Career transitions are turning phases in athletes’ career development. Therefore, they should be first defined in terms of their place in the career context. The broadest career term in psychology is a life career that encompasses an individual’s life-long development and achievements in various activities and spheres of life that unfold in a particular historical and sociocultural context. In sport psychology, an athletic career is defined as (1) part of and a contribution to an athlete’s life career, (2) a multiyear competitive sport involvement voluntarily chosen by an athlete and aimed at achieving a personal individual peak in athletic performance in one or several sport events, and (3) a sequence of career stages and transitions.
These definitions highlight the various views and facets of athletic careers. The first definition is based on a whole person approach that recognizes the athlete as a person doing sports and having broader life issues, such as education, work, family, friends, and other. The second definition emphasizes a free career choice, a long-term commitment, striving for upward career movement, and a possibility of having a specialized or a generalized career. In specialized careers, athletes compete in one sport during the entire career, whereas in generalized careers, they practice and compete in several sports, either simultaneously or successively. Athletic careers can also be of different levels, such as local, national, international, and professional, depending on the highest level in competitions achieved by the athlete. International amateur and professional careers are also called elite careers. In the third definition, an athletic career is viewed as a developmental process that includes proceeding through career stages and coping with career transitions as turning phases in development.
As noted by Dorothee Alfermann and Natalia Stambulova, models that describe athletes’ career development identify the following athletic career stages: initiation, development, mastery or perfection, maintenance, and discontinuation of competitive sport involvement. In these models, the stage-by-stage transitions are marked by changes in (a) athletes’ perception of and attitude toward sport and the degree to which they identify themselves with the athletic role; (b) time and energy investment into sports; (c) athletes’ social environment and the role of coaches, parents and family, and peers in career development; and (d) the degree to which they have to sacrifice in other spheres of life to accomplish their sport goals.
The aforementioned whole person approach contributes to a holistic lifespan perspective in understanding athletes’ career development as a multidimensional process combining stages and transitions in their athletic, psychological, psychosocial, and academic–vocational development.
Transition Process and Outcomes
The transition process, the factors involved, and the transition outcomes are considered in the various career transition explanatory models. For example, in Stambulova’s athletic career transition model, a transition is viewed as a process of coping with a set of transition demands, in which athletes use various coping strategies like planning, practicing more than their opponents, or seeking professional support. Effectiveness of coping is thought to be dependent on a dynamic balance between the coping resources and barriers. Resources consist of the various internal and external factors that facilitate the transition, such as previous athletic and personal experiences or social and professional support available), while barriers include the various internal and external factors that interfere with the coping process, such as low self efficacy, poor coaching, low quality equipment, or insufficient financial support. The model entails two primary transition outcomes: successful transition and crisis transition. Successful transition is a result of effective coping when the transition demands and the athletes’ coping resources and strategies are evenly matched. Crisis transition is a result of ineffective coping when low resources, high barriers, and inappropriate coping strategies make it difficult to meet the transition demands. Crisis is also conceptualized as a transition that the athlete is unable to cope with independently and perceives a need for transition intervention. Furthermore, according to the model, the crisis transition can have two possible secondary outcomes: delayed successful transition (in case of effective intervention) and unsuccessful transition (in case of ineffective or lacking intervention) associated with negative consequences of avoiding coping with the crisis (e.g., premature dropout, neuroses, overtraining, eating disorders, and substance abuse). Career transition interventions outlined by the model include crisis-prevention, crisis-coping, and negative-consequences-coping interventions.
Major Types of Athletes’ Career Transitions
Athletes’ transitions are classified into athletic and nonathletic, as well as into normative and nonnormative. Normative athletic transitions are relatively predictable and based on the logic of athletic development. Thus, the transition into organized sport, the transition to the development stage or more intensive training in chosen sport, the transition to the mastery stage or from junior to senior sports, the transition to professional sport, the transition to maintenance career stage, and the transition to the post-sport career are all examples of the normative athletic transitions.
Normative nonathletic transitions refer to athletes’ transitions in psychological, psychosocial, and academic–vocational development, such as the transition from childhood to adolescence, the transition from living at home to living independently, the transition to college or university, and the transition to the workplace.
Nonnormative transitions are less predictable, such as transitions caused by injury, divorce, moving abroad, or changing team or coach.
