Career Transitions

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.

Preventive–Supportive Perspective

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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