Sports science and training news
TOP LEVEL athletes can struggle to adjust to life after retirement, with their identities continuing to be defined by their former sports careers, new research shows. The paper, published in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, illustrates how elite sports people strive to adjust socially and psychologically following retirement.
Dr Francesca Cavallerio, a lecturer in sports and exercise sciences at of Anglia Ruskin University, worked alongside Dr Ross Wadey of St Mary’s University and Dr Chris Wagstaff of the University of Portsmouth for the study which identified three narratives typically experienced by athletes following retirement.
Some of the sports people interviewed were identified as being “entangled”, meaning “their identities were completely defined by their former athletic self and the values instilled in them when they competed”, the researchers said. These athletes struggled to adapt to life after sport and suffered from low confidence, low self-esteem, and a lack of drive towards new goals and experiences.
Another group were identified as “going forward”. “These former athletes were able to develop different identities to that of a gymnast at the same time as they were competing at a high level,” Cavallerio says. Once their careers were over, they were able to make the most of what they had learnt in sport to help their future development. Those in the third category, the “making sense” group fell somewhere in between.
Previous studies have shown that in the most extreme cases retirement can trigger depression, eating disorders and drug abuse. “Adapting to retirement is difficult for many people in society and this is particularly the case in elite sport,” says Wagstaff. “Such environments are characterised by very clear social and cultural expectations. In order to be successful, athletes typically conform to and associate success with these cultural norms.”
On a practical level, Cavallerio suggests parents and coaches should encourage young athletes to develop a non-sporting identity at the same time as a sporting identity, and have a range of interests and friendships outside of their sport. “Sport continues to embrace the early identification and development of talented athletes.
“In many sports, the age at which people begin training at a professional level is getting younger,” she says. “Our study shows how athletes are treated and influenced at a young age can have an effect on how they deal with retirement. The issues we observed should be of interest to clubs and governing bodies across a range of sports.”
Retirement: stress and depression are common in athletes who quit elite sport