The term transition has been employed in various academic fields to explain a process of changes in a certain phenomenon, such as economic, political, biological, and psychological changes. The concept of transition in psychology is closely related to individuals’ period of change and lifespan development based on one’s aging (e.g., retirement), development (e.g., entering to higher education), and significant life events (e.g., getting married, giving birth). Therefore, individuals experience a series of transitions throughout their lives, and research on transitions has been discussed in various terms, such as crisis, adaptation, and stress management. Within the general psychology literature, the term transition seems to explain individuals’ process of change because it covers broader events, not just crisis but also less observable life changes, and explains individuals’ experiences as processes, not just a consequence of the change but also a process of adjustment.
According to Nancy Schlossberg, transitions occur as a result of event (anticipated and predictable event like high school graduation, job entry) or non-event (unanticipated and nonscheduled event like job loss, divorce), which accompany changes in one’s world, including oneself and one’s behavior and relationships. The transitions do not necessarily occur in a given sequential order, and individuals’ responses to their transitions can vary in terms of adapting to and dealing with their changes. In addition, these changes can be the source of individuals’ distress and traumatic experiences or unique opportunity for personal growth and development. Thus, the outcomes of individuals’ transitions can be both positive and negative, and their cognitive appraisal is closely related to outcomes of the transition. For example, sport career termination can be considered as a life crisis and cause feelings of loss and isolation for one athlete but not for another; the same event can become an opportunity to challenge new areas or developing new interests and social networks.
As early research on career transitions in sport focused on examining athletes’ retirement process, transition has been introduced in sport psychology area to explain and understand athletes’ sport career termination process. Although a need to approach athletes’ sport career termination as a transition had been suggested in 1980, the term transition has not been widely used in the sport psychology area until early 1990s, because until then athletes’ retirement tended to be considered as either a social death or a singular event. However, based on the early findings, which indicated changes in athletes’ identity, lifestyle, and social networks, athletes’ sport career termination has been considered as a social rebirth or a process, and researchers have focused more on athletes’ overall transition throughout their sport careers via developmental perspectives. Therefore, in order to understand athletes’ career transition as a process, researchers have employed transition models in the sport psychology area.
Model of Human Adaptation to Transition
The model of human adaptation to transition is one of the models most employed to investigate the athlete career transition process. The model explains all kinds of transitions that human beings experience over the course of their lives. The model consists of three major factors that influence transition outcomes, including individuals’ perceptions of the particular transition, characteristics of pretransition and posttransition environments, and characteristics of the individual.
Perceptions of the Transition
Perceptions of the particular transition indicate individuals’ perceptions of the characteristics of transition. Transitions can happen via internal (self-chosen) or external (being cut) forces, on time (predictable, planned) or off time (unexpected, abrupt), and gradual or sudden. The changes can also be permanent or temporary, and can be either positive or negative. All aforementioned characteristics of transition can be predictors of individuals’ degree of stress and the level of difficulty in adjustment process. For example, individuals who confront gradual, self-chosen, and planned transitions, generally experience less difficulties and smooth adjustment to their posttransition lives than people who experience sudden, forced, and unexpected transitions.
Characteristics of Pretransition and Posttransition Environments
Characteristics of pretransition and posttransition environments contain all kinds of external support that individuals can receive during the transition. These include interpersonal support systems, such as intimate relationships, family unit, and network of friends; institutional supports like occupational organizations, religious institutions, and community support groups; and support from their physical setting, for instance, climate and weather, urban or rural location, and neighborhood. Individuals’ degree of support from close others, institutes, and physical setting is closely related to the quality of individuals’ adaptation to transition. For example, when individuals confront difficult life situations, such as loss of family members or divorce, close others’ and institutional support play important roles in coping with critical life events because those external support help individuals reduce their stress levels and enhance their degree of confidence.
Characteristics of the Individual
The characteristics of the individual reflect individual differences, including demographics and developmental differences, such as one’s sex, age, previous experiences, and psychosocial competence. The relationship between sex and the quality of transition is complex, but perhaps individuals’ sex-role identification might be related to one’s quality of adaptation to their transitions. For example, since women and men generally have different social roles and attitudes, and experience different kinds of transitions through their lives, they may perceive or react differently while facing similar transitions. In the transition literature, life stage seems to be preferred over the term age because psychological (e.g., capacity to respond to societal pressure), social (e.g., social roles), and functional (e.g., ability to perform or function in society) ages tend to be more meaningful to explain the adaptation process than chronological age. Individuals’ previous experiences influence their posttransition adaptation. Specifically, having experienced transitions in the past and successfully coped with the associated changes, it becomes easier to adapt to a subsequent transition. The reverse is also true. Finally, psychosocial competence, including one’s abilities in self-evaluation, optimism, and overall coping skills, has been considered as one of the influential determinants for ones’ success or failure in adaptations to transitions. If individuals can maintain their self-esteem through positive self-evaluation, can focus on hope and goals via optimistic views, and can employ active coping strategies, they tend to experience healthier transitions.
