Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, in press
REPERCUSSIONS OF TRANSITION OUT OF ELITE SPORT
ON SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING: A ONE-YEAR STUDY
Yannick Stephan, Jean Bilard, Grégory Ninot and Didier Delignières
UPRES EA 2991 “Sport, Performance, Health”,
School of Sport Sciences and Physical Education, University of Montpellier I
This study examined the dynamics of subjective well-being during transition out of elite sport.
Athletes retiring from sport following the Sydney Olympic Games (n =16) were compared to
active athletes (n =16) four times during the first year post-career termination using the 12-
item General Health Questionnaire (Goldberg & Williams, 1988). Qualitative data from semi-
structured interviews provided a complement to the quantitative data. Four phases were
quantitatively identified in the evolution of subjective well-being, from an initial decrease,
followed by an increase, a stabilization, and a final increase. Qualitative data demonstrated
that the transitional athletes’ feelings and attitudes during the transition ranged from initial
difficulties facing the substantial changes in all life areas to reconstruction of and adjustment
to a new life style and a new socio-professional situation. The importance for athletes to
develop transferable skills during the sport career is underlined, as well as the potential for
optimizing the timing and type of intervention/assistance offered during the specific phases of
the transition and adjustment process following retirement from sport.
Key words: Transition, Elite sport, Subjective well-being
Retirement from elite sport marks the beginning of a transition that may be distressful for
athletes (Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997) because references in social, professional and
physical domains must be reevaluated. Exiting a career is a major life change that transforms
one’s social and physical worlds, with changes in roles, relationships and daily routines (Kim
& Moen, 2001). The transformations induced by any transition may well affect how
individuals perceive themselves, their abilities and the quality of their lives (Kim & Moen,
2001). As a result, these changes could affect subjective well-being. Generally, subjective
well-being is the assessment of the quality of one’s life based on personal experience (Diener,
1994; Diener & Suh, 1997) and can be expressed as the degree to which individuals are
satisfied with various aspects of life (Sarvimaki & Stenbolk-Hult, 2000). Subjective well-
being is deeply linked to feelings of competence and confidence with respect to valued goals
(Carver & Scheier, 1999; McGregor & Little, 1998; Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan,
2000). Lang and Heckausen (2001) noted that it is also enhanced by having a strong sense of
control and autonomy. Subjective well-being is dependent on expectations, values, and
previous experiences, and on the gap between expectations and hopes and present life
experiences (Diener & Lucas, 2000). Thus, because life-transition points often lead to self-
appraisal (Schlossberg, 1981), subjective well-being has been used as a global measure of
self-perceived adjustment for individuals at different stages of life (Diener, Emmons, Larsen,
& Griffin, 1985). Insight into subjective well-being can be acquired by examining how
individuals feel about life in the context of their personal standards and how they internally
experience the events in their lives (Diener & Suh, 1997).
Elite athletes report high life satisfaction during their career because of the living, loving
relationship they develop with their sport (Werthner & Orlick, 1986). To better understand
how transition out of elite sport could affect subjective well-being, it seems important to
consider the areas that contribute to their satisfaction with life and that constitute the basis of
their subjective well-being.
First, elite athletes’ life styles are subordinated to sport, which becomes a way of life
(Stambulova, 1994). Life style is based on powerful commitment, both physically and
emotionally (Wylleman, De Knop, Menkehorst, Theeboom, & Annerel, 1993), with daily
routines and regimens of energetic discharge and physical exercise, stimulation and efficiency
(Steinaker, Lormes, Lehman, & Altenburg, 1998). Training and exercise are crucial
components of athletes’ daily lives (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2002) and are often mentioned
as reasons for their life satisfaction (Loland, 1999). As a result, they never visualize a life
without training and competing (Ungerleider, 1997). They attribute great importance to the
adrenaline rush of high level sport (Drahota & Eitzen, 1998) as well as to the sport
atmosphere (Stambulova, 2001). Most elite athletes report high subjective well-being because
of the euphoric effect of exercise (McAllister, Motamedi, Hame, Shapiro, & Dorey, 2001) and
the intensity emerging from the life style in high level sport (Gearing, 1999).
Elite athletes’ subjective well-being is also based on their socio-professional status. These
individuals benefit from a very high status thanks to their exceptional physical skills that have
been channeled to reach sports-related goals. Athletic goals are the main life goals
(Stambulova, 1994). In all occupational activities, specific skills are needed to reach goals. In
the case of elite athletes, physical skills are central. Sport achievement and the feeling of
being athletically competent contribute to their subjective well-being and life satisfaction
(Saint-Phard, Van Dorsten, Marx, & York, 1999; Werthner & Orlick, 1986). But the main
difference with almost any other profession is that the attainment of sport goals occurs in the
public eye. This leads to positive social recognition and psychological fortification (Adler &
Adler, 1989; Loland, 1999; Werthner & Orlick, 1986). Thus, the elite status becomes a part of
overall identity (Webb, Nasco, Riley, & Headrick, 1998).
