PORTSMOUTH, England — Retired athletes may be especially likely to ask, “Who am I without the work that defines me?” A new study shows how retirement can be a double-edged sword for many, giving them freedom to use time in new ways, but simultaneously creating a void and even a loss of identity.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth sought to explain why retired athletes find the social and psychological adjustments to life after sport especially painful, along with what kind of support they need for a smooth transition.

Woman working out
A new study shows how some retired athletes struggle to find new identities after ending their careers, while others use their competitive drive to carry them into their next phase of life.

“Adapting to retirement is difficult for many people in society and this is particularly the case in elite sport,” says co-author Dr. Chris Wagstaff in a university release. “Such environments are characterized by very clear social and cultural expectations. In order to be successful, athletes typically conform to and associate success with these cultural norms.”

Researchers interviewed eight former female gymnasts in their early- to mid-twenties who had competed at the elite level. They found that their retirement followed one of three courses: Entangled, Going Forward or Making Sense.

Those in the “Entangled” group identified themselves entirely by their athletic self and their competitive values. They found adapting to life without sports to be difficult and fraught with low confidence, low self-esteem and a loss of drive toward any new goals or experiences.

Those in the “Going Forward” group took their competitive drive and found new identities and ways to express it. They were able to carry what they learned from sports into the next phase of life.

The “Making Sense” group fell between the two, not quite confident enough to take a step toward the future but not willing to stay stuck in the past. They seemed to need additional time and experiences to decide which group they would eventually join.

“Sports continue to embrace the early identification and development of talented athletes,” explains study leader Francesca Cavallerio, a Lecturer in sport and exercise eciences at Anglia Ruskin University. “In many sports, the age at which people begin training at a professional level is getting younger.”

Researchers say their study indicates the need to address the long-term social and psychological needs of athletes from the time they start training at a young age. Other studies have found that  the inability of some retired athletes to adjust to life after sports can lead to depression, eating disorders and even substance abuse.

“This study showed that, unfortunately, when athletes retire many struggle to identify with anything other than their sport, which for many, has been the principal focus of their life for many years,” Wagstaff explained. He points out the need for sports organizations to help their athletes develop other interests and strengths–to have lives apart from the athletic world.

“The issues we observed should be of interest to clubs and governing bodies across a range of sports,” Cavallerio said. “On a practical level they should be encouraging 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.”

The research was published in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health.

About Terra Marquette

Terra is a Denver-area freelance writer, editor and researcher. In her free time, she creates playlists for every mood.

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