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Handbook of Disability Sport and Exercise Psychology$

Jeffrey J. Martin

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190638054

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190638054.001.0001

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Leaving Sport

Leaving Sport

(p.79) 8 Leaving Sport
Handbook of Disability Sport and Exercise Psychology

Jeffrey J. Martin

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter addresses the unique difficulties that disabled athletes face upon leaving sport. For instance, because athletes with disabilities tend to have less social connectedness than that of able-bodied athletes, further reducing it upon leaving a team may be problematic. Retiring athletes also experience numerous barriers to fitting in lifestyle physical activity and formal exercise. Hence they are at risk for overweight, obesity, and associated hypokinetic diseases. Athletes with disabilities are often intensely committed to sport, have strong and sometimes exclusive athletic identities, and disregard other important aspects of life. As a result, upon leaving sport they might experience a range of negative emotions, such as loss of self-esteem. At the same time, many athletes make the transition out of sport with relatively minor anguish. In some cases athletes look forward to leaving daily hard practices behind and embrace the opportunity to have more time to pursue other interests. For some athletes the difficulty of a transition is eased by remaining in sport as a coach or manager. Government programs are being developed for elite-level athletes , such as career assistance programs, to help athletes’ successful transition out of sport and into careers.

Keywords:   sport retirement, transition, athletic identity, social connectedness, team, coaching

Nobody phoned, nobody asked me whether I would like to swim a little bit . . . so I didn’t swim, maybe gained some weight, nobody fought for me, including coaches and friends, I felt so small.

Y. HUTZLER AND U. BERGMAN (2011, p. 8)

Most of my friends I met through sport, so they have been attached to this sport and shared experiences and things like that. It’s such a larger part of my life. My friends are involved in sport. It’s more of a problem since I retired because you lose contact with them. Whereas I had been in contact with people for, like, 24 years doing sport, once I retired I began to lose contact with them.

C. HUANG AND I. BRITTAIN (2006, p. 369)


Athletic careers invariably come to an end and athletes must transition out of sport. According to transition theory, a transition may challenge athletes to reconfigure their personal identities and require new adaptive behaviors (Schlossberg, 1981). Athletes have to redefine who they are and manage a reduced athletic identity in which sport constitutes a much smaller part of their lives. For instance, upon retirement, athletes typically cease their intense daily training and do not plan their schedules around athletic competitions and obtaining adequate rest and optimal nutrition. The purpose of this chapter is to explore why and how athletes with disabilities leave sport and the challenges they face. I also discuss evidence indicating how athletes effectively cope with leaving sport and briefly review institutional services developed by national organizations to help athletes with their transition. Finally, I discuss future research directions.

Leaving Sport Research

Sport, especially elite sport, requires high levels of commitment. A high level of commitment and a strong and exclusive athletic identity may leave athletes poorly equipped to cope with life after sport is over. This dynamic has been described in able-bodied sport as follows:


What we see happening with the gifted athlete is not a caring for the whole person but all too often caring for the athletic person. We allow the individual to define the self in terms of athletic talent and to lose touch with the truer self. We allow the athlete to narrow his or her personal development and self-concept and become identified only in terms of athletic achievement. (Thomas & Ermler, 1988, p. 138)

Much of the research on leaving sport is based on able-bodied athletes’ experiences, so I briefly review that body of research in order to provide a broader context for the disability-specific research presented afterward. Researchers in able-bodied sport, in some cases, have supported Thomas and Ermler’s (1988) observations, but descriptions of the transition are wide-ranging. Transition to retirement has been described as a traumatic event (Blinde & Stratta, 1992; Ogilivie & Howe, 1982), an identity crisis (Hill & Lowe, 1974), a role loss (Hill & Lowe, 1974), and social (Lerch, 1982) or career death (Blinde & Stratta, 1992). Others have described athletes leaving sport as passing through stages similar to those in the death and grieving process (Blinda & Stratta, 1992; Kübler-Ross, 1969). In general, it has been suggested that upon leaving sport, athletes often lack personal resources to cope with the transition (McGown & Rail 1996). Factors contributing to emotional problems after leaving sport include a strong commitment to sport, an exclusive athletic identity (Baillie, 1993; Hill & Lowe, 1974; Ogilvie & Howe, 1982; Thomas & Ermler, 1988), and loss of autonomy and control of personal development during the athletic career (McGown & Rail, 1996; Thomas & Ermler, 1988).