Athletes’ Career Transitions
The model of human adaptation to transition has been supported by research findings on career transitions in sport and seems to help understand athletes’ transition as a process. However, limitations in using the general psychological models for accounting for athletes’ career transition are evident because of absence of specific models that relate to sport career transitions. Hence, since the middle of the 1990s, new models, which aimed at explaining athletes’ sport career termination, were introduced. These models, mainly those developed by Dana Sinclair and Terry Orlick, and by Sandy Gordon, centered on overall athletic careers through focusing on life span developmental perspectives.
In the modified transition model for athletes, transition characteristics include voluntariness of retirement, retirement trigger, timing of retirement, durations of retirement, role changes involved, and degree of stress. For examples, if athletes terminate their sport careers because of injury or deselection from the team, the transition can be unanticipated and sudden for them; therefore, they may experience more difficulties during the transition process than athletes who retire by free choice.
Environmental characteristics contain available social support inside and outside sport, degree of preparedness, and options. Similar to findings from the general psychology, athletes’ social support networks had positive relationship with the quality of career transition. In addition, when athletes felt more preparedness both psychologically and vocationally during the transition process, and had options in post-sport careers or other interests outside sport, then they tended to have less transition difficulties then those who had less support from others, a low degree of preparedness, and less options.
Individual characteristics indicate demographics, degree of athletic identity, and degree of life skills development. Demographic factors have been examined in the study area, but findings have not provided a clear association between demographics and the quality of career transition, apart from competitive level and marital, financial, and educational status. Athletes who competed at the Olympic or international level seemed to experience fewer transition difficulties than did those who competed at a lower level (national), and marital status tended to relate to a degree of social support (married athletes had stronger support systems). As financial difficulties were one of the concerns for retiring athletes, financial status was positively related to the quality of career transition, and educational status was related to the athletes’ personal development and vocational options.
Athletic identity is one of the most examined factors in athletes’ career termination study area. A strong athletic identity can be a source for transition difficulties and identity crisis during the adjustment process. Athletes’ identity development is also influenced by their athletic experiences. Many elite athletes tend to spend a large amount of time for training, competing, and considering their sport performance excellence, and do not have other interests or roles outside their sport while actively competing. Therefore, they often fail to develop multiple and balanced identities across inside and outside their sports but have strong athletic identity.
Similarly, athletes’ degree of life skills development is influenced by their athletic careers and this affects the quality of their career transition. A large number of elite athletes tend to delay their life skills development, including social skills, coping skills, and vocational skills, during their athletic time, in terms of devoting their time, energy, and effort to sport performance enhancement than developing any other areas of their life skills. As a result, when they confront sport career termination, they seem to have difficulties in finding post-sport careers and other interest outside sport and adapting to new lifestyle and social networks. Through the development of the athlete career transition research, the focal orientations have broaden from athletes’ sport career termination to their overall life span development, including entry into elite sport, within sport career transitions, and effectiveness of applying life development intervention (see the following section).
Natalia Stambulova’s psychological models of the sport career consists of two different models: the synthetic description and the analytic description models. The aim is to explain psychological components related to the athletes’ development and athletic performance through five concepts: time, space, information, energy, and substratum for predictable developmental stages.
The synthetic description model consists of four objective characteristics: length of sport career and age borders, generalization–specialization, level of achievement, and cost of achievement; and two subjective characteristics: athletes’ satisfaction and level of success. Each of these characteristics is individually important; all of them have the potential to interact with each other. These interactions can have a positive or negative impact on athlete’s development. For example, an athlete who has a lengthy career and achieves all personal goals is more likely to experience a positive transition, whereas an athlete who specializes at sport at an early age but is not satisfied with personal success can experience transition difficulties.