The predictability of normative transitions creates an opportunity for athletes to prepare for them in advance, while the low predictability of nonnormative transitions explains why athletes find these more difficult to deal with.
Normative Athletic Transitions
Among the normative athletic transitions, the most research has been done on the transition from the development to the mastery stage (also known as the transition from junior to senior and elite sports) and the transition to the post-sports career (athletic retirement).
The growing interest in the junior-to-senior transition can be explained by both the difficulty and the importance of this transition for athletes wanting to achieve an elite or professional level in sports. Vanden Auweele et al. showed that only 17% of elite junior athletes made a successful transition to senior or elite sports in 5 years of observation. International research showed that athletes perceive this transition as a big step associated with much higher standards in practice and performance than they experienced before. Issues outside sports are also very important, with studies and social aspects proving the most demanding. Athletes’ ambitions to succeed in this transition and meet the expectations of significant others, together with uncertainty about success in coping, lead to high stress and increased sensitivity to social influences. Therefore, social support, especially from coaches, plays a pivotal role in the transition process. Coaches believe that coping strategies such as thoughtful problem solving, acceptance of responsibility, self-control, and positive reappraisal are beneficial to the transition success. Research also confirmed that successful coping with the junior-to-senior transition is associated with athletes’ personal maturation and identity development.
The transition to the post-sport career or athletic retirement is the one inevitable transition that mixes athletic context reasons for termination in sports, athletic career satisfaction, and support from sport organizations with nonathletic context relevant to starting a new life after sports. Retired athletes must accept retirement and adjust to the status of a former athlete, start or continue studies or work, reconsider their personal identity, and renew their lifestyles and social networks. The status of former elite athletes is typically lower than that of active sports heroes. Therefore, former athletes need to adjust to a substantial decrease in social recognition and support. Many of them channel their energy into education or work. Starting a new professional career is not only important for making a living, but also for the development of a new professional identity. Many athletes confirm that their social lives change greatly during this transition. They often keep their sport friends but need to involve more nonsport people into their social networks. Family becomes a very important part of the renewed lifestyle, especially if the athletic retirement transition is associated with the transition to parenthood. Athletes who plan retirement in advance, receive their education while still in sport, have multiple personal interests and identities, keep good family relationships, and feel in control of their lives usually adjust successfully to their post-sport careers within months. About 15% to 20% of athletes experience this transition as a crisis accompanied by unemployment, separation or divorce, health problems, alcohol abuse, and feelings of being empty, alone, and forgotten.
Normative Nonathletic Transitions
In terms of normative nonathletic transitions, researchers focus mainly on the transition from adolescence to young adulthood (around 18–19 years old), emphasizing the athletes’ identity formation, and on their transitions within the educational system.
Adolescence is known as a crucial period for young people to answer the question “Who am I?” integrating their social roles and related identities. For athletes, their athlete role and athletic identity or the degree of personal identification with the athlete role are involved in this process. Researchers showed that high athletic identity works as a resource during most of the athletic career transitions (e.g., the junior-to-senior transition), but it turns into a barrier in the transition to the post-sport career. Athletes who develop multiple personal identities—athlete, student, employee, family member, friend—are less at risk for the athletic identity foreclosure (single-minded focus on sport) and, consequently, for the identity crisis (self-misinterpretation) in the transition to the post-sport career.
The identity research in athletes has stimulated an interest in the so-called dual career studies that focus on athletes combining sport with education and their transitions within the educational system. Relevant research deals with student–athletes at sport classes, sport boarding schools, and colleges and universities. These studies emphasize the benefits of athletes’ dual careers, such as balanced lifestyle, reduced stress, good conditions for developing life skills, and higher employability after sport, but also highlight the related demands and challenges, especially when athletes experience simultaneous transitions to a new level in both education and sport. For example, North American research on the student–athletes’ transition to college showed that the incoming students have to meet new academic requirements and the challenges of living far from home, create relationships, manage their time and energy, as well as adjust to demanding sport participation at the intercollegiate level, new teammates, and coaches. They also should be ready to cope with athletic career termination upon graduation from the college. European dual career studies are marked by the holistic life span perspective in investigating student–athletes’ sport, education, and private life issues.
