Often lost in the excitement of the final races, championship qualifiers, and preparing for the culmination of another season is the realization that, for the hundreds of thousands of athletes graduating from high school or college and not continuing sport, this is it. While transitioning from sport for rowers means sleeping in, no more erg tests, and a life beyond spandex, many will struggle to adjust to a life that does not revolve around athletics and athletic performance. Sports have special cultures and forge strong bonds between teammates, and many will not find the close relationships that existed between teammates in work, school, or future life. Coaches and athletes must be prepared to handle this transition for the long-term success of our athletes and sport.

Sport unites us around a common goal and shared effort. Beyond the medals and trophies, this is one thing that makes sport so valuable in a person’s life. When retired athletes look back on their career and what they enjoyed, it’s usually much more about the lifelong relationships and personal accomplishments than the stat lines, number of games won, or trophies earned. These deep bonds between teammates who share the memories, work ethic, intrinsic motivation, and dedication are hard to match later in life.

This is also what makes sport so hard to leave, and why retirement from competitive, organized sport can be so difficult on so many people. Everyone who has ever picked up a pair of cleats, glove, ball, or an oar, has had or will have to retire someday. For some, transitioning from sport is a choice made voluntarily when the athlete feels they have reached a personally satisfactory level of accomplishment in their career, or chooses to pursue other goals. For others, that moment comes too soon. Involuntary transition can be caused by injury, aging or graduating out of competitive sport opportunities, relocating away from their team or sport, or not making the tryout cut for further competition. Regardless of the reasons, every single athlete at some point has to deal with the sense of loss that comes from leaving sport behind. There is a lot that we can do as coaches and athletes to improve the smoothness of transitioning from sport, and continue to have a beneficial effect on our athletes’ lives even after they’ve left our program.

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transitioning from sport

Research on Transitioning from Sport

Despite the ubiquity of the transitioning from sport experience, most of the academic research on transitioning from sport only emerged in the last 2-3 decades. Early research focused on the consequences of athletes’ transitions. Since, researchers have expanded into different types of transitions, ages of athletes, levels of competitive sport, and modes of research from quantitative surveys to qualitative interviews.

Research reviews are a helpful form of research to get a general overview of a topic and leads to original research articles. One research review by Park, Lavallee, and Tod (2012) analyzed 126 studies from 1968 to 2010, including over 13,000 male and female athletes, a range of competitive levels, and many different sports, to better understand what factors are positively correlated with what they term a “quality” transition. The researchers divided studies into one category for research on factors related to the athletes’ transition from sport, and another for research on available resources during the transition. I’ve summarized the researchers’ correlations from variables to quality transition in the table below.

Variable Impact on Transition
Athletic identity Athletes with high athletic identity experienced a loss of identity at transition, and needed more time to adjust to post-transition life.
Demographics (age, gender, level of sport, nationality, etc.) No consistent difference across demographics, except for a positive effect of financial, educational, social, and marital status on a quality transition.
Voluntariness of transition Athletes with more control over their transition (ie. more voluntary) experienced higher quality transitions.
Injuries/health problems Athletes who experienced injuries or health problems as a significant factor in their transition needed more time, and experienced more difficulty, adjusting to post-transition life.
Career/personal development Athletes who participated in educational and/or career planning before transition experienced better transitions.
Sport career achievement Athletes who succeeded in their sport experienced higher quality transitions than those who did not reach their expected sporting goals.
Self-perception Athletes with greater self-confidence, body image, feeling of control over one’s body, self-worth, and self-worth without sport performance, experience higher quality transitions.
Control of life Athletes with greater perceived autonomy while competing and during transition experience higher quality transitions. Some athletes identified unbalanced power in sport systems as a negative and uncontrollable factor in their transition.
Dropping out from sport Young athletes who quit sport before reaching their potential experienced more difficult transitions, including sense of failure, identity loss, negative emotions, and loss of social networks.
Time passed after transition Athletes experience fewer post-transition difficulties as time passes. 3-18 months post-transition was typically the window for athletes feeling greater life balance and lower stress levels.
Relationship with coach Athletes who experienced conflict with their coach and an unbalanced power dynamic had more difficult transitions.
Life changes Athletes uncomfortable with their post-sport lifestyle and new daily routines experienced more difficult transitions. Athletes noted difficulty accepting a new lifestyle as a non-athlete.
Life balance while competing Athletes with better sport/life balance while competing experienced better transitions.