Their performance-oriented life style is facilitated by the sport environment, such as
coaching staff. Werthner and Orlick (1986) and Kerr and Dacyshyn (2000) observed that,
retrospectively, very few athletes indicate a strong sense of control during their sport career,
and note that, in fact, the coach or the association had been in control of their lives. Many
decisions are made for them, ranging from how, when and where to train to arrangements for
plane fares and accommodations (Werthner & Orlick, 1986). They lead formally-managed
lives with restricted autonomy and are nurtured and protected (Gearing, 1999), and thus
develop a false sense of control (Werthner & Orlick, 1986). This, of course, serves to preserve
athletes from external influences that could have an impact on sport achievement.
Retirement introduces a discontinuity in one’s life (Crook & Robertson, 1991) and begins
a transition during which athletes are faced with dramatic changes in their personal, social,
and occupational lives (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994). This transition induces inevitable shifts in
priorities and interests. In the socio-professional domain, retiring athletes find that they have
become “ordinary citizens” (Werthner & Orlick, 1986, p. 337). Some studies have suggested
that this passage has negative repercussions, such as identity crisis reactions (Brewer, Van
Raalte, & Linder, 1993; Ogilvie & Howe, 1982), emotional difficulties (Allison & Meyer,
1988), mental health problems (Menkenhorst & Van Den Berg, 1997), and/or decreased self-
confidence (Werthner & Orlick, 1986).
Transitions naturally occur over time. Life transitions such as role shifts, or other major
life change’s often bring about adjustments in existing trajectories. Thus, retirement from elite
sport is a process as opposed to being a discrete, isolated event (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994).
Several studies have suggested that transition from sport lasts between six months and one
year (Brandao, Winterstein, Pinheiro, Agresta, Akel, & Martini, 2001; Sinclair & Orlick,
1993; Stambulova, 1997, 2001), with transitional athletes facing several stages that force
them to make psychosocial adjustments. Transition out of elite sport is a dynamic process,
often marked by an initial sense of loss leading to a period of personal growth and adaptation
(Crook & Robertson, 1991; Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000; Werthner & Orlick, 1986). The
adjustment process involved a shift in identity, from the identity and orientation of athlete, to
a state of disorientation and loss of identity, and finally to a re-orientation and new definition
of self (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000). Using a dynamic perspective, Kim and Moen (2002) have
demonstrated that psychological adaptation processes shift over time during transitions. The
present study thus investigated the dynamics of subjective well-being in former elite athletes
during the transition out of elite sport. More precisely, the objective of this research was to
determine the repercussions of the transition and adjustment process following sport career
termination on subjective well-being.
Transitional athletes face the end of a career that was highly satisfying. Thus, they may
experience decreased life satisfaction because of pressures related to decision-making and
attempts to find and adjust to a new life following their sport career (Werthner & Orlick,
1986). Thus, subjective well-being could be influenced by the challenges defined by
Stambulova (1994) and of interest to our study, i.e. changing one’s way of life and beginning
a new career with a different status and new competencies.
As described by Kim and Moen (2001), a dramatic change in life style is usually
accompanied by a shift in subjective well-being. As underlined by Chamalidis (2000), career
termination begins a transition from an exciting existence oriented toward adrenaline rush to a
more sedentary professional situation and life style. Many athletes have emphasized the
difficulty of adjusting to a totally different life style in which they are suddenly like everyone
else (Lavallee et al., 1997). Transitional athletes are confronted with new daily timetables
(Gearing, 1999; Wylleman et al., 1993) and have to adjust to “getting up at 6, 7 o’clock,
commuting, working in an office, working indoors” (Gearing, 1999, p. 50). This life style has
been characterized as void of sensations and stimulation and, during the transition out of elite
sport, former athletes miss the sport atmosphere, the competition—with its intensity,
stimulation and fame—and pushing the body to exhaustion (Drahota & Eitzen, 1998; Kerr &
Dacyshyn, 2000; Stambulova, 2001). They express a feeling of emptiness in their lives
(Stambulova, 1997). One of the main stakes of this transition is thus to reconstruct and adjust
themselves on the basis of a new life style.
Second, transitional athletes need to adapt to new social status and professional
responsibilities. This transition marks the passage from “something they knew very well to
something new” (Werthner & Orlick, 1986, p. 358), with the individual descending from the
heights of the extraordinary into the mundane world of ordinariness (Sparkes, 1998). Feelings
of competence and self-efficacy are called into question by confrontation with the demands of
normal working life (Gearing, 1999). The physical skills that an athlete has perfected for so
long may now seem useless (Thomas & Ermler, 1988), and they have to learn all over again
to be competent at something new (Werthner & Orlick, 1986). Doubts about their competence
in the new situation may also affect subjective well-being. Thus, transitional athletes have to
reorient and redefine their goals and competencies to fit this new situation by developing
interests toward which they can direct the considerable time and energy that were previously
devoted to training (Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997). Transitional athletes must also
develop a new sense of autonomy and control over their lives in new settings and according to
new roles. During transition, most feel a loss of personal control over their lives and have to
learn to take control again (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000; Werthner & Orlick, 1986).
From a methodological point of view, longitudinal methodologies are best suited to
understanding the dynamics of subjective well-being. No research to our knowledge,
however, has ever studied transition out of elite sport from a longitudinal perspective or in
vivo, despite the evident problems of using recall to reconstruct past experience (Kerr &
Dacyshyn, 2000). The limitations associated with retrospective studies, i.e., memory decay
and recall bias, are well known and these studies are also limited by changes in perception
over time (Lavallee et al., 1997) or the risk of significant information being neglected (Squire,
1989). As Grove et al. (1997) noted, a multi-method approach is also needed for research in
the area of transition out of elite sport. Qualitative procedures could complement more
quantitative approaches by delineating the experiences of transitional athletes and the stresses
they face (Grove et al., 1997).
