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Athletic Identity Impact on Sport Retirement and Career Transition Struggles for Collegiate Student-Athletes

Info: 10795 words (43 pages) Dissertation
Published: 2nd Mar 2022

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Tagged: SportsStudents


The continued rise in the popularity of collegiate athletics has created an environment in which universities dedicate a tremendous amount of resources to not only recruiting potential student-athletes but to also ensuring their experience while on campus is positive.  Student-athletes often focus on developing and upholding their athletic identities, or what is defined as the degree to which one identifies with the athlete role (Brewer, Vanraalte, & Linder, 1993). Since graduation signals the termination of this role for approximately 99% of college student-athletes (NCAA, 2015), the reality of departing a role that has defined four to five years of their college experience, and their identity many years prior is one that has the potential to create transition difficulties for intercollegiate athletes preparing to exit competitive sport.  Especially when it is not clear what resources, if any, are provided by universities to assist student-athletes in post competition with their potential struggles of retirement from sport and career transition after they have exhausted their collegiate eligibility.








Review of Literature………………………………………………………………….5

Historical Perspectives On The Popularity Of College Sports………………5

Becoming A Student-Athlete…………………………………………………6

The Student-Athlete Experience……………………………………………..7

Athletic Identity………………………………………………………………9

Sport Retirement Struggles.…………………………………………………13

Career Transition Struggles…………………………………………………18




Future Research………………………………………………………………25




“There are over 400,000 student-athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports” (“NCAA TV Commercial, ‘The Beginning,’” n.d.).  This popular phrase from a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) television commercial signals an inevitable retirement from elite competition in sports for many student-athletes upon exhausting their collegiate eligibility.  For many of these 400,000 student-athletes it is an honor to have represented their university for four or five years.  It is a dream of many to have earned an athletic scholarship and having had the opportunity to continue competing in their chosen sport at the intercollegiate level.  Especially given the attention they were most likely shown during the recruiting process and how many of them were told how good they are and how much they will be able to help the team.  Not too mention the resources that were given to them while they were competing; world-class facilities, high-end expensive gear, top-notch medical care, first-rate academic resources to aide in graduation and career exploration.  This experience while on campus reinforces the social identity of an athlete (athletic identity) which is formulated through participation in athletic activities and is further developed through participation in intercollegiate athletics (Moreland-bishop, 2009).


Universities expect student-athletes to spend a great deal of time and energy perfecting their sports-related skills and striving for athletic success.  In addition to focusing on their role as athletes during their undergraduate careers, many of these student-athletes have previously participated in some form of competitive athletics for ten years or more during their upbringing.  Such lengthy participation in sports, often beginning in early childhood, can facilitate their preoccupation with athletics well before entering college (Kleiber, Greendorfer, Blinde, & Samdahl, 1987).  The demands of intercollegiate competition, coupled with a lengthy prior history of athletic participation in their formative years, can influence the development of athlete as the primary aspect of identity.  This over identification with the athlete role often precludes a deeper exploration of other potential facets of the student’s sense of self (Watt & Moore, 2001).

After the experience of being a student-athlete, after honing athletic skills from a young age, after the excitement of being recruited, after competing at the intercollegiate level with tremendous resources, after all of that – what is next?  What happens to the athlete after the final whistle?  Retirement may occur at any stage in an individual’s life and is an inevitable part of the career of every athlete.  Whether the athlete chooses voluntarily to disengage form sports or is forced into retirement, leaving competition will predictably occur.  Despite this predictability few athletes make sufficient preparations for this major life event and many struggle with their adjustment to retirement (Baillie & Danish, 1992).  Especially at the collegiate level where so much time, attention, and resources are given to recruiting athletes and keeping them engaged while on campus.  If a university’s primary objective is to use the athlete for four years and then abandon them, then the institution has failed to have a positive impact on a young life and prepare them for life beyond athletics.


In order to truly understand the difficulty of transition out of sports for student-athletes it is important to better understand the genesis of athletic identity and how it manifests itself through the journey of being an intercollegiate athlete.  This begins with what it actually means to be an athlete and the salience that involvements in sports has across the significant proportion of an athlete’s life as well as a historical perspective on the advent of the development of college athletics.  Then it is vital to examine the perspective on the current day student-athlete and their place in a modern society that places a high level of importance on college sports.  It helps to understand the mindset of the current-day student-athlete and what it is like to be recruited and participate in collegiate athletics as that all plays into their sense of being an athlete and their athletic identity.  This leads into their mentality of how they prepare to take on retiring sports and their career transition and what resources, if any, they have at their disposal to help them with this evolution.