Conversely, other writers have suggested that in spite of emotional difficulties, most athletes make the transition out of sport successfully (Sinclair & Orlick, 1993) and perceive the transition to the post–sport world as a chance to explore new opportunities (Coakley, 1983). Some athletes express relief at no longer having to manage the stress of competition and training (Blinde & Greendorfer, 1985; Greendorfer, & Blinde, 1985). However, many researchers have found that leaving sport for some athletes can be emotionally trying.

Researchers (Martin, 1996, 1999, 2000) have suggested that leaving sport may present unique challenges to athletes with disabilities. Some researchers have found that disability sport athletes might have unsolved emotional issues stemming from not having processed through their exit from sport and what sport meant in their lives. Conversations with such athletes have been characterized by significant expressions of emotional distress (e.g., extreme sadness). Athletes may also acquire a secondary disability (e.g., overuse injuries) as a result of overtraining (e.g., Burnham, May, Nelson, Steadward, & Reid, 1993). Secondary disabilities have implications for coping with the post–sport world and functional aspects associated with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as mobility (Wheeler, Malone, VanVlack, Nelson, & Steadward, 1996; Wheeler et al., 1999). Other authors have suggested that athletes with disabilities may find it particularly challenging to cope with their disability for the first time when they leave sport.

Such challenges may be the result of a rapid transition to sport, particularly elite sport, shortly after an acquired disability, combined with a brief athletic career (Asken, 1989; Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). Asken (1989), for example, has suggested that in some circumstances sport can act as a way for disabled athletes to avoid dealing with (p.81) disability and upon sport retirement they may have to cope more overtly with their disability. Hence, it is important for family members, coaches, teammates, sport psychologists, and administrators to understand the experiences of the athlete with a disability, the importance of sport in their lives, and the challenges they face in leaving sport. The world of elite disability sports is growing in sophistication and complexity (e.g., Paralympics), and performance demands of athletes are increasing. It is not clear how this might exacerbate any difficulties athletes face in transitioning out of sport. However, helping athletes leave sport is just as important as helping athletes attain excellence while in sport (Baillie, 1993).

Researchers in disability sport have assembled a small body of literature on leaving sport (Makoff, Van den Auweele, & Van Landewijck, 1999; Martin, 1996; Schaeffer & Bergman, 1995; Wheeler, 2003; Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). Previous researchers in able-bodied sports suggest that an intense commitment to sport and a strong and exclusive athletic identity may lead to the exclusion of other life interests, leaving athletes unprepared to cope with retirement (Thomas & Ermler, 1988; Werthner & Orlick, 1986). Research with athletes with disabilities has shown that many athletes view sport as the most important activity in their lives (Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999), a way to demonstrate personal mastery (Makoff et al., 1999), and an essential part of their personal identity (Wheeler et al., 1996). An athlete in the Wheeler et al. (1996) investigation reported the following:

When we are on the track, I think we don’t look at ourselves as disabled. When we’re in our racing chair it is like putting on a uniform; it’s like you are out of it now; you are out of the disability. It gives you that. It’s like putting a Superman vest on. (Wheeler et al., 1996, p. 388)

The flipside to this commitment is that athletes often neglect other aspects of their lives, such as important relationships and career development, and engage in self-injurious training practices (Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). As an athlete in the Wheeler et al. (1996) investigation noted:

I didn’t have a balance in my life. That’s where all the injuries were, that’s where all the emotional and mental turmoil was as well. Because I never allowed myself to do other things, because I had my whole identity wrapped up in athletics. (Wheeler et al., 1996, p. 388)

Transition theorists indicate that neglecting important social relationships (e.g., spouse, friend) predicts difficulties with transitioning out of sport (Martin, 1996; Schlossberg, 1981). Wheeler and colleagues found that athletes with disabilities perceived a lack of support from their peer group and from administrators in their sport organizations after they retired (Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). Athletes with disabilities who fully commit themselves to their sport to the exclusion of important relationships, career interests, and hobbies may be at risk for overtraining-based chronic injuries. Subsequently, they may develop an exclusive and strong athletic identity.