In the present study, the dynamics of subjective well-being were explored over a one-year
period in elite athletes who had participated in the Sydney Olympic Games before ending
their careers. We hypothesized that these transitional athletes would face two major phases
during the transition period and that subjective well-being scores would reflect the
progression from initial crisis, caused by substantial changes in life style and socio-
professional situation, followed by a period of personal growth and new beginnings, resulting
from adjustment to new rhythms and the development of new skills. These transitional
athletes were compared with elite athletes remaining in competition. This quantitative
research was complemented by interviews, which provided qualitative data for our results.
Sixteen French Olympic athletes retiring from elite sports after the Sydney Olympic
Games participated in this study. Their ages ranged from 27 to 35 years with a mean age of
30.56 years (SD = 3.7). The group included one female canoer, one female badminton player,
three female synchronized swimmers, one female and four male fencers, one male archer, two
female and two male rowers, and one male wrestler. The transitional athletes were compared
to sixteen elite athletes remaining in high-level sports. These active athletes were selected to
constitute a ground measure of the former status of the transitional athletes, and all were
matched with the transitional group in terms of sport, gender and age (M = 29.36 years, SD =
2.3). Their ages also ranged from 27 to 35 years.
Subjective well-being. To evaluate the dynamics of subjective well-being over a one-year
period, we used the French version of the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12)
(Goldberg & Williams, 1988) as our quantitative instrument because of its short design. This
short instrument have been used as a measure of subjective well-being, and is designed to
assess short-term changes in subjective well-being by providing a measure of how much
subjects feel that their present state over the past few weeks is unlike their usual state.
Previous studies have reported test-retest reliability coefficients of .82 (Patton & Donohue,
1998). The subjects are asked to rate themselves using a 4-point Likert scale. An overall GHQ
score is obtained by summing across items, with a high score representing a lower level of
subjective well-being. The meaning of the measure resides less in the actual score obtained
than in the change in score observed over time, and there are no reference norms. This
instrument has been used to study other transitions; for example, to evaluate the impact of
relocation on well-being in employees (Moyle & Parkes, 1999). In the present study, test-
retest coefficients ranged between .76 and .79.
Characteristics of transitional and active athletes. The characteristics of the participants in
the two groups were identified at the first meeting before moving on to the main evaluation.
Retired athletes were asked how many years they had had the status of elite athlete , i.e., as
members of national teams (e.g., “How long were you on a national team competing
internationally before ending your career?”), why they had decided to retire, and if it was
voluntary, i.e., a sense of accomplishment and free choice, or involuntary, i.e., age,
deselection, injury. An example of a question was: “Why did you retire from elite sport?”
They were also asked questions regarding the work they began doing after retiring (e.g.,
“What kind of work are you doing now?”). Athletes whose retirement was involuntary were
not available. Active elite athletes were asked questions only regarding their years of elite
General semi-structured interviews. Semi-structured interviews were conducted
individually with each transitional athlete by the first author. An interview guide¹ was
developed to standardize all interviews across participants and minimize bias (Patton, 1990).
This guide was designed to elicit information regarding (a) participants’ perception of
changes in life style and (b) changes in socio-professional situation. The shifts that occur in
these areas have been demonstrated to be psychologically stressful for life satisfaction, one
component of subjective well-being (Werthner & Orlick, 1986). Participants’ perceptions of
changes in life style following retirement from elite sport were defined as perception of
changes in daily life and timetable (Wylleman et al., 1993) and in life intensity and
stimulation (Drahota & Eitzen, 1998; Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000) compared with their sport
career. The perception of socio-professional situation following career termination was also
explored and corresponded to perception of changes in socio-professional status and changes
in needed competencies and skills compared with their former status (Werthner & Orlick,
1986). The interview guide was pilot-tested with five former Olympic athletes, retired since
1993, who were familiar with sport psychology. Feedback from these individuals was used to
optimize the validity of the interview guide and to refine the interview questions. Based on
Spradley’s (1979) suggestions, more broad and general questions were asked at the beginning
to give the participants an opportunity to speak in a relaxed atmosphere. With permission
from the participants, the face-to-face interviews were audiotaped.
Twenty-one athletes who had decided to end their careers after the Olympic Games were
contacted at the end of the Games. Their telephone numbers and addresses were obtained
from federations in the respective sport disciplines. All were informed of the purpose of the
study and provided with indications of the time required to complete both the written
questionnaire and the interview. Four athletes did not respond and one declined the invitation
to participate. Sixteen athletes agreed to participate, and informed consent was obtained from
all of them. The sixteen active elite athletes were contacted at the National Institute of Sports
and Physical Education and were also informed of the purpose of the study. Informed consent
was also obtained from these sixteen athletes. The participants of the two groups were assured
that confidentiality would be preserved. The two groups were evaluated with the GHQ-12
four times at approximately three-month intervals. The first evaluation (CT1) took place
between one-and-a-half and two months after career termination. The second was five months
after career termination (CT2), the third was about eight months after career termination
(CT3), and the fourth was between eleven and twelve months after career termination (CT4).