The researchers also evaluated resources available to transitioning athletes. They found that actively searching for new careers and interests had a positive impact on transition quality. They did not find clear support for other specific coping skills (eg. avoidance/denial, acceptance, keeping busy, etc.). Resources with a positive effect on transition included: planning for post-transition life, psychosocial support, and involvement in a formal support program. The researchers noted a gap in the research of testing interventions and the effect on post-transition life. Research evaluating specific interventions in career advising, sport psychology, and positive coping skills would inform professionals working with athletes transitioning from sport.

Researchers Knights, Sherry, and Ruddock-Hudson (2015) performed another review of 10 studies with a focus on positive outcomes from athlete transitioning from sport, and understand what factors lead to a high quality transition. They looked for research on post-transition athletes who ranked high in life satisfaction, positive emotions, meaning and purpose, optimism, and engagement and interest. Their findings across 10 studies of over 1,000 elite male and female athletes from 45 different sports overall agree with the previous review by Park, Lavallee, and Tod (2012). Athletes who planned their transition in advance had higher cognitive, emotional, and behavioral readiness than athletes who experienced an unplanned transition. Athletes who achieved their sporting goals had a smoother adjustment, while athletes who transitioned involuntarily or without achieving their goals experienced greater negative emotions and consequences from transition. Individuals with high athletic identity planned less for their transition, and experienced greater adjustment and psychological difficulties.

In a 2020 original study of six former collegiate football players, researchers Payne & Driska interviewed participants about their transition experience and analyzed the responses for key themes. The full text is available at that link, and contains many insightful quotes and researcher analysis from the interviews. Participants who experienced more successful transitions:

  • Had more diverse social networks beyond athletics only
  • Used available support services and actively sought out social support
  • Explored potential careers outside of sport more and earlier before their transition out of sport
  • Had a broader sense of personal identity beyond being an athlete (eg. employment, academics, etc.)

This research suggests that coaches and program stakeholders who care about athlete futures beyond competitive sport should encourage or provide opportunities to socialize beyond athletics, take advantage of available support services, explore careers beyond sport, and consider personal depth beyond sports alone. This is challenging for coaches and athletes alike due to the highly consuming nature of competitive athletics in time, energy, and focus.

Researchers are doing some more creative original research as well. In “A champion out of the pool? A discursive exploration of two Australian Olympic swimmers’ transition from elite sport to retirement,” researchers Cosh, Crabb, and Tully (2015) analyzed media articles reporting on two Australian swimmers’ post-retirement experiences, to understand the mass media perspective on athlete transitioning, and discuss the implications of cultural understandings around transitioning from sport. Both swimmers were highly successful as youth swimmers, achieved at the elite level as adults, and then experienced difficult post-transition lives, including substance abuse, ended marriages, mental health disorders, and a suicide attempt. The researchers found that the media consistently described the former athletes as “champions” or “former champions,” attaching athletic context to their actions as non-athletes, despite the availability of other accurate descriptors (eg. father, addict, local charity organization ambassador, etc.). The researchers suggest that this furthers the high athletic identity for the two individuals, and also supports the narrative for the public that this is normal behavior for former high-achieving athletes.

The researchers also found that the stories around the pair’s post-transition experiences rarely investigated the causality or possible reasons for their actions. The stories often used language such as, “lonely battle,” “struggle to adjust,” and “inability to make the transition,” which hints at the issue of transitioning from sport, but frames it as an individual failing, rather than a social problem. The researchers found just three articles, of the 121 included in the study, that extensively addressed mental health of former athletes. These articles also referred to the individuals by name, not by their athletic accomplishments, and also mentioned other Australian former athletes who also struggled with transitioning from sport, which framed it more as a social problem and less as an individual failure, and included research and interviews from the sport psychology field in their reporting. However, these articles did not discuss broader causes for struggles with transitioning (ie. critiquing professional sport organization and culture), nor did they introduce the idea that transitioning from sport affects more than just elite, high-achieving former athletes.

In “Athletes’ experiences of social support during their transition out of elite sport: An interpretive phenomenological analysis,” researchers Brown, Webb, Robinson, and Cotgreave (2018) interviewed four male and four female elite athletes from eight different Olympic sports, and then analyzed the transcripts to learn about their social support experiences during transitioning from sport. Interviewees broadly described two stages of transition. In the first stage, they experienced feeling uncertain about the future, as well as loss and denial, and highlighted the need to feel cared for and understood, supported by the family, mentors, and peers around them, and the ability to seek and ask for support in their existing and new, post-transition social networks. In the second stage, interviewees described redefining their athletic identity, with many moving to a role supporting other athletes through charity, coaching, or employment. Some included a reappraisal of their athletic accomplishments, seeing their former talents, abilities, and achievements through a new perspective and finding ways to feel positive success in transferring their athletic abilities to new venues.