This review will first briefly give some historical and factual perspectives on the popularity of college sports and what it means to be a student-athlete.  It will explore collegiate athletics’ humble beginnings to the revenue generating machine that it is today.  Then the paper will examine what it means to be a student-athlete; from the recruiting process to the experience while on campus.  The research will illustrate all of the money that is devoted to not only attracting potential student-athletes but also how much is spent keeping them happy.  It is important to have this context in order to better understand what contributes to a student-athlete’s athletic identity.  Why it would be understandable that a student-athlete would not think about career transition when so many resources were used to ensure they knew how their athletic abilities could serve them well in a collegiate environment.

The review will then take an in-depth look at athletic-identity as well as examining the concept of athletic identity and the impact it has on athletes and how it defines them.  The research will explain how it comes to be that some student-athletes struggle with retiring from sport and transitioning into a career after athletics knowing that leaving sport is not only imminent but it is assured and predictable despite so many athletic departments dedicating resources focusing on career development.


There are numerous studies that examine the transition struggles of athletes when they retire form competition.  For the purpose of this review preference is given to the research that focuses on the transition of student-athletes from participation in intercollegiate athletics.  Given the fact that you can forecast an exact date when a student-athlete’s career will end, it can be complicating as to why so many are not prepared for the next phase of their life.  With the exception of a career ending injury or other unforeseen event it does add another level of curiosity as to why the collegiate athlete, in particular, is not equipped for career transition.  It is far more difficult to predict when a professional athlete will retire from sports given there is not the certainty of exhausted eligibility as there is in college.

Over 50 journal articles, thesis papers, web pages, etc. were examined in order to properly conduct a holistic review of what it means to be an athlete (athletic identity), the history and popularity of college sports, the experience of being a student-athlete, and the factors that lead to struggles in retirement and career transitions.  The methods employed to gather scholarly articles for the review included searching the SPORTDiscus database which covers both serial and monographic literature in the following areas of sport: recreation; exercise physiology; sports medicine; coaching; physical fitness; the psychology, history, and sociology of sport; training; and conditioning.  The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) database was also used as well as Google Scholar and Google search.  Primarily resources that focused on NCAA Division 1 athletes in the United States were considered as this is seen as the pinnacle for collegiate sports.  This review uses a broad brush when referring to student-athletes and does not give special consideration to ethnicity or gender.

Literature Review

Historical Perspectives On The Popularity Of College Sports

Understanding the historical development of the current popularity of college athletics can help provide some context to how the demands of current day student-athletes have evolved.  Having the historic context helps to frame athletic identity in collegiate athletes as well as to provide insight into why some struggle with transition out of sport.

Competitive intercollegiate sports were not introduced into postsecondary education in the United States until the nineteenth century (Zimbalist, 2001).  The first popular college sport was crew (boat racing), which was quickly surpassed by football by the late 1880s, when media coverage and sponsorship for athletic events began to take form and become a lucrative business. As interest in football grew, the sport became more aggressive and serious injuries and even fatalities occurred. The NCAA was born out of President Theodore Roosevelt’s demand to reform college football (Zimbalist, 2001).

In the century since, the marriage between higher education and intercollegiate athletics has been turbulent.  A fundamental question raised during this time was “whether an institution in the social order whose primary purpose is the development of the intellectual life can at the same time serve as an agency to promote business, industry, journalism, and organized athletics on an extensive commercial basis?” More to the point, “can it [the university] concentrate its attention on securing teams that win, without impairing the sincerity and vigor of its intellectual purpose?” (Cowley, 1999).  College sports have become increasingly important in our society since these questions have been raised. The media coverage of major college sporting events translates into big business for university athletic programs.  Universities depend on the attention drawn by televised college sports events, which can increase enrollment and improve the overall image of the university.

College sports are indeed big business and at the center of it all are the student-athletes that compete.  The 231 NCAA Division I schools with data available generated a total of $9.15 billion in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year (Gaines, 2016).  Furthermore, for 2011-12, the most recent year for which audited numbers are available, NCAA revenue was $871.6 million, which includes a $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for rights to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship (NCAA, 2013).  Also, alumni strongly support intercollegiate sports.  This might, in turn, affect their financial support of the university.  All the more reason to ensure successful career transition of student-athletes.

Becoming A Student-Athlete

Before competing in college sports a student-athlete must first be recruited and collegiate recruiting is big business.  Recruiting is the lifeblood of any successful program.  A program cannot survive, and ultimately thrive, unless it works hard, day in and day out on the recruiting process. Coupled with the fact that, in college football in particular, the pressure to win with coaches’ salaries on a never-ending rise, has never been greater.  In college sports, players are recycled every four years, making recruiting an important industry.

