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Struggling to stay and struggling to leave: The experiences of elite para-athletes at the end of their sport careers



OBJECTIVE: To explore the retirement experiences of elite para-athletes. Athletic retirement has long been of interest to sport psychologists. With a few exceptions, little attention has been paid to the retirements of elite athletes with disabilities. The research that has been done on para-sport was conducted in the late 1990s and the context of Paralympic sport has changed in the interim. DESIGN: An online survey was distributed to retired para-athletes (n = 60) and qualitative interviews were conducted with a purposive sub-sample (n = 13). SAMPLE: The sample included 48 Paralympians (21 had medalled at the Paralympic Games) and 12 internationally competitive para-athletes. The group included 39 males and 21 females and was diverse in age (22–77 years of age), impairment history and impairment type (35 acquired impairments and 25 congenital impairments), and sport (24 different para-sports). METHODS: Guided by a subjective and transactional epistemological framework, data was thematically analyzed. RESULTS: Although most para-athletes leave sport for the same reasons as their able-bodied peers, certain reasons for retirement, such as declassification, are unique to para-sport. Para-athletes facing these types of retirements had particularly difficult transition experiences and could benefit from additional support. Para-athletes also reported that the increasing professionalization of para-sport, combined with uncertainty about post-sport employment opportunities for people with disabilities, made it more difficult to retire. CONCLUSIONS: Understanding the experiences of retirement that are unique to para-sport will permit sport psychologists and other practitioners to provide better and more targeted support to para-athletes.
Struggling to Stay and Struggling to Leave: The Experiences of Elite Para-Athletes at the End
of their Sport Careers
Corresponding Author: A. Bundon (
Assistant Professor, School of Kinesiology, The University of British Columbia (6081 University
Boulevard, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6T 1Z1)
*** Work was conducted while Andrea Bundon was a postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the Peter
Harrison Centre for Disability Sport in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health, Loughborough
University (United Kingdom)***
A. Ashfield (
Performance Lifestyle Research Lead, The English Institute of Sport (299 Alan Turing Way,
Manchester, United Kingdom, M11 3BS)
B. Smith (
Professor, School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, The University of Birmingham
(Edgbaston, Birmingham, United Kingdom, B15 2TT)
V. Goosey-Tolfrey (
Professor, The Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport in the School of Sport, Exercise and
Health, Loughborough University (Epinal Way, Loughborough, Leicestershire, United Kingdom,
LE11 3TU)
The authors would like to thank and acknowledge all of the athletes who participated in this
project and shared their stories in the hopes of improving the future retirement experiences of
This work was funded by the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport and the English Institute
of Sport.
Some reasons for retirement are unique to para-athletes and targeted types of support are
Earlier generations of Paralympic athletes struggled to stay in sport due to lack of funding.
Current Paralympic athletes struggle to leave sport due to uncertainty about future
Para-athletes were unprepared for the discrimination they encountered when seeking
OBJECTIVE: To explore the retirement experiences of elite para-athletes. Athletic retirement has
long been of interest to sport psychologists. With a few exceptions, little attention has been paid to
the retirements of elite athletes with disabilities. The research that has been done on para-sport
was conducted in the late 1990s and the context of Paralympic sport has changed in the interim.
DESIGN: An online survey was distributed to retired para-athletes (n=60) and qualitative
interviews were conducted with a purposive sub-sample (n=13). SAMPLE: The sample included
48 Paralympians (21 had medalled at the Paralympic Games) and 12 internationally competitive
para-athletes. The group included 39 males and 21 females and was diverse in age (22 to 77 years
of age), impairment history and impairment type (35 acquired impairments and 25 congenital
impairments), and sport (24 different para-sports). METHODS: Guided by a subjective and
transactional epistemological framework, data was thematically analyzed. RESULTS: Although
most para-athletes leave sport for the same reasons as their able-bodied peers, certain reasons for
retirement, such as declassification, are unique to para-sport. Para-athletes facing these types of
retirements had particularly difficult transition experiences and could benefit from additional
support. Para-athletes also reported that the increasing professionalization of para-sport, combined
with uncertainty about post-sport employment opportunites for people with disabilities, made it
more difficult to retire. CONCLUSIONS: Understanding the experiences of retirement that are
unique to para-sport will permit sport psychologists and other practitioners to provide better and
more targeted support to para-athletes.