(p.82) Researchers in disability sport have identified emotional experiences upon leaving sport such as feelings of shock, grief, hollowness/emptiness, anger, sadness, depression, and mourning (Makoff et al., 1999; Schaeffer & Bergman, 1995; Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). Symptoms of depression meeting the criteria for a major depressive episode have also been reported, although this has been inferred retrospectively (Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). However, athletes may also report symptoms consistent with unresolved grieving and clinical depression long after they have retired. An athlete in the Wheeler et al. (1999) study noted:

. . . it’s like somebody in your family died. It’s like a death in your family and that thing that was this person or whatever that was so important to you just disappeared. I think you go through all the grieving things you do when somebody dies. (p. 228)

Perhaps the most remarkable and unsettling example of the emotional impact of leaving sport is stated next:

I honestly believe it is very closely related . . . as if you were to lose a baby. Just like a miscarriage. It is just the sorrow inside and it is something that you have looked forward to and planned for and boom it is taken away. . . . All of a sudden you get back and that focus is gone and guess what. . . so are you basically. If you are not involved in sports anymore you are really nobody—that is exactly how you are treated when you get back. (Wheeler et al., 1996, p. 389)

In a review of transition-related research, Martin (1999) conceptualized the transition experiences of athletes with disabilities in a loss framework. He suggested that athletes with disabilities experience a range of losses, including psychological, social, and physiological losses. Psychological losses are associated with a strong athletic identity and self-esteem, resulting in the potential for negative (e.g., anger) emotional experiences upon leaving sport. Social losses include loss of teammates and the inability to remain engaged in disability sport (e.g., acting as a coach). Physiological losses refer to the loss of the health and fitness benefits associated with athletic training.

Consistent with research on able-bodied athletes’ transition (e.g., Blinde & Greendorfer, 1985), research on disability sport transition has shown that athletes may also be either ambivalent about or happy to be leaving sport. Athletes often look forward to leaving the stresses and strains of the competitive sport environment behind. Also, the opportunity to have time for other important aspects of life are often embraced (Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999). For example, one athlete noted:

It was just knowing, that there were other things out there for me to explore. I was “into” (getting) a career and I wanted to pursue things differently in my career. . . . I just wanted to explore ordinary life. I wanted to finish school and establish a career. I was ready to move on. (Wheeler et al., 1996, p. 391)

(p.83) The majority of athletes interviewed in the Wheeler et al. (1996, 1999) studies coped well with their daily lives and recalled many poignant and pleasant memories as they left sport. However, others were angry at administrators in sports organizations who they perceived as simply allowing them to drift away from sports.

A number of factors are likely important in an athlete’s ability to cope with the transition from sport. For instance, maintaining a balanced approach to sport and maintaining other life interests is important. Athletes need to avoid overtraining and to effectively manage sport injuries (e.g., resting an injured shoulder). Athletes’ coping styles (emotional or problem solving), their support structures (family, sports organizations), and the ability and desire to remain involved in sports in other roles (e.g., coaching, sport psychologists) can all be helpful (Martin, 1996; Wheeler, 2003).

Given that some athletes may experience difficulties, it seems reasonable that elite athletes with disabilities (e.g., Paralympians) should have access to retirement programs similar to those provided for elite able-bodied athletes during their careers and transition. Such programs would include counseling services (e.g., preparation for exit from sports) and ongoing communication with athletes (Wheeler, 2003). Failure to provide athletes with various levels of support during their careers and during their transitions and, in particular, helping athletes maintain a balanced life may have negative consequences.

