, & Lavallee, 2008). Athletes who feel a drop in self-esteem are said to struggle to find an activity which provides them with similar positive emotions that they experienced in sporting competition (Wylleman, & Lavalle, 2004). Although there are many dimensions to individual identity in sporting setting one’s identity can narrow leading to an athletic focused identity. High levels of narrowed identity have been linked to an increase in the degree of emotional adjustment required during career transitions (Lally, 2007). Lavallee and Robinson (2007) highlighted that there was overwhelming identity loss amongst elite gymnasts. These athletes experienced feelings of “loss as they knew little about who they where and what they wanted to do with their lives” (Lavallee, & Robinson, 2007, p131). Webb et al. (1998, p356) concludes that “relative to other reasons for retiring from sports, injury-related retirements are more problematic for individuals with strong athletic identities.”

To conclude retirement is not a singular abrupt event but one which requires a transitional period of adjustment. The event is a traumatic experience for some athletes with many requiring the help of sports psychologists. Although there are many models to explain the retirement process, these may still require further empirical testing and validation. Injury is an unforeseen factor which causes retirement from sport and is therefore a factor which is hard to prepare for. As a result theorists state that injury as one of the most difficult factors to adjust from in the retirement phase. However athletes should always look at the resources they may posses in the retirement phase as these may provide some rest-bite to the negative psychological impact of retirement

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