At each of these times, a convenient time and location for a meeting was arranged with
each athlete so that the same researcher (e.g., the first author) could administer the GHQ-12
and conduct interviews individually in the same session. Questionnaires were administered
prior to the interviews. Meetings lasted an average of two hours. Active elite athletes were
only administered the GHQ-12.
GHQ-12. For the purpose of the present investigation, analyses were repeated-measure
ANOVAs in which subjective well-being was the dependent measure, time was a repeated-
measure independent variable, with four times, and a between-group independent variable
with the two groups, transitional and active elite athletes. This analysis was followed by post-
hoc comparisons using the Newman Keuls test when statistical significance was obtained.
Semi-structured interviews. After each session, audio recordings of the interview were
transcribed verbatim and the content was analyzed using both inductive and deductive
processes of reasoning. In the case of our study, the broader categories (e.g., changes in life
style and socio-professional situation) were already established by the interview format with
two sections, and were created deductively. Athletes’ responses within each of the pre-
existing categories were logged and grouped into common subcategories in an inductive
manner where appropriate following the methods used by Gould, Eklund, and Jackson (1993).
A continual overlap of data collection and analysis was performed not only to verify and
refine existing themes but also to secure the identification of additional concepts of
importance as well as salient cues which were then incorporated into the next scheduled
interviews (Lofland & Lofland, 1995).
Measures taken to ensure the trustworthiness of the data analysis included member
checking before and after each interview. An external researcher who was a sport
psychologist familiar with qualitative research verified the codes and coding The transcripts
were also read independently by the first, second and third authors to determine the
interpretation that best fit the data. Agreement between the three investigators or triangular
consensus (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) was thus sought for each transcript, a procedure which
allowed for correction of data interpretation. Feedback from study participants was also
sought at each session (Meyer & Wenger, 1998). Thus, after the questionnaire was completed,
the principal investigator summarized what he had understood during the previous interview
and each participant was invited to clarify, confirm, or disconfirm the findings. The
observations made by the athletes were thus used to enhance the quality and relevance of the
interviews and the interview guide was refined at each evaluation; that is, between each
evaluation session (i.e., CT1 vs. CT2, etc.).
Characteristics of transitional and active elite athletes
At the time of retirement, all transitional athletes had been competing as members of
national teams for 10.81 years (SD = 2.4). Their retirement from elite sport was freely chosen
because of a sense of accomplishment, with all claiming to have achieved their sport-related
goals. An example of this is the statement: “I had reached all my goals in sports—I felt I had
gone as far as I could—and I knew it was time to leave.” They also expressed a desire to
discover new activities and new focuses in their lives, as illustrated by the response: “I wanted
to learn something new in a different area, to enhance myself.” All had had part-time jobs
during their careers adapted to high-performance needs; that is to say, complete availability to
train and compete. All had full-time jobs to focus on after career termination. Three were
teachers in French high schools, six were coaches, three had returned to school, one was a
public relations consultant, and three were working in government administrations.
The active elite athletes were members of national teams and competed in World Cups and
Championships or European Championships. They had been competing as members of
national teams for an average of 9.68 years (SD = 1.6). A t test demonstrated no statistical
difference between the two groups for age, t(30) = 1.05, p =.29, or years of elite sport
participation , i.e., members of national teams, t(30) = 1.54, p = .13.
GHQ-12 mean scores and standard deviations for transitional and active athletes are
presented in Table I.
Table 1: GHQ-12 mean scores and standard deviations for transitional athletes and active
elite athletes at CT1, CT2, CT3, and CT4
CT1 CT2 CT3 CT4
M SD M SD M SD M SD
GHQ score 25.06 4.21 23.00 4.24 22.43 4.03 19.56 2.50
Active Elite Athletes
CT1 CT2 CT3 CT4
M SD M SD M SD M SD
GHQ score 21.18 3.01 21.43 3.09 21.31 2.08 20.25 1.57
Note. CT1 = One and a half months after Career Termination; CT2 = Five months after Career Termination;
CT3 = About eight months after Career Termination; CT4 = Between eleven and twelve months after Career
Repeated-measure ANOVA revealed a statistically significant time effect, F(3, 90) = 8.83,
p < .0001, and a significant Group by Time interaction effect, F(3, 90) = 4.22, p < .01. No
group effect was found, F(1, 30) = 2.73, p = .10. Post- hoc comparisons using the Newman
Keuls test revealed that the GHQ-12 score of the transitional athletes decreased significantly
between CT1 and CT2 (p < .05) and between CT3 and CT4 (p < .01), but did not change
between CT2 and CT3 (p = .53). No significant differences were found in the active elite
athletes’ scores. The analysis revealed a significant difference between the two groups at CT1,
with transitional athletes having higher GHQ-12 scores than active ones (p < .001), but did
not differ between the two groups at the other times.
All transitional athletes welcomed the opportunity to talk about their experiences in
transition out of elite sport. Analyses of the interview data revealed that the transition process
spanned four separate phases in the participants’ attitudes and feelings toward their life style
and socioprofessional situation following retirement from elite sport.
