Career Transition

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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