The stories of college coaches going to great lengths to secure top talent are well documented from Michigan football coach John Harbaugh having sleep overs with prospective student-athletes (Koster, 2016) to Alabama football coach Nick Saban sending a recruit 105 letters in a single day (Treadway, 2014).  Furthermore, the resources that elite programs commit to the recruiting process are astronomical.  Universities employ multi-person recruiting staffs that use every possible resource to initially find recruits and attempt to convince them to commit to their institution.  The Big Ten’s 11 public universities alone spent $4.1 million on recruiting in 2011, a fraction of the $6.5 million they spent in 2013, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Documents provided in accordance to open-records laws indicate the conference’s members spend on average $1 million more each year (Rowland, 2014).

With all of the attention that is given to prospective student-athletes it is no wonder they are enamored with the idea of being an intercollegiate athlete.  It is not uncommon to hear stories of 9th graders or even 8th graders not only being recruited by college coaches but orally committing to attend a specific institution.  Whether or not this is good for college sports can be (and is being) debated but one thing is for sure: with all of this attention given to becoming a high-profile college athlete, it is no wonder that life after competition is an after thought, if even a thought at all.

The Student-Athlete Experience

As with the rest of higher education, which has engaged in an “amenities race” for new laboratory facilities, student unions, residence halls, and other projects, a construction boom has echoed throughout intercollegiate athletics as programs have upgraded existing and created new facilities.  Many football stadiums have been refurbished, adding capacity, luxury suites and other premium amenities at a cost often exceeding $100 million.  Basketball arenas have been built or renovated, as state-of-the-art practice, strength training, and tutoring facilities have proliferated.

Facilities spending is one of the biggest reasons otherwise profitable or self-sufficient athletic departments run deficits, according to a Washington Post review of thousands of pages of financial records from athletic departments at 48 schools in the five wealthiest conferences in college sports.  In 2014, these 48 schools spent $772 million combined on athletic facilities, an 89-percent increase from $408 million spent in 2004, adjusted for inflation.  Those figures include annual debt payments, capital expenses and maintenance costs (Hobson & Rich, 2015).

Recently Clemson University built a miniature golf course, sand volleyball courts, laser tag, movie theater, bowling lanes, barber shop and other amenities planned in the $55 million complex that South Carolina’s second-largest public university is building exclusively for its football players.  At the University of Colorado Boulder, the athletic department recently finished a $156 million project that includes new locker rooms and offices for football and an indoor practice field.  On April 19, 2013, the University of Tennessee dedicated its new $45 million Anderson Training Center, a 145,000-square-foot home for its football team with a two-story weight room, hydrotherapy room, amphitheater-style team meeting room and a public entrance featuring a waterwall and museum commemorating Volunteers football history.  The facilities arms race is not solely benefiting football teams.  In the past decade, many athletic departments in the wealthy Power Five conferences , the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Big Ten and Pacific-12, have built baseball stadiums, volleyball courts, soccer fields, golf practice facilities and ice hockey arenas with money largely derived from powerhouse football teams and, to a lesser degree, men’s basketball teams (Hobson & Rich, 2015).

In addition to athletic venues, the arms race continues in other forms that also benefit student-athletes of all sports such as new apparel deals and upgraded fueling programs.  There is heavy competition between Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas who continue to ink record breaking deals with college programs.  In 2016 Under Armour signed with UCLA, formerly an Adidas school, for 15 years worth $280 million. This ranks as the largest shoe and apparel sponsorship in college sports history (Wharton, 2016).

As a prized student-athlete in high school, it is easy to picture yourself utilizing some of the best facilities in college athletics across the country, sporting the nicest sports apparel and benefitting from national exposure.  As a student-athlete in these big-time college environments it is equally as easy to get caught up in the publicity and experience and not be caught up in thinking about what you are going to do after your playing days are over.

Athletic Identity

As stated earlier, athletic identity may be defined as the degree with which an individual identifies with the athlete role (Brewer et al., 1993).  The athletic role is an important social dimension of self-concept influencing experiences, relationships with others, and pursuit of sport activity (Cornelius, 1995).  Past research has indicated that strong athletic identity is linked to a greater importance of athletics in an individual’s life (Brewer et al., 1993).  Those with strong athletic identity spend more time with teammates and coaches that further strengthen their athletic identity (Horton & Mack, 2000).  Family, friends, coaches, teachers and media may all support an individual’s identification as an athlete.  Consequently, athletics take on a great psychological significance in an athlete’s identification (Brewer et al., 1993).  Strong athletic identity has been found to correlate with a stronger sense of self-identity, more social interactions, boosting confidence, and report more positive athletic experiences (Griffith & Johnson, 2002).

Student-athletes receive positive and negative reinforcement from their surroundings.