Fortunately, at the highest level of competition such programs exist. For instance, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) initiated a career transition program for its athletes in 2007. By 2009 athletes had access to the Adecco Athlete Career Program which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had implemented for able-bodied athletes (see http://athlete.adecco.com/ and https://www.paralympic.org/athletes/career-programme/how). Although able-bodied career assistance programs are now quite common (Stambulova & Ryba, 2013), limited, but promising, research on their effectiveness has been conducted. For example, Bobridge and colleagues reported a multitude of benefits to a 14-week-long career assistance program ranging from increased confidence and increased awareness to planning for the future (e.g., Bobridge, Gordon, Walker, & Thompson, 2003).

Finally, thoughts about retirement may also have performance implications. Martin and Ridler (2014) sought to determine if retirement status (i.e., contemplating retirement, will retire for sure or definitely not retiring) was related to the performance of Paralympic swimmers at the World Championships. Forty-five percent of the athletes not considering retirement performed very well, coming within 1 second of their goal. This result contrasted with that for athletes who were considering retiring: only 17% of them were within 1 second of their time goal. Although the sample was quite small (N = 17), the results point toward a potentially interesting double-edged sword. Athletes may have disinvested in their athletic identity as they contemplated retirement in order to psychologically prepare for leaving sport. At the same time, however, that same disinvestment in athletic identity may have played a role in their poorer performance (Martin & Ridler, 2014). Worries about life after retirement may also have hurt athlete’s performance preparation. These speculative explanations suggest that more research is clearly needed in this area.

(p.84) Summary and Future Research Directions

It has been suggested that in order to successfully leave sport, athletes need effective coping strategies and strong social support and should engage in retirement planning (Martin, 2011; Martin & Wheeler, 2011). An example of a coping strategy is maintaining a regular exercise schedule or joining a team as a coach. Social support may entail talking with someone who is supportive and staying in touch with athlete friends. Maintaining or reconnecting to non-sport social support mechanisms (which may have been minimized during the sport career) is important. An example of a retirement planning strategy would be career consulting prior to leaving sport. This strategy is particularly important for elite Paralympians who are professional athletes. Leaders of pre-retirement interventions should concentrate on ensuring that athletes maintain a diverse social network and engage in activities outside of sport. Recent research efforts have suggested that the personality factor of conscientiousness is related to retirement planning via effective goal-setting practices (Demulier, Le Scanff, & Stephan, 2013). Coaches can also help by speaking with their athletes early in their careers about post-career life.

Coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and sport psychologists should also be aware of and monitor athlete training workloads closely, and minor injuries should be addressed quickly with appropriate rest in order to avoid chronic overuse injuries. Another important strategy, and one which athletes and other researchers have alluded to, is the provision of opportunities to remain engaged in sport. For example, mentoring or sport ambassador roles have been suggested as a means of keeping athletes involved.

Peer athlete mentors report being optimistic in response to hypothetical scenarios about being helpful to peer mentees in managing their disability and sport. While indirect, this evidence suggests that retired peer athlete mentors may also help newly retired athletes leave sport (Perrier, Smith, & Latimer-Cheung, 2015). However, peer athlete mentors have also reported struggling with potential mentees who appeared to need mentors with greater counseling skills. This particular finding suggests that adequate training is critical for any peer mentor who is thrust into a helping type of relationship.

It is important to note that while many athletes will experience some degree of loss upon leaving sports, not all athletes will have significant emotional struggles. Additionally, not all athletes will wish to be involved in a career transition program. However, it is clear that some athletes will experience intense feelings of loss and depression and require support in making the transition from sport. Coaches and sports organizations should consider developing and supporting such programs so that athletes who are experiencing anxiety before or during their transition can be helped.