Transitioning from Sport Resources

The research on transitioning from sport provides some positive outlook for transitioning from sport, and also highlights some gaps. How can we anticipate the needs of transitioning athletes, provide resources before the athletes need them, and reduce barriers for athletes accessing these resources? As the gap between experience and research has gradually filled, researchers and professionals are working to fill the gap between research and practice.

Coach and administrator education is certainly a good place to start. If coaches and administrators are more aware of the causes and effects of difficult transitions, we can create systems that raise awareness for athletes, and provide help and advice for athletes transitioning from sport. Part of this awareness should include self-analysis of our own sport program, and the difficulties athletes may experience in transitioning that are caused by our own systems, rather than inherent features of sport. For example, if our sport program is so demanding that athletes cannot pursue other opportunities outside of sport or maintain a healthy sport-life balance, if our program has a very high injury rate, or if our coaching staff is constructed in a highly authoritarian way that removes athlete autonomy, these are systemic problems that research indicates negatively affect transition quality. We should seek to both help athletes on an individual level, and also work to reform our own sport programs to benefit holistic development as people and as athletes.

The NCAA has created a website called “After the Game” as a resource hub for graduating student-athletes. You’ll find personal accounts from other athletes who graduated out of competitive sport, as well as job postings, networking opportunities with former student-athletes, tips for navigating the workplace as a post-grad, and more resources. The NCAA also funded a pilot program called “Moving On!”. This is a great example of the academic evaluation of specific interventions recommended by Park, Lavallee, and Tod in the 2012 research review. The “Moving On!” researchers began in 2016 with one study group at an NCAA-D1 institution and another at a D2 institution, both consisting of final-year student-athletes. The participants participated in four weekly sessions on planning for their post-transition lives, from self-perception and athletic identity to healthy eating and recreational physical activity, and received a student-athlete workbook for resources. The researchers used a quantitative pre-and-post-assessment of participants’ knowledge of concepts and attitudes toward transitioning and post-transition healthy lifestyles, as well as qualitative open question interviews, to evaluate the success of the intervention. “Moving On!” is now a resource for others in the form of the website “AthletesMovingOn.org”. This is an excellent resource with tutorial videos, actionable guidelines, and more, helpful for the athlete and coach.

The IOC is also working to provide resources for athletes transitioning from sport, in the form of their website, “Athlete365.” While the NCAA resources are tailored for student-athletes, Athlete365 is tailored for athletes transitioning into the world of employment or entrepreneurship with more of an emphasis on business and financial planning. This is in line with another recommendation from Park, Lavallee, and Tod (2012) to provide transition resources that fit the stage of transition for the athlete. Younger athletes tend to transition to education, while older athletes tend to transition to employment, and it’s important to have a relationship with the individual and know their goals to provide the best resources.

transitioning from sport
Source: CrossingtheLineSport.com

One particularly excellent resource featured in Athlete365 is the emerging work of Gearoid Towey. Towey is a former Olympic rower and the founder of Crossing the Line, a charity organization dedicated to helping athletes transitioning from sport and providing resources to help professionals do the same. They offer extensive written materials, host workshops and webinars for athletes and sport professionals, a podcast, fact sheets, and more available for their avowed aim to “reduce the prevalence of mental health issues, including suicide rates, in the sporting community.”

The Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) has resources on their website. This blog by Stephanie Coakley is a good starting point for a discussion on transitioning with coaches and athletes, discussing the psychological and personal identity side of athletic transitioning and the importance of planning for transition. The AASP site also includes a consultant locator. My undergrad advisor was an AASP counselor and I have a lot of respect for what they do and really believe in their utility to athletes. If you or someone close to you experiences feelings of loneliness or lost sense of self, overwhelming fatigue or lethargy, sudden weight loss or weight gain, problems with concentration, or social withdrawal, please consider counseling through AASP or another service. We all know how difficult it can be to explain athletic passion to a non-athlete, so it’s very valuable to be able to receive counseling from someone who understands, is knowledgeable about, and often shares your motivations, and is also a trained counselor.