These reinforcements can facilitate development of an identity as student and athlete or can encourage the student-athlete to focus on one element of that identity to the detriment of the other.  For many student athletes, the identity as student takes a backseat to the identity as athlete.  This could encourage the athlete to neglect activities and responsibilities necessary to be a successful student (Hinkle, 1994; Martens & Lee, 1998; Parmer, 1994). If the athlete identity overwhelms the student identity, a student athlete can experience “identity foreclosure” (Martens & Lee, 1998) which, in turn, can hamper a student’s identity development.

As athletic identity pertains specifically to collegiate student athletes, it is important to consider the subtle differences between student-athletes and other college students.  Both groups attend college; one plays an intercollegiate sport whereas the other does not.  Playing an intercollegiate sport, however, adds an unexpectedly complex layer to student life. The college student athlete certainly faces all the challenges experienced by nonathletes (social adjustment, career exploration, intellectual growth).  In addition to the daily student routine (attending classes, going to the cafeteria, and participating in social activities), student-athletes also have their sport-related activities (training every day, visiting the athletic trainer for injury treatment, traveling for away games, other obligations as assigned by the coach) (Ferrante, Etzel, and Lantz, 1996; Martens and Lee, 1998; Street, 1999).  They constantly cope with balancing the roles of student and athlete (Street, 1999).  For example, although any college student might want to get good grades to avoid the wrath of a parent or guardian, the student athlete also has obligations to the coach, the team, and the rules and regulations of the NCAA.

An emphasis on the athlete identity also can lead to the perpetuation of stereotypes in which student-athletes are portrayed as academically unqualified, unintelligent, and socially awkward.  Such stereotypes can be found not only in everyday conversations but also in newspapers, magazines, and other popular literature.  These negative images seem to be part of the social fabric and can affect how athletes view themselves (O’Bryant, 1993).

On the other hand, many athletes are worshipped as if they were heroes.  They are envied for the athletic prowess that brings entertainment to the fans and financial benefits to their institutions.  The contradictions inherent in the “athlete as dunce” and the “athlete as hero” stereotypes can create difficulties for student athletes.  Trying to resolve the mixed messages may force a student to select one identity or the other, identity foreclosure, or choose to fulfill neither role effectively (Morrissey, 1995).  Other potential problems include adjustment issues with the transition into nonathlete status.

Student-athletes also reap benefits from seeing themselves as athletes.  Harris (1993) and Chu (1989) both examined the benefits of college athletics for the athlete and discovered that sport participation helps the athlete develop a positive identity and a strong character.  Harris also noted that the experience of being an athlete positively shapes psychosocial identity in young adulthood.  Chu’s research revealed that participation in sports helps the student athlete develop characteristics such as dominance, responsibility, sociability, and self-acceptance.

Athletic identity that is strong but not exclusive may have lasting psychological benefits for the athlete (Brewer et al., 1993).  However, athletes who place too strong of a centrality on athletics may experience psychological and physical drawbacks.  Over-commitment to athletics and excessive training may create a situation in which an athlete may jeopardize their physical and psychological health.  Many of the risks for individuals with an exclusive athletic identity occur during a sport transition period such as being cut from a team, experiencing an injury, or retirement from their athletic careers (Brewer et al., 1993).  Athletes that were involved in other activities prior to the transition were more effective at making the shift out of the athletic role. Conversely, if an athlete exclusively identifies with the athletic role, they are at an increased risk for experiencing a severe emotional disruption during a career transition.  This increased risk for emotional disturbance is even more difficult for those individuals that lack other sources of self-worth and self-identification.  Individuals who organize their knowledge only in terms of athletics and cannot separate athletics from other roles in their self are at an increased risk for depression, low physical and emotional health, and experiencing feelings of isolation (Brewer et al., 1993).

Beyond just the athletic participation, there is an expectation that academics should still remain a priority for student-athletes, because the ability to participate in professional sports is not guaranteed.  Considering these demands that student-athletes endure to compete at the collegiate level, it is imperative to have an understanding of teams as important social groups.  Social groups are constructed groups joined through social interactions (Donnelly & Young, 1988).  It is important to examine the role that collegiate sports participation plays in relation to an individual’s overall personal identity.  Interaction between athletes and their athletic peers and/or teammates can affect an athlete’s overall identity (Brewer et al., 1993).  In terms of identity, athletic identity can be considered a formed identity that is sports specific or geared towards athletic achievement.  Athletic identity can be easily understood as an athlete’s formed identity throughout participation in athletic social groups, or teams.

The label of collegiate athlete becomes an important bond that a team shares.  Interaction with teammates is constant when taking into account practices, games, team meetings, study tables, rooming assignments, and miscellaneous activities involving free time.  In theory, social groups are defined as a team unit which provides a primary sense of achievement and support (Jimenez, 2016).  Sports social groups are units likely to be characterized by collective aspirations and perceptions of camaraderie (Jimenez, 2016).  Overall strength of the teammate bond occurs or is created as individuals sincerely chose to assimilate to a set of general expectations in a common environment.  This intercollegiate teammate bond instills the strong sense of athletic identity that student-athletes have when they compete at this high of a level.