Session 1: One and a half months after career termination (CT1)
Confrontation with a whole new life style
New sedentary daily life. At this time, transitional athletes emphasized their first contact
with new daily routines, timetables and habits. As a female rower said: “It’s strange to get up
in the morning and think that there is no training or traveling for competition today. Just
going to work.” These athletes found the new life style more passive and sedentary, as in the
case of this fencer: “My daily activities are ordinary and so I feel very passive in my new
A lack of physical sensations and stimulations. All the transitional athletes expressed a
lack of physical sensations. As a wrestler expressed it: “There’s no more physical intensity or
stimulation. When I was an athlete, it was a physical effort, and now it’s really hard to find
the same thing mentally.” Even those who remained in sport as coaches or administrators
were not nearly as active as when they had been athletes, as a male rower engaged in
coaching said: “I’m on a boat, but the only effort I make is to yell out instructions! Physically,
there’s no stimulation.” Part-time jobs had been transformed into full-time work without any
training highs. A female synchronized swimmer said: “I like my job, but I miss the swimming
pool, the physical sensations.”
The loss of frequent traveling. The other aspect of elite sport life that transitional athletes
missed was the frequent traveling. A female fencer underlined: “I miss the frequent traveling.
For example, every year at this period, we were in Cuba for training camp. It’s strange to
remember that every year at this period I was somewhere else. It’s a void in my life.” For
these athletes, this rhythm of traveling and frequent trips to other countries was a major part
of their life style and was felt as a great lack in their current life, as an archer said: “I feel an
enormous void in my life. Not only because of the lack of exercise, but also the loss of
competing in other countries, traveling for training camps.”
Confrontation with a new socio-professional situation
The discrepancy between former and current competencies. These former athletes
described a discrepancy between current workplace references and competencies and the
former ones focused on physical competencies.
It’s really difficult to shift away from the importance of my athletic skills. When I was an
athlete, my body and athletic efficiency were the foundations of my life, and now they are
useless in my new job. I’m between something that was extremely important and
something that must become important. (A wrestler)
This discrepancy resulted in a liminal position, between past sport achievement that
continued to play a role in the former athletes’ lives and the current situation not entirely
integrated as a potential source of achievement. A female synchronized swimmer explained:
“I have to build a new framework of references. My behavior and feelings have to be turned
away from the body and reinvested in my work.”
A liminal position between the status of athlete and that of “ordinary individual”. In
addition to facing a discrepancy between former and currently required competencies,
transitional athletes found themselves in an “in-between” social status: not yet entirely ex-
athlete but not yet entirely full-time employee. This situation was presented by an archer:
“When I introduce myself, I still talk about myself as an archer.” Most underlined the fact
that, even if they were integrated into a new career, they had not fully assimilated the status
attached to it.
I tend to reason from my status of athlete, as if I were still one, even though I’m not. It’s
difficult to tell myself that I’m doing a different job with a new status. It’s like I’m
between two chairs and I know I have to sit down on the second one. (A wrestler)
Session 2: Five months after career termination (CT2)
The difficulties of accepting a new life style
The investment in alternative non-sport activities. During this period, the athletes invested
in alternative activities. As described by a wrestler: “I try to compensate for the lack of
training and the physical high by other activities after work.” There was a transfer of energy
toward new activities to compensate physically unstimulating jobs and the lack of physical
sensations one and a half months after career termination. A female rower said: “I sit all day
at work. After a day like that, I need to get out and see friends, go to a restaurant and then a
movie. I can’t stay put, I really need to keep moving.”
The avoidance of a more passive life style. This investment in alternative activities and the
search for social networks was a substitute for the rhythm of elite sport, and it allowed them
to avoid confronting the reality of a new life style.
I’m doing a lot of things with friends after work. So this way I don’t have time to get
bored—even if these activities are totally different from sports. It’s just like going to train
with friends, but there’s no physical effort! This way, at least I don’t go home and sit in
front of TV. (A rower)
For the ex-athletes working in sport, these compensatory activities reduced the frustration
of not being an active athlete, as a female synchronized swimmer said:
When I’m at the swimming pool, I’m frustrated by not being in the water. I see my
swimmers training hard, and I’m passive—I’m not in the pool. It’s very difficult mentally.
So after training other swimmers, I get rid of the tension with friends in other places.
New beginnings in the socio-professional area
The search for social support. The transitional athletes emphasized initial difficulties
related to the lack of autonomy and control of one’s life experiences during the sport career. A
wrestler said: “When I was an athlete, coaches and technical staff organized my life: training
hours, schedules, trips, I only thought about training and exercise. So right after I retired, I
was lost, no one was deciding for me.” Thus, the search for social support was underlined by
all the transitional athletes; an archer explained: “I have to keep getting information from my
colleagues. On my own, I couldn’t learn my job. I’m lucky because everyone is helping me
The avoidance of identification with other athletes. The transition was described as
difficult, particularly for former athletes working in sport. They emphasized the danger of
identifying with the athletes they train. This awareness helped the former athletes to integrate
the truth that the sport career was over and points out the need to develop new competencies
based on the new socio-professional situation.
