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Control in Athlete Transition & Retirement

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

A recent study (2018) published by the Professional Players Federation (the national organisation for the professional player associations in the United Kingdom) surveyed 800 athletes and revealed only 29% were able to choose when they stopped playing sport, with the rest having to stop due to injury, general wear and tear and not gaining a new contract. In addition, only 50% of athletes felt in control of their lives within 2 years of finishing their sporting career. The report concludes by proposing 5 key factors for a successful transition…

· Satisfaction with playing career

· Preparation for the future while playing

· Retiring on own terms

· Quality of transition

· Regaining control of their life

The 5 key factors outlined above are in line with a substantial body of academic research into the area of athlete career transition. A 2013 review of 126 research studies on the subject revealed that the following factors were all positively associated with a successful transition out of sport…

· Voluntariness of retirement decision

· Career and personal development

· Sporting career achievement

· Educational status

· Control of Life

A common theme running throughout is the role that control plays during this experience for the athlete. So, if control is an important factor that influences the success of a transition, what does it actually mean and how do you take control?

As a human being the very nature of existence is transitional. Life is fluid, dynamic. Each day, from one moment to the next we are faced by events and challenges. Large or small, expected or unexpected, positive or negative, where we are questioned by life.

Questioned to make a choice. To choose our attitude, to choose our action. With choice comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes accountability. First and foremost, to ourselves.

This is no different for the lived experience of an athlete within their sport. However, in both life and sport there are many factors that we have no control over. For example, what competitors do, injuries, the coach’s approach to picking the team or the weather on game day. One thing that does remain in everyone’s control is your choice of attitude to any given situation, your subsequent actions and the responsibility that accompanies this.

Being responsible for choosing our attitude to any situation, whether the experience is positive or negative provides us with the opportunity to work towards our human potential. For example, even when faced with a season ending injury an athlete has the option to view it as an opportunity to come back stronger and fitter. Perhaps to engage in an educational or vocational pursuit, turn to hobbies or other interests for enjoyment and give balance to the tough process of rehabilitation. Spend more quality time with friends and family to gain perspective on life and re-focus. Thereby finding meaning in the suffering and difficult experience, we can turn the situation into an opportunity for personal growth, purpose and accomplishment. In a seemingly uncontrollable situation, we have the power to take back control as a consequence of the attitude we adopt and the meaning we create.

So how does this perspective on control relate to themes outlined in the research.

From day one as an athlete, you are on the road to the end of your sporting career. This may come in 2 years or 15 years. It may be expected or un-expected, planned or un-planned, welcomed or un-welcomed, satisfying or unfulfilled. Largely the circumstances are out of your control. However, as discussed, how you view your sporting career and the meaning you attach to it (e.g. do you view your career as successful, un-successful) is completely down to you. Meaning and attitude cannot be given, it must be created by the individual.

The quality of the transition differs from each person to the next and is almost an impossible question to answer, simply because everyone’s lived experience is different. The meaning that each person creates and attaches to the events in their life is completely unique to them. That being said, actually acknowledging that one day your sporting career will come to an end can be the catalyst to accept the challenge and responsibility to realise your potential in all areas of your life. This can lead to proactively preparing for life beyond sport, for example, personal and professional development, educational status, involvement in charitable causes.

Actively preparing for life beyond sport is a process. Just like the process of preparing for competition. You can’t necessarily predict the quality of the result on gameday, but by fully giving yourself over to the process or the cause, you can positively influence the outcome by taking care of everything within your control, both your attitude and actions.

Contemplating and preparing for life beyond sport can sometimes cause athletes to ask the question, does this mean I’m not 100 % committed to sport. The answer is absolutely not. A change of outlook and language is needed here. You can be FULLY committed to your role as an athlete and also pursue your potential in other areas of your life and still achieve outstanding results (see ACT athlete page). Creating a broader identity is widely acknowledged as a positive for both performance and personal well-being.

All athletes have the power to positively influence their transition or retirement before, during and after the event by accepting their personal responsibilty for their attitude and actions despite the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety that often accompany this. Support provided should encourage athletes to embrace the responsibility and challenge of realising their human potential in order to exert control on their own individual transitional experience, whatever the circumstances are.


About the author

Written by Ben Paszkowec, Performance Psychologist at Athlete Career Transition.

After a career in professional and semi-professional football (soccer), ACT’s Performance Psychologist, Ben Paszkowec, now works with transitioning athletes to ensure their safe and smooth transition into the business environment, and within their broader lives.

Ben has accumulated hundreds of hours working with elite athletes on their transition experiences, from planning and preparation through to ongoing professional, psychological support. His past experiences coupled with his academic knowledge and daily athlete engagement positions him as a specialist in the field of athlete transition.


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