Sport Retirement Struggles

For a vast majority of collegiate student-athletes, post competition signals the end of their athletic career.  This process is bounded by an inevitable and predictable end date because the NCAA limits a student-athlete’s participation in competition to four seasons in any one sport.  The Five-Year Rule (NCAA Bylaw 14.2.1) requires the student-athlete to complete the seasons of participation within five calendar years from the beginning of the semester or quarter in which the student-athlete first enrolled as a full-time student.  Exceptions to the Five-Year Rule are military service, official religious missions, or recognized foreign-aid services of the U.S. government.  It also signals a career path reinvention in which athletes have to cope with following retirement from collegiate athletic participation.  A reality of post competition which must be overcome is the individual’s athletic identity no longer functions as the prevailing identity.  Those still highly invested in their athletic identity may have trouble pursuing anything outside of an athletic related profession (Cabrita, Rosado, Leite, Serpa, & Sousa, 2014).

Retirement from sport for student-athletes provides a unique set of circumstances compared to that of the average individual.

According to Hill & Lowe (1974):

Retirement marks the first time in an athlete’s life when he is deprived of the satisfaction which sports has always given him.  It is in his adjustment to a lifestyle in which he cannot rely upon sport to provide these satisfactions that the athlete experiences difficulties in retiring gracefully.  Such a compounding of difficulties is not encountered in the retiree of 60-65 years. (p. 6).

The average retirement age of 60-65 years old is a much younger compared to 20-25-year-old student-athletes.  Retirement at a relatively young age provides specific challenges for student-athletes such as the ability to reinvent themselves and pursue a new career path so early on in their life.

In reality, not all student-athletes experience struggles with sport retirement and some actually welcome the finality of competition due to the rigors of being a college athlete which can be mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing on many student-athletes and over the course of four to five years, the burden of being an athlete eventually took its toll on the athletes’ psyche, resulting in a “jaded and tired group” of athletes (Parker, 1994).  Moreover, some were ready for their careers to end because of the “physical ‘wear and tear” and “emotional fatigue” accompanied with participation in intercollegiate athletics (Wilson, 2008).  These athletes were not “pushed kicking and screaming” out of their sport, rather most “expressed a relief that it was over” (Parker, 1994).  Yet other student-athletes view the end of their career as a “rebirth,” and the release from sport participation allows them to engage in other interests (Coakley, 1983).

Sport retirement, in general, might be difficult if the athlete has a strong athletic identity (Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997; Webb, Nasco, Riley, & Headrick, 1998).  Athletes who devote their entire life to sport without any outside interests may experience a more difficult time adjusting to life without their sport (Mcpherson, 1980; Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996; Pearson & Petitpas, 1990).  The athlete has a hard time viewing himself/herself outside the sporting realm leading to an identity crisis post athletic retirement (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994).  Therefore, the athlete with the strong athletic identity usually does not plan for the future without sport competition, making it more difficult to leave the sporting environment (Mcpherson, 1980).  An athlete may develop a low self-identity when forced to retire and leave their athletic identity (Pearson & Petitpas, 1990).  The transition process for athletic retirement can be prolonged if the athlete is unable to disassociate from his/her current athletic identity (Stambulova, Stephan, & Jäphag, 2007).  Retiring athletes with a strong sport identity had behavioral disengagement, negative outbursts, and warranted more outside social support than the athletes with a low athletic identity (Grove et al., 1997).  An athlete suffered self-identity issues that lasted a year post-sport retirement.  A strong athletic identity may lead to a more difficult transition (Wheeler, Malone, VanVlack, Nelson, & Steadward, 1996).

For any athlete, besides their athletic identity, they may also experience bodily changes with sport career termination.  These body changes such as weight gain, loss of muscular strength, and bodily pain, can be a source of distress for the retiring athlete (Torregrosa, Boixadós, Valiente, & Cruz, 2004).  With a new social role in society they may develop a new fitness role, which may not be as intense as the individual had prior to retirement.  A large discrepancy of body image exists between exercising to maintain a healthy lifestyle and training for a competitive sport (Stephan, Torregrosa, & Sanchez, 2007).  The bodily worries and changes occurring may become a great stressor for the athlete during the sport career termination period (Stephan et al., 2007).  When an athlete’s body image becomes altered in a negative manner according to the individual, he/she may experience a “suffering body,” which is weight gain, degradation of physical competencies, body tension, pain, and tiredness (Stephan & Bilard, 2003; Stephan et al., 2007).  These conditions can be the products of a drastic reduction of physical training and deregulation of one’s eating habits (Stephan & Bilard, 2003; Stephan et al., 2007).  Athletes who possess positive body images have a tendency to experience from exercise a higher self-esteem (Fox & Lindwall, 2014).  Negative bodily experiences stem from weight gain and being unable to maintain personal physical competencies (Fox & Lindwall, 2014).  Athletes who reported having negative feelings about their bodily changes experienced negative athletic retirements, which can decrease their perception of their physical self-worth.  How an athlete views or accepts the bodily changes that occur in sport and athletic retirement, can influence the ease of the transition into sport career termination (Stephan et al., 2007).