The analytic description model contains four different factors: period of sport training, period of any career, level of sport, and age category in sport. Period of sport training presents athletes’ changing athletic involvement, while period of any career pertains to athletes’ sport career with the four activities of preparation, start, culmination, and finish. Level of sport refers to individuals’ competition levels, and age category refers to individuals’ chronological development (children, juniors, and adults). The model indicates that athletes may face crisis during seven periods in their sport careers: (1) the beginning of sports specialization, (2) the transition to special intensive training in the chosen sport, (3) the transition from mass popular sports to high-achievement sports, (4) the transition from junior to adult sports, (5) the transition from amateur sports to professional sports, (6) the transition from the culmination to the end of the sport career, and (7) the ending of the sport career.
Paul Wylleman and David Lavallee introduced the developmental model based on previous studies in both within-sport career transitions and retirement from sport. The developmental model has a developmental and holistic perspective on athletes’ normative (predictable, anticipated) transitions during their athletic careers from the initiation to the discontinuation stages. The model consists of four levels that are related to athletes’ life span development: athletic, psychological, psychosocial, and academic and vocational levels.
Athletic level refers to factors related to athletes’ transitions based on changes in their competitive levels, and the changes are determined by organizational characteristics. The athletic level includes four different stages: initiation, development, mastery, and the discontinuation. The initiation stage refers to the period when young athletes enter their sport, the developmental stage refers to the time when athletes dedicate time and effort to their sport to develop their sporting skills, the mastery stage is the period when athletes reach their highest performance, and the discontinuation stage refers to transition out of competitive sport.
The psychological level in the model contains major developmental stages, including childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, which relate to a specific pattern of engaging in competitive sport. In childhood, young athletes exhibit readiness for structured sport competition, including motivational viewpoints like degree of interest in and attention on participating in the sport, and cognitive viewpoints, such as capacity for understanding rules, responsibilities, relationships, and causes of performance outcomes. Adolescence and adulthood are the periods when athletes are facing various life skills development, such as social skills and self-identity. In this period of time, athletes build new or mature relationships with peers and become emotionally independent from parents. Athletes’ self-identity development in the adolescent stage is crucial, and their identities can be both positively and negatively influenced depending on the degree of their commitment to their sport and other life skills development.
The psychosocial level presents athletes’ development of social networks, including interaction with their surroundings, and changes in the roles of significant others through the athletic career. The model postulates that parents, siblings, peers, and coaches are the most influential others for young athletes, and in the latter stages of an athletic career, partners, families, and coaches play important roles in athletes’ social networks.
The academic and vocational level describes athletes’ educational and occupational development during participation in competitive sport and contains primary education, secondary education, higher education, vocational training, and professional occupation. The academic transition possibly accompanies changes in their sport teams and social networks so that athletes must cope with these changes. Later, when those athletes confront transition out of a sport career, they must step into the vocational level and acquire vocational training or learn a professional occupation.
Life Development Intervention
Since athletes’ career transitions are closely related to their life span development, the life development intervention (LDI) has also been discussed as useful model to understand and assist athletes’ career transitions. The LDI refers to a framework for the practice of sport psychology based on individuals’ life span development.
The major perspective of the LDI is psychoeducational development that emphasizes continuity in growth and changes in one’s life and sees individual development as a life span process. In addition, from the LDI perspective, an individual’s life changes are inevitable, and the changes can disrupt one’s daily routine or relationships, can be sources of stress, and can be used as opportunities to grow. Each major change that individuals confront in life is called a critical life event. The event can occur to individuals either with preparation and expectation, which is called an on-time event, or in an unplanned and unpredictable way, which is termed an off-time event. If some event happens on time, individuals can get more support during the transition period, whereas by contrast, off-time events are usually accompanied by coping difficulties.
Athletes, during their athletic careers, may confront various critical life events, including within sport career transitions, annual selection processes, injuries, and retirement from their sport. For some athletes, especially those who put a huge amount of effort and time into athletic success, deselection from the team or career-ending injury tends to be a critical life event because leaving the sport or team is accompanied by negative experiences, such as feelings of loss, identity crisis, loss of attention, loss of everyday training, and changes in social networks. The LDI model suggests several strategies that can be applied to assist athletes’ career transition process, including enhancement (e.g., helping anticipate life events, transfer skills from one domain to another), support (e.g., organizing support groups, personal mentors), and counseling (e.g., understanding one’s problems, planning future events) strategies.
Applying the term transition and the transition models in sport psychology area has contributed to broaden knowledge in athletes’ career transition research, both in terms of examining the process of changes in athletes’ experiences and identifying correlates of the quality of career transition. In addition, changes in the perspectives of athletic experiences in going from a singular event through the transition process have led researchers to address developmental issues in the transition with holistic approaches.
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