Nonnormative Career Transitions
As mentioned above, the nonnormative transitions are less predictable and more idiosyncratic than the normative ones. This type of athletes’ transitions has been acknowledged but not extensively studied. Examples of athletic nonnormative transitions include injury; overtraining; deselection; moving abroad to play sport; and changing a club, a coach, or a sport partner. Selection for and participation in the Olympic Games are also seen as nonnormative athletic transitions. Athletes’ quasi-normative (expected in principle, but not in terms of their timing in life) or nonnormative transitions outside sport are marriage, divorce, parenthood, moving to a big city, immigration, and others. The lower the predictability of a nonnormative transition, the more often athletes need professional assistance.
Helping Athletes in Career Transitions
The holistic lifespan perspective is currently an influential guide in career assistance, which is a rapidly developing discourse in applied sport psychology aimed at helping athletes with various issues related to their careers inside and outside of sports.
Helping athletes to cope with athletic and nonathletic, normative and nonnormative transitions is a central aspect in career assistance provided by career assistance programs or by private sport psychology consultants. Career transition interventions are planned based on the career development and transition frameworks, as well as on the thorough investigation of the athlete–client’s background, current situation and needs, and future plans (for further information see Stambulova, 2012).
Two major perspectives in career transition interventions, the preventive–supportive and the crisis–negative consequences coping perspectives, have been identified.
The preventive–supportive perspective covers interventions aimed at enhancing athletes’ awareness about forthcoming or current transition demands and aiding in the timely development of all the necessary resources for effective coping. These interventions may improve the athlete’s readiness for a normative career transition or support the athlete during the transition process. The following are the brief definitions of relevant intervention types.
- Career planning interventions are counseling interventions aimed at helping athletes increase their self-awareness; set realistic career goals bridging their past, present, and future; and prepare in advance for the forthcoming transitions.
- Life development interventions and life skills training consist of needs assessment, education, and training with regard to sets of transferable life skills, such as effective communication, dealing with success and failure, time, energy, and stress management, that are applicable in both sports and other spheres of life.
- Lifestyle management interventions consist of counseling, education, and training aimed at helping athletes combine sport and other activities in life, prioritize between them, and manage time and energy in a way that helps athletes maintain good health and well-being.
- Identity development interventions include counseling, education, and training aimed at helping athletes in self-exploration and development of multiple personal identities to minimize the risk for the athletic identity foreclosure and one-sided development.
- Cultural adaptation interventions consist of needs assessment, counseling, education, and training aimed at helping athletes adjust to the new sociocultural environment when moving to another country to play sport or to do both sport and studies. Practitioners help athletes increase their awareness of the new culture and find consensus between their previous values, perceptions, and habits and ones required and expected by the new culture.
Crisis–Negative Consequences Coping Perspective
The crisis–negative consequences coping perspective covers interventions assisting athletes in analysis of their crisis or traumatic situations and finding the best available ways to cope. This perspective is represented by the following interventions:
- Crisis-coping educational interventions are aimed at helping athletes analyze the crisis situation, generate alternatives in coping, make an action plan, and increase their self-efficacy to cope with the crisis. These interventions are useful at the beginning phase of the crisis when athletes feel distressed and disoriented but still do not experience any clinical symptoms.
- Clinical interventions are applied when athletes experience clinical symptoms related to overtraining, neuroses, psychosomatic illnesses, substance abuse, negative identities, eating disorders, anger and aggression, grief, clinical depression, and suicidal thoughts, which often are negative consequences of not coping with previous or current transitions. These are mostly counseling interventions based on various psychotherapeutic approaches, such as psychoanalysis, existential therapy, or cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Tracing various types of career transition interventions, it is easy to see some obvious overlapping among them. For example, exploring new social roles as a part of identity development interventions also contributes to the athlete’s lifestyle management and life skills training. Such overlaps are not surprising because all the interventions deal with various aspects of the transition process and adopt the whole person approach. These overlaps also facilitate combining various types of interventions to best meet the particular needs of each athlete.
The career transition area of research and practice in sport psychology has been built and structured mainly over the last two decades. Major developments in this area include sport-specific definitions of key concepts; classifications of athletes’ transitions, related frameworks, and interventions; the holistic lifespan perspective and the body of knowledge about athletes’ transitions and factors involved; career assistance; and practical experiences with related principles, values, intervention strategies, and tools. Future challenges for the topic can be seen in more ecological and culturally sensitive research on athletic and nonathletic, normative and non-normative transitions using various methodologies and designs, such as narratives, longitude, cross-cultural, intervention, and case studies, and also in further promotion of career assistance services among athletes and coaches.
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