The Humbled Podcast was created in 2019 by two former rowers (Kristin Haraldsdottir and Erin Cafaro) to openly discuss individual stories of life after competitive athletics. Erin Cafaro is no longer involved, and Kristin Haraldsdottir and replacement host Claire Collins explicitly state that their goal is not to provide prescriptive advice or self-help resources, but to share stories of what it takes to be a high-performer and the experiences when that ends. Some people may not respond to formal, more academic resources, and more informal, story-style, discussion resources may succeed where written resources fail.

“Coach and communication specialist” Betsy Butterick sprang into action in March 2020 during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to provide resources for coaches and athletes struggling with an extremely rapid transition out of sport. Watch one here from March and another one here from April. This was an extreme transition for nearly all athletes who suddenly had sports season, careers, social networks, and daily routines altered or ended with no preparation. This happened with very limited ability for athletes to control outcomes, as well as social separation due to pandemic countermeasures, for essentially a worst-case scenario transition. I am quite sure that this will be the subject of future sport psychology research, but in the meantime, please encourage those struggling with the abrupt transition to speak with a sport psychology counselor.

Action Plan for Coaches and Athletes

Coaches play a vital role in helping athletes transition comfortably out of competitive sport. This starts with an understanding of the problem. I think this can be challenging for coaches, because sport doesn’t really end for us in the same sense, but rather starts over again the next year with new athletes, new programs, and new goals. It may be easier for us to turn the page, close the book on one season, and start again on planning and preparing for another. Tuning into the different experience of athletes can help us see from their perspective and anticipate what resources they might need at which point in time. As first-year athletes, everything is new and we know they need resources to connect to the program and new teammates to stay with the program for the duration. If we care about our athletes’ lives beyond our program, then we need to provide resources to help final-year athletes transition out, just like we did for them to transition into our program as first-year athletes.

Retired athletes who did not have a good relationship with their coach expressed more difficulties during the career transition process [Park, Lavallee, and Tod (2012)]

Once we understand the problem, we can begin raising awareness with athletes. I like to start this conversation early in the athlete’s career, by the start of the senior year at the latest, but often much earlier. While we like to think that coaches and athletes are guaranteed multiple years of sport, the reality is that injury or other circumstances can cause a sudden and early transition at any time. It is important to savor the athletic experience while we have it, no matter how far we think we can predict into the future. This becomes more important as athletes approach their final races, graduation, and ultimate transition from sport, to make sure we all enjoy our remaining time together.

We then go beyond awareness and into action, and making solid plans for transition. As strength coach, I made a tradition of hosting a “senior lift” event for graduating athletes. This gave athletes something to look forward to after racing concluded, introduced one element of post-transition physical activity, and provided a natural opportunity for further discussion on transitioning from sport. I also followed this up with an email with resources on athlete transitioning, and a reminder of my contact information and an open door should they ever need to talk with someone. I learned to not assume that athletes will have my most recent email address or phone number, and that they will think to use it, and that they will feel that symptoms of transitioning are “worth” using it over, so I write this out as an explicit invitation. I also learned to not assume that athletes will know how to translate their strength training for sport into strength training for physical activity or pursuing goals other than improved rowing performance. Among my resources for transitioning athletes is my general advice on recreational strength training. This provides practical guidance for translating knowledge of strength training for rowing into strength training for other goals, as well as advice for exploring other recreational outlets.

Research indicates that writing a transition plan can improve transition quality. Begin with the things you currently enjoy about your athletic experience. How might you retain some of these after transitioning out of sport? Consider some goals for post-transition, physical and otherwise. Brainstorm on things you’d like to try, that you’ve perhaps not been able to pursue given your sport obligations. Or, perhaps you want to continue your sport experience. Rowing is fantastic, and unusual compared to many others sports, for its post-collegiate opportunities in masters rowing. If this is of interest, locate boathouses, identify programs, and plan for this next phase of your rowing career. Collaborate or write on your own a few ways to keep in touch with current teammates. If you are already aware of some symptoms of transitioning, write them out and think about ways to acknowledge and address them.

We will never be able to fully “solve” transitioning from sport, because the things that make sport such a valuable use of time are also the things that make it irreplaceable when it is gone. If we can understand the problem as coaches, raise awareness of it for our athletes, and provide some sort of an action plan for their transition out of competitive sport, then I think we will have gone a long way toward improving the lives of our athletes and mitigating some of the symptoms often caused by transitioning from sport.

Last updated August 2020.

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