With sport retirement, a new social role is also formed by the athlete.  The athlete experiences a loss of teammates, coaching staff, and the security of their sport competition. The athlete must form a new social role outside of sport.  One possible reason athletes do not try to form a new social role is because they feel isolated from their former sports and teammates, so they form antisocial attitudes (Wolff & Lester, 1989).  Along with forming a new social role comes the psychological, interpersonal, and financial adjustments that must be made by the athlete, for everything is changing in their world by leaving the sporting realm behind (Stankovich, Meeker, & Henderson, 2001).  Grove, Lavallee, Gordon, and Harvey (1998) studied 2000 retiring athletes and found that twenty percent of them experienced “psychological adjustment difficulties.”  Adjustments into this new world are affected by sport retirement reasons, a positive or negative transition, and the coping mechanisms used during that transition period (Stankovich et al., 2001).  Organized sports provide a socializing network for its participants where they are able to learn and develop many life skills (Delaney & Madigan, 2015).  The team members prove a strong support system for each other.  When an athlete transitions into sport retirement, this support system may diminish, causing stress in the athlete’s life and resulting in a negative sport retirement.

Some student-athletes that do struggle with retirement had involuntary and unanticipated exits from college sport as their careers were prematurely terminated as a result of injury, being cut from their team, or having their sport eliminated from the school (Blinde & Stratta, 1992; Ensing, 1994; Hinitz, 1988; Stoltenburg, Kamphoff, & Bremer, 2012).  Athletes whose careers ended unexpectedly experienced difficult transitions as they felt “cheated out of four years” (Blinde & Stratta, 1992).  Likewise, because athletes who underwent an involuntary exit were unable to anticipate the ends of their careers, they were not able to prepare mentally and emotionally for retirement.  As such, lack of preparation resulted in extremely difficult transitions for these athletes.

Lack of preparation is a key indicator for most college student-athletes that struggle with retirement from sport.  The lack of preparation needed for successful transition for a student-athlete into sport retirement depends on transition characteristics, institutional support, intrapersonal support, and the transition environment (Schlossberg, 1984).  Many collegiate athletes compete while on an athletic scholarship, which assists them in obtaining an education.  When athletic retirement occurs, this financial support ends.  If the athlete finishes school, they will have an educational background in which to rely upon for financial support.  Athletes who do not complete their degrees lack that financial support and therefore may suffer a negative transition into sport retirement because of this monetary worry.  Some collegiate athletes worry about the lack of financial support during their collegiate years (Brown, 1985; Burton & Martens, 1986; Koukouris, 1991; Mihovilovic, 1968; Tamásné, 1976).  Collegiate athletes stress about not having enough money to pay for books, clothes, or entertainment and also about settling into a successful future job (Brown, 1985; Burton & Martens, 1986; Koukouris, 1991; Mihovilovic, 1968; Tamásné, 1976).  Many collegiate athletes do try to focus on the future and have more concerns than just their competitive sport. Koukouris (1991) found some of their respondents felt the costs such as time, energy, and money to participate in a collegiate sport did not always out-weigh the potential rewards – recognition and self-affirmation.  The age period between 18 and 23, which is the average competitive age of collegiate athletes, is considered a developmental stage for the person and can be affected by not being able to be in a formal job setting (Koukouris, 1991; Rosenberg, 1980).  A formal job setting and training for a sport are not the same.  This condition may contribute to negative transitions for the athletes since jobs are needed by most after competitive athletics in order to support themselves in life after sport.  Collegiate athletes may need more guidance into job training upon sport retirement to facilitate a positive career transition.

Career Transition Struggles

Athletic institutions become a large part of a student-athlete’s life due to the time commitments and social growth they develop while competing in athletics for that institution.  Some athletic programs do so much for the athlete that they are not capable of handling the stresses of the working world on their own (Williams, 2002).  Athletes who devote their time at an educational institution, concentrating only on athletic performance, or who have much athletic talent, may not gain real-life skills that are necessary post-athletic competition.  This athlete may experience a world of privilege where they only concentrate on sport performance (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Because of this, the athlete’s self-worth and self-esteem are directly related to sport performance (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Education in these cases is not valued even though the institution is responsible for developing of critical thinkers, informed decision makers, ability to understand oneself, and to understand the world (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  The student-athlete may not be taking full advantage of the opportunities at the educational institution but instead is only concentrating on athletic performance.