Sometimes I’m thinking of my own feelings and sensations, and then I suddenly realize
that I have to be more objective, to act like a coach. And the older coaches are there to
remind me that I’m not an athlete anymore. (A female synchronized swimmer)
Liberation through losing the social status of athlete. Paradoxically, a decrease in social
reinforcement was noted—but as a factor that facilitated transition. This loss in fact helped to
clarify their transitional situation one and a half month after career termination as not entirely
full-time workers but also not entirely ex-athletes. A female badminton player revealed:
“Even if it’s good to be recognized, it’s liberating not to be. Now I can evaluate myself
objectively in my work and build a new framework of competencies thinking that I’m
Session 3: Eight months after career termination (CT3)
The reconstruction of a healthy life style
The reinvestment of leisure time in physical activities. This period was marked by a
transfer of energy that had been invested in compensatory activities back to the sport
domain—but in a new way, with different attitudes toward the physical activity. As a fencer
expressed it: “I try to go running when I have the time.” A female canoer was even clearer: “I
can’t be inactive. But I prefer to find time to exercise and stay healthy than to go out to
discotheques or restaurants all the time.” This awareness of the difficulty of adjusting to a
new life style brought them to the decision to reinvest the body, but in a healthy and
pleasurable manner, as described by an archer: “There are two reasons for exercising: staying
in good physical health and getting rid of job tensions!”
The physical transformation as warning signal. This transfer of energy was in response to
the physical transformations due to lack of training and the substantial deregulation of daily
habits. It responded to the need to, as a wrestler said: “…stay in good health. The past
months, I’ve been tired all the time and gained weight.” Physical changes were perceived as
“warning signals” (a male rower), and investment in compensatory activities began to be seen
as a way of hiding from difficulties rather than as facilitating adjustment to a new life style
and professional activities. A female rower said: “I think I was trying to find a source of
stimulation. But in reality, I was losing the body I’ve had for years and I couldn’t adequately
invest in my job either.”
The paradox of the adjustment to the socio-professional situation
The development of a feeling of competence. These athletes emphasized positive
adjustment to professional references and the development of new competencies in the
workplace. An archer said: “I still make mistakes, but I feel like I’m making progress.”
The lack of personal goals. They expressed a paradox, the impression of learning new
things and enhancing themselves, but not quite knowing why, as suggested by a female
fencer: “I’m making progress, I’m learning a lot—but why? I don’t see the point, why I’m
making all this effort.” When they compared their current situation with the former, they
recognized that the feeling of progress in the workplace had no meaning and was not directed
toward short-term or even long-term goals and focus. As described by a fencer: “Life isn’t the
same. It’s different—before I had events in the season to focus on, and I was always preparing
for them.” They expressed difficulty seeing the finality of the investment in the professional
setting, and found it difficult to work without self-projection into the future. Thus, an archer
underlined: “I don’t see myself in the future. I have a hard time understanding how my
progress and my current effort could have consequences in the short-term future.”
Session 4: Between eleven and twelve months after career termination (CT4)
The balance in life style
Complementary and healthy physical activities. The transitional athletes talked about
balance in their lives at this point. Their life style had become organized around work and
maintaining physical fitness, between a sedentary job situation and leisure time activity. In
this newly-defined physical activity, they found stimulation and physical sensations to offset
their sedentary professional situations. As a wrestler emphasized: “It’s good to exercise and to
feel physical tiredness. It’s a leisure activity, a pleasant way to feel good.” Renewed physical
activity was considered by the transitional athletes to be a key to their new life style. Exercise
became a source of equilibrium, health and pleasure, as described by a female rower: “There
are several ways to consider it. First, I’m maintaining my health. Second, after my job, it
helps me unwind and get rid of tension. And third, it feels good—physically good, and that
makes me feel overall good.”
A sense of autonomy and control. The transitional athletes became autonomous also, in
the sense that they were finally able to decide when to exercise, without any external pressure
and without a feeling of obligation. This physical pleasure had to take into account
professional responsibilities, as acknowledged by a female fencer: “I run when I have the time
or when I really need to.” These athletes underlined the fact that they were controlling their
leisure time and their exercise timetable differently than during their sport career when
exercise was an obligation controlled by the sport staff. A female rower shared the following:
Now I feel in control of my life. Now I decide when and where I’m going to run, how
many times. If I don’t want to run, I don’t. It’s different from during my career when the
coach and the federation controlled my rhythm, decided for me when and where I would
train, and I had no choice.
Adjustment to the socio-professional situation
A sense of accomplishment. All the transitional athletes underlined a feeling of
accomplishment and competence in their professional activities compared with the previous
period. An archer said: “I was wondering why I was working. Now I see that work has many
satisfactions.” Goal-setting seemed to underlie this feeling, with satisfaction of seeing hard
work rewarded by the attainment of goals, as a female fencer suggested: “I set goals at my
job. I’ve reached them and, more than that, I’ve gone beyond them. I feel competent in my
job now.” The transitional athletes recognized that this achievement of work goals was similar
to sport achievement, with the notion of preparation and attention focused toward something
definite and concrete. A female badminton player told us:
I worked hard on a project. Night and day, for a long period, I kept thinking about it and
working on it, and then when I finished it, I was as happy as when I used to win a
By approximately one year post-retirement, these athletes had discovered that their jobs
could be as satisfying and self-enhancing as athletic achievement, as summarized by this
fencer: “You have an objective or a project, you spend nearly all your time on it, you carry it
out and achieve your goal—and you are recognized for your results.” Being recognized in the
workplace increased this feeling of accomplishment, as described by a female synchronized
swimmer: “I’m recognized now for my training methods as a coach, and no more as an
The purpose of this study was to evaluate the repercussions of the transition out of elite
sport on subjective well-being. Four phases were identified in the dynamics of subjective
well-being and perceptions of changes in life style and socio-professional situation. The
phases ranged from initial difficulties facing the substantial changes in all life areas to
reconstruction of and adjustment to a whole new life style and socioprofessional situation, and
thus support our initial hypothesis. The present results are original and contribute to the
literature on transition out of elite sport in several ways. The longitudinal assessment at the
actual time of transition, with repeated measures across time, allowed us to identify the
dynamics of subjective well-being, and this was completed by qualitative study of the
underlying mechanisms of these dynamics. An important finding concerned the shift in
psychological adaptation to changes in life style and socio-professional situation over time.