Very little research has been done in disability sport regarding transition from sport and those few studies that have been done are qualitative in nature. We still do not have rich descriptive data on why athletes voluntarily retire or are forced out. For instance, professional female tennis players noted a plethora of diverse reasons for retiring, ranging from big-picture non-performance reasons (e.g., wanting to settle down, start a family) to developmental (e.g., couldn’t relate to younger athletes on the tour) reasons (Allison & Meyer, 1988). Other reasons included lifestyle (e.g., tired of traveling, being alone), everyday hassles (p.85) (e.g., wanted less laundry), and performance-related reasons (e.g., mental fatigue, not enjoying competition, unable to win close matches). Similar disability work targeting these types of sport (e.g., cumulative travel challenges, limited high-level competitions) and non-sport challenges (e.g., economic struggles) would likely prove illuminating. Other potential disability-related factors, ranging from feelings of marginalization to disability-specific considerations (e.g., chronic pain), are also potential reasons that are not as likely to be factors in able-bodied sport.

Theory-based quantitative work of a longitudinal nature (e.g., Martin, Fogarty, & Albion, 2014) would make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base. Examining psychological (e.g., coping skills), social (e.g., social support), institutional (e.g., opportunities to stay connected to disability sport as a coach), physiological (e.g., secondary health conditions), technological (e.g., the use of Skype to facilitate social support), and environmental (e.g., access to exercise facilities) predictors of the transitions to life after sport would help illuminate the most critical factors in the retirement process. The national sport climate also plays a role in retirement experiences, and such influences may clearly operate across countries with strong disability sport programs (Stambulova, Stephan, & Jäphag, 2007). Researchers interested in this area may also consider examining and adapting the Athletes’ Retirement Decision Inventory (ARDI; Fernandez, Stephan, & Fouquereau, 2006).

Research from able-bodied sport suggests that gender plays a role in retirement, and disability sport researchers should be cognizant of how gender can influence the transition out of sport (Ronkainen, Watkins, & Ryba, 2016). Gender also intersects with ethnicity and culture such that the unique challenges involved in starting sport may also manifest themselves in leaving sport (Limoochi & Le Clair, 2011). For example, Muslim female athletes find it exceedingly difficult to participate in certain sports (e.g., swimming) because of a clash between following the dictates of their religion (e.g., wearing modest clothes or not exposing bare flesh) and strict sporting rules that dictate acceptable and unacceptable uniforms. Faced with such difficulties, it would seem that some athletes may simply retire from their sport (or never participate in sport) in order to faithfully follow the dictates of their faith. The potential rationale for leaving sport indicates that it is important to consider reasons beyond the typically cited reasons for leaving sport, such as deselection, failing to make the team, chronic injuries, or moving on to other important life goals (e.g., starting a family). Leaving for religious reasons is commensurate with Crocket’s (2014) notion of “ethical self-creation,” the basis for why four young athletes in Crocket’s study left sport. It refers to their belief that certain elements (e.g., excessive aggression, violence) were antithetical to their sense of self (Crocket, 2014). Beth describes the following experience that caused her to leave sport:

I angered a man on the opposite team so much, because I was beating him or whatever it was, that he actually head butted me, gave me a concussion. . . . I was done and I’d never ever, again, play co-ed soccer, competitive soccer with men, but it was more than that. That was just one sign of the bigger change, I realized I was over all of that; I had no desire to be having this battle with this man, this faceless man on the soccer field anymore. (p. 195)

(p.86) Crocket’s (2014) investigation into why four young and fit athletes with strong athletic identities left sport illustrates the complexities of leaving sport, and how important ethical considerations may play a significant role in why athletes leave sport.

Much of this chapter is predicated on the notion that most athletes do not want to leave sport. However, the following quote indicates there are situations where athletes may remain in sport despite wanting to retire.

Yeah. I don’t think I would have retired unless I had a job. ‘Cause we had a baby so I wouldn’t have been able to—I would have carried on doing sport until I had a job or income so that I could retire. . . . When I was competing I was quite well paid. . . . If you’re in that position it is quite difficult to retire. (retired Paralympian: Project PRISM, 2016)

This quote points to one final novel research agenda that focuses on examining the psychosocial ramifications of athletes who desire to retire but feel pressured to continue.


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