Institutions offering competitive sports attract learners for an exchange relationship.  A student is recognized for their athletic talents and in exchange for competing at that school the student gains an education.  Social and financial gains are made by each party (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  The athletic establishment gains recognition for having a gifted athlete while the athlete gains a social network (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Financially, some athletes have his/her schooling paid for while the institution sells tickets for spectators to see the athletic teams compete (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  The athlete may be viewed as a hero at the institution for their athletic accomplishments.  With this status, people associated with the institution may begin to provide care for the athlete to the extreme (e.g. others may do school work for the athlete) (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  So much care may be given to the athlete that they are hindered from learning real-life skills.

A pampered life in college athletics may leave an athlete without the necessary skills to cope with life stresses (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  In the past, predominately male athletes have been the source of the pampering in college athletics although females are new experiencing similar treatment (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  An athlete depends greatly on the academic institution for his/her learning in all areas of life.  The coach and other institution personnel are traditionally centered in an athlete’s life, and he/she relies on them for knowledge and control of life situations (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  These people take care of most of the daily life decisions for the athlete during his/her time of eligibility at the academic institution (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Even with the extensive organizational personnel surrounding the athlete, which may include coaches, teammates, medical staff, academic advisors, teachers, no formalized support structure for sport career termination has been established at all educational institutions comply (Stier, 2007).  A student-athlete may not seek individualized consultation because they may not realize it is even available.

Athletics can provide a means of stability in one’s life that can become disrupted when sport retirement occurs. Athletic programs and educational institutions are similar in that each promotes the teaching of life lessons, leadership, and decision-making skills.  Powerful influences help form an individual’s values, choices, and decisions. By these means of obligation, an institution can facilitate the transition from sport to real-life (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).

Leaving an athletic world that one has been accustomed to for years can be a source of stress with the expectation of learning new skills and establishing new social roles.  For this, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, social interaction, and self-understanding skills are essential.  These skills are commonly learned while at college institutions (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Athletes devote so much of their life to their sports that they may not fully develop these skills in their college experience (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  The educational institution may provide a false sense of security of always being there for the athlete’s well being (Stephan, 2003; Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  The athletic program promotes happiness of the athlete at selected times when morally it should be for all situations (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Ethically, the athletic program should help teach the essential skills for a student-athlete to transition into the real world for them to become a successful and contributing member of society.

Thomas and Ermler (1988) suggested that an institution has a moral obligation to help the athlete attain life skills due to the power they possess.  These authors stated that an obligation of the institution is to provide retirement resources at the beginning of the training phase and at all levels or years of participation.  Using the utilitarian argument, and due to the assumptions of a power relationship between the institution and the athlete, an athletic institution has a moral obligation to provide support for the athlete during the sport retirement transition process. The power source in this situation is defined as one within a social relationship where one is in a position to carry out his/her will despite resistance (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  In cases regarding sport, the institution personnel contain the power or acts as the decision maker for the athlete.

The coaches and institution personnel may owe the athlete since the program’s success was achieved by the athlete’s sacrifices and performances.  Athletics has been described as being ethical relativistic, where no universal or set moral standards exist, for even with a governing body such as the NCAA each institution interprets the guidelines differently (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  In this situation, the differences between right and wrong are not clear and become situational (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  Some coaches tend to operate under the assumption of doing what is good for the athletic program and team, therefore not worrying about the well being of the athlete (Thomas & Ermler, 1988).  This may not always include consideration of the individual athlete’s future after retiring from sport.  Unfortunately, the coach is generally making decisions based on their values and may be considered for the good of the coach and not the athlete.  This does not promote the learning or development of the athlete to make real-life decisions thus warranting help from the institution in the career transition process.

To better assist universities with the process of career transition for their student-athletes, the NCAA implemented the CHAMPS/Life Skills Program in 1993 focusing on five commitments for student-athlete personal growth: a) academic excellence, b) athletics excellence, c) personal development, d) community service, and e) career development.  All NCAA member universities are now required to participate in this program in an effort to provide the best educational services and support to their student-athletes.  The program attempts to enhance the “quality of the student-athlete experience within the university setting” (NCAA, 2005).