The identification of both quantitative changes and the strategies used during the transition
and adjustment process provides information on Taylor and Ogilvie’s assumptions (1994)
about the coping skills deployed by retiring athletes and about how social supports mediate
adjustment to this retirement. The previous studies that demonstrated that transition out of
elite sport is composed of several phases are complemented (Crook & Robertson, 1991; Kerr
& Dacyshyn, 2000; Werthner & Orlick, 1986) with more detail. This study also confirms that
the adjustment to transition out of elite sport results from a change in the place of sport in the
life and history of an individual, as suggested by Stambulova (1994).
The mechanisms underlying the dynamics of subjective well-being
The transitional athletes faced an initial period of one and a half to two months after career
exit during which they were confronted with feelings of loss and void, but they also expressed
the feeling of being in a liminal position between their former status and the current one in a
new socio-professional setting, as if they were between worlds (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000).
Sagiv and Schwartz (2000) underlined that subjective well-being may be undermined by
conflicts between values acquired earlier and values whose internalization is advocated in a
new environment. It seems quite logical that retirement from elite sport, which introduces a
substantial discrepancy in past and emerging life style, could affect this dimension, as
demonstrated by the difference in scores compared with active elite athletes. In the case of our
study, the new values and competencies in the workplace did not correspond to those
internalized by elite athletes during their sport career.
Following this first period and up to five months post-career termination, coping
strategies such as avoidance were used to avoid boredom and compensate the rhythm of elite
sport. This may explain the increase in subjective well-being noted at this time, and it agrees
with Stambulova (1997), who demonstrated that retired athletes try to spend their free time on
distracting activities to compensate a feeling of emptiness. Avoidance is adaptive by
distancing the individual temporarily from the stressful situation (Anshel, Kim, Kim, Chang,
& Eom, 2001; Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). This finding could confirm the
assumption of Grove et al. (1997) that although avoidance strategies are temporarily adaptive,
prolonged use could become maladaptive. In fact, few non-athletes are as active as athletes,
and an athlete’s rhythm would be hard to duplicate outside of sport (Baillie & Danish, 1992).
Moreover, the loss of social status clarified this by signaling that elite athletic status was over.
Maintenance of social recognition can be problematic during transition out of elite sport
because efforts to establish a new life and identity are undermined when the individual is still
recognized and valued as an athlete, rather than simply as a “work colleague” (Gearing,
1999). Added to this is social support from job contacts, allowing the athletes to learn new
skills and find ways to obtain advice, assistance and information to ease transition and
adjustment (Sinclair & Orlick, 1993; Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994).
From five to eight months following career termination, subjective well-being remained
stable. The transitional athletes changed from avoidance strategies to the strategy of training
and/or exercising. This finding also confirms the assumption of Grove et al. (1997) that there
is a point during the transition where individuals begin to perceive more control and change
their coping strategies. Training and exercise may be more adaptive (Sinclair & Orlick, 1993).
The second factor tied to the stability of subjective well-being was the lack of personal goals
for these athletes, even if they developed new competencies. Feeling competent for valued
goals is deeply linked to subjective well-being (Reis et al., 2000). During the sport career,
training is planned around specific events and physical progress is thus always directed
toward something definite (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2002). In their new professional
situation, the development of a feeling of competence would not have a real positive effect
without concrete objectives and goals.
Subjective well-being increased between eight and about twelve months after retirement
from sport. The transitional athletes’ sense of personal control grew as they began to make
decisions concerning their lives and this was tied to adjustment to post-sport life (Taylor &
Ogilvie, 1994; Werthner & Orlick, 1986). Having a sense of control is strongly related to a
positive evaluation of one’s life (Lang & Heckhausen, 2001). Moreover, leisure time physical
activities played a central role in the enhancement of subjective well-being, as demonstrated
in previous research (Fox, 2000; Oishi, Schimmack, & Diener, 2001).
The sense of job accomplishment and competence also contributed to this increase in
subjective well-being. As described by Werthner and Orlick (1986), the transitional athletes
realized at a certain point in time that there were other areas of life potentially as exciting and
rewarding as athletics, and their life satisfaction became close to or above that of their sport
career. These authors suggested that renewed confidence and adjustment to new situations is
related to gaining skills in new settings. Goal setting creates meaning in a new situation
because it allows the projection of self into the future through valued goals to focus on.
Transition out of elite sport can be an opportunity for personal growth because it leads to a
search for meaning in new settings (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000). The sense of accomplishment
that comes from reaching goals enhances perceived competence in the workplace and
increases subjective well-being, and this is reinforced by peer recognition. Pleasurable
physical activities could also explain the positive adjustment to a new socio-professional
situation. As Argyle and Martin (1991) claim, exercise and sport tend to increase subjective
well-being in general and to increase satisfaction with work and leisure time in particular.
Even if the transitional athletes felt some difficulties one and a half months after career
termination, the positive influence of voluntary and controlled retirement on the adjustment
process is underlined in the present study as in the literature as a whole (Crook & Robertson,
1991; Sinclair & Orlick; 1993; Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994; Webb et al., 1998; Werthner &
Orlick, 1986). Moreover, a new professional situation to turn to as the sport career comes to
an end—as was the case in the present study—is tied to pre-retirement planning (Sinclair &
Orlick, 1993; Werthner & Orlick, 1986), and eased the adjustment to a new life in the context
of our study.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to the transitional athletes, the active athletes’
subjective well-being remained stable across one year.
The change in the place of sport in individual life and history
The global mechanism allowing the adjustment to transition out of elite sport, and thus the
increase in subjective well-being, is related to the change in the place of sport in former
athletes’ life and history, along with a change in internal attitude about sports (Stambulova,
1994). The present study demonstrated that the transitional athletes reoriented their
expectations to accommodate changes in quality of life. When life references change,
individuals must shift their internal standard to accommodate the changes (Allison, Locker, &
Feine, 1997). Thus, the former athletes shifted their focus from their competencies in the
athletic domain oriented toward athletic goals to professional competencies directed toward
attaining valued professional goals. Attitude toward physical activity changed as well: From
a source of extreme physical sensations and stimulations, physical exercise became a healthy,
leisure time activity and a source of pleasure.
Moreover, during their sport career, the elite athletes ascribed the greatest importance to
the athletic domain, even when they had other occupations. There was an inversion in the
values attributed to the life domain, with the professional domain becoming the main valued
life domain and physical exercise becoming a complement of professional investment. This
confirmed the findings of Koukouris (1994) and emphasized the positive effect of shifting the
energy once spent in pursuit of athletic goals to the professional level.
Implications for practice
The results of both the quantitative and qualitative data indicate several issues related to
the interventions designed to help active athletes to prepare for retirement. First, practitioners
should help these athletes to become aware of, develop, and use transferable skills that may
provide direction and motivation in their post-athletic career (Sinclair & Orlick, 1993; Taylor
& Ogilvie, 1994). Goal-setting, as demonstrated, could be one of the most important skills to
develop as it played a central role in the adjustment process and in the increase of subjective
well-being to a level close to that of the sport career. The issue of autonomy and control over
one’ life is central to the preparation of post-sport life. In fact, the transitional athletes in our
study adjusted well to their new situation because of the development of autonomy and sense
of control, both positive for the enhancement of subjective well-being (Lang & Heckausen,
2001). This development became apparent after a first period of loss of control and
uncertainty. Athletes must develop more autonomy related to decision-making during the
sport career—despite the influence of the sport environment—to avoid developing a false
sense of control.
The major applications for practice concern the potential for optimizing the timing and
type of assistance during the transitional period. Four main periods were revealed that might
correspond to four types of intervention or assistance. One interesting aspect to explore is the
potential use of a progressive detraining program to help athletes cope with the substantial
changes in life style at the beginning of the transition. This assistance might prevent reliance
on avoidance strategies in voluntarily retired athletes, and it might protect them from the
abrupt physical transformations that threaten feelings of self-worth and self-identity. Sport
psychologists can also help transitional athletes to reduce the discrepancy between the values
and standards acquired during the sport career and the values of their new environment at the
beginning of the transition. The development of generativity must be encouraged, through
discussing their refined account with still active athletes (Grove, Lavallee, Gordon, & Harvey,
1998). This could give their new identity a greater sense of meaning and allow the integration
of former identity as a part of personal history, which was central in the case of the present
One interesting aspect emerging from the methodology used was related to the use of four
semi-structured interviews during a one-year period. Although this was designed to provide
information about the mechanisms underlying the dynamics of subjective well-being, it may
also have had complementary therapeutic properties, as was the case in Kerr and Dacyshyn’s
study (2000). Repeated interviews at the actual time of transition may have positive
consequences on the adjustment process of transitional athletes, allowing them an
understanding of their situation at particular points in time, and this may accelerate their
adjustment to a non-athletic career. Over time, these athletes may have elaborated a story of
their experience of transition out of elite sport, close to the account-making successfully used
by Grove et al. (1998) and Lavallee et al. (1997). This suggests that it would be interesting to
provide the opportunity for confiding at regular points during the actual time of transition.
Suggestions for future research
This timing of specific interventions may not be generalizable to every athlete, as our
study sample was small and did not include those who retired involuntarily. Future research is
needed to capture the dynamics of subjective well-being with repeated measures in a larger
sample of transitional athletes to create a more valid and generalizable model of timed
intervention. Evaluations and interviews must begin before retirement, to identify potential
decrease in subjective well-being between the sport career and the beginning of the transition.
It would be also interesting to focus on those athletes who retire for involuntary reasons, such
as age deselection or injury, and who are assumed to have greater problems adjusting to
retirement from elite sport than voluntarily retired athletes. These involuntarily retired athletes
could present different dynamics in their adjustment to the transition, with a more pronounced
crisis stage and a use of different kind of coping strategies, such as emotion-focused coping.
1. Complete interview guides for CT1, CT2, CT3, and CT4 are available by request from
the first author
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