The principal commitment that directly affects the transition of a student-athlete to non-athlete is the career development aspect.  The career development component of the CHAMPS/Life Skills program is to “encourage the student-athlete to develop and pursue career and life goals” (NCAA, 2005).  With athletic identity of the majority of student-athletes so strong, it is likely they are going to have difficulty in making the transition from collegiate athlete to non-athlete.  The identification of the social role of athlete has been the central identity for many athletes, and they are often under-prepared for life after athletics.  The career development programming that is offered to student-athletes can assist them in thinking about viable options and realizing that while their social identity has been as an athlete for the majority of their life, there are additional groups with whom they have, or could have, membership.  Yet if the majority of student-athletes are not participating in the career development programming (Cecić Erpič et al., 2004) the programming that has been established cannot be effective in aiding in the career transition from athlete to non-athlete.

At the collegiate level, in addition to the CHAMPS/Life Skills program, there are many people involved in assisting student-athletes in both their academic, sporting, and career endeavors, including academic advisors for athletes, licensed psychologists, and sport psychology consultants.  As previously stated, if student-athletes are not taking advantage of these resources, how can they expect to have a positive career transition?  One answer to why student-athletes are not utilizing these resources is that life in intercollegiate athletics is time consuming and restricts engagement in other developmental activities.  A student-athlete’s day typically consists of classes, up to four hours of practice, and studying, usually on a predetermined schedule (Watt & Moore, 2001).  The regimented lifestyle of student-athletes may prevent them from participating in career development opportunities while in college (Bowen & Levin, 2005; Foster, 2003).  Finding time to engage in internships, attend professional development seminars, and engage in other beneficial career development activities may be difficult with such a demanding schedule.

In some cases, it may even be perceived that the aforementioned resources have a negative affect on helping student-athletes in their career transition, only adding to the struggles.  The socialized environment of intercollegiate athletes emphasizes the athletic role above other roles and talents (Beamon, 2010).  Due to this student-athletes are sometimes subject to academic clustering, a practice of steering athletes to certain majors based on their athletic schedule thus restricting major choices (Foster, 2003).  It is also noted that advising may impede student-athletes’ career development in that academic advisors sometimes focus on eligibility requirements of student-athletes rather than serving as motivators to set academic goals above general eligibility guidelines (Benson, 2000).  Career development courses were found to be effective in increasing student-athletes’ knowledge of occupational opportunities and job skills (Ware, 1986), but there is concern whether these practices are made readily available or if student-athletes even know about or take advantage of services offered.

On the other side of career transition for student-athletes, many companies specifically target former student-athletes when hiring.  This is because there are certain qualities and skills that employers who target athletes associate with participation in intercollegiate athletics.  The companies that seek athletes to fill positions within their organizations do so because they associate athletic participation with dispositional attributes highly valued within their organizations including a competitive nature, goal-orientation, ability to handle pressure, strong work ethic, confidence, coachability, ability to work with others, self-motivation, mental toughness, and time management skills (Chalfin, Weight, Osborne, & Johnson, 2015).  It would certainly be in the best interest of universities to better facilitate the transition of their student-athletes to the employers that are specifically targeting them as alumni strongly support intercollegiate sports.



Intercollegiate student-athletes who are retiring from sport do have difficulty in making the transition to life after athletics. Because the student-athlete’s time has been dominated by athletics and the importance has been placed on athletics, many student-athletes have not had the opportunity to continue identity work and development beyond the identity of athlete which may have an impact on their overall career transition.


The fact that athletic identity impacts retirement from sport and career transition in such a way that student-athletes with higher athletic identity struggle more with retirement and career transition is important to keep this in mind for those working closely with student-athletes. (e.g., sport psychologists, athletic academic counselors, coaches, career counselors).  Professionals working closely with student-athletes need to be mindful of how strongly the athlete sees themselves as athletes.

Since employers actively seek out to hire former student-athletes the athletic departments at universities should find ways to engage with the private sector for talent acquisition purposes.  For those student-athletes that do not successfully make the career transition, a formal plan should be implemented to help alums that need to find employment no matter what phase of life they are in.  Athletic departments should identify if a post competition advisor is needed or if this strategy could be executed by letterwinner alumni organizations.

Athletic departments need to recognize that in addition to providing services to the student-athletes for training and competition they also need to provide services for career transition as well, especially as it relates to the impact of athletic identity on retiring from sports.

Future Research

There seems to be a plethora of research on athletic identity as well as how it can impact some of the inherent struggles student-athletes face upon retiring sport and finding employment upon exiting college.  There are also some theories that suggest what can be done for student-athletes to help with these struggles while thy are still in school.  However, there appears to be a lack of research that investigates what can be done for former letterwinners that continue to need resources after leaving the institution.  Whose responsibility is it to provide resources for alumni student-athletes who need help finding employment 1-year after graduation? 5-years? 10-years?  It is certainly in the best interest of the university to have gainfully employed alumni, especially former student-athletes, and the athletic department would also have a differentiator in the recruiting process to let prospective student-athletes know they will be taken care of for life.


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