Keywords: Para-athletes; Disability; Sport; Career Transition; Retirement
Struggling to Stay and Struggling to Leave: The Experiences of Elite Para-Athletes at the End
of their Sport Careers
The reasons for and circumstances of athletic retirement have long been of interest to sport
psychologists and other practitioners. However, with a few notable exceptions, little work has
been done to understand the transitions out of sport of elite athletes with disabilities. The work
that has been conducted on the topic of how and why para-athletes end their sport careers was
carried out in the late 1990s, when the context of disability sport was significantly different (Legg
& Wheeler, 1998; Martin, 1996, 1999, 2000; Wheeler, Malone, VanVlack, Nelson, & Steadward,
1996; Wheeler et al. 1999). At that time, the Paralympic Movement (defined in this instance as the
informal collective of athletes, coaches, officials, sport leaders and others whose activities
culminate in the Paralympic Games [see Bundon, 2014]), was just entering what Howe (2008)
referred to as the third era of para-sport. This era is associated with a focus on high performance
sport and contrasted with earlier eras that emphasized sport for rehabilitation and sport for
participation (Howe, 2008). In this third era, the organization and delivery of Paralympic sport has
become more professionalized and dramatic increases in funding have occurred (Misener, Darcy,
Legg, & Gilbert, 2013). For example, UK Sport invested £72,786,652 in Summer Paralympic
Sports during the 2016 Rio Paralympiad compared to £10,075,602 in the lead up to the 2000
Sydney Paralympic Games (UK Sport, n.d.). This investment has changed not only how the
national sport governing bodies (NGBs) deliver para-sport programs but has also changed what is
expected of para-athletes with regards to time spent training and the achievement of podium
performances (Hammond & Jeanes, 2017). In research with able-bodied athletes, the singular
focus on winning has been reported to promote the formation of strong athletic identities, but
often at the expense of developing other aspects of the individual’s identity (Cosh, Crabb, &
Tully, 2015; Sparkes, 1998; Webb, Nasco, Riley, & Headrick, 1998). That exclusive investment
in sport has also been linked to less time invested in preparing for post-sport careers (Aquilina,
2013; Albion & Fogarty, 2005; Cavallerio, Wadey, & Wagstaff, 2017; Murphy, Petitpas, &
Brewer, 1996). Yet the implications of an increased focus on winning and a decreased focused on
post-sport planning have not been researched in connection with para-sport and the implications
for retiring para-athletes are not well understood. The purpose of this study was to explore how
the current organization and delivery of Paralympic sport are informing the retirement experiences
of elite para-athletes by answering the following research questions: (1) How are elite para-
athletes transitioning out of sport and into employment or education? And (2) How specifically do
disability and/or impairment impact upon this transition?
Athletic Retirement and Reasons for Leaving Sport
Within the sport psychology literature, different ways of understanding sport retirement
have been advanced and theories and models drawn from the fields of social gerontology and
thanatology comparing the experience to retirement from the workforce and/or a form of social
death (Blinde & Greendorfer, 1985; Blinde & Stratta, 1992). In contrast to these largely negative
portrayals of leaving sport, other scholars have described sport retirement as a form of rebirth
(Coakley, 1983). However, while these works focused on retirement as a sudden and immediate
break, more recent research has portrayed sport retirement as one of the many normative
transitions that happen over the course of an athletic career (Park, Lavallee, & Tod, 2013;
Wylleman & Lavallee, 2004). Understanding retirement this way, shifts the focus from the
specific moment in which a sport career terminates to more holistic explorations of the athlete’s
career including how experiences throughout that career shape and influence the decision to leave
sport and the emotions involved in this process (McEwen, Hurd Clarke, Bennett, Dawson, &
Crocker, ahead of print).
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations such as work and study commitments, loss of
motivation, the politics of sport, decreases in performance, financial considerations, decreases in
enjoyment, age, injury and deselection have all been reported as reasons (able-bodied) elite
athletes terminate their sport careers (Lavallee , Grove & Gordon, 1997; Werthner & Orlick,
1986; Taylor & Olgivie, 1994). Sport scholars have subsequently sought to further understand
athletes’ experiences by creating categories that position retirement as voluntary or involuntary,
planned or unplanned, desired or undesired (Alfermann, Stambulova, & Zemaityte, 2004; Blinde
& Stratta, 1992; Lavallee et al., 1997). Yet these binaries have been called into question because
the distinction is not always clear and reasons for leaving sport are often interrelated (Alfermann,
2000; Fernandez, Stephan, & Fouquereau, 2006; Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000; Taylor & Ogilvie,
1994). For example, while some athletes ‘involuntarily’ retire due to injury, others continue to
compete while injured until the pain impacts upon their enjoyment of the sport resulting in the
‘voluntary’ decision to stop. Recognizing this interplay between reasons for retirement, some
researchers have proposed models that move from binaries to concurrently acting push factors
(negatives experiences that drive athletes from sport), pull factors (attractive opportunities outside
of sport), anti-push factors (attachment to the current situation, ie. the sport career) and anti-pull
factors (perceived costs and risks about life after sport) (Fenandez et al., 2006).
In addition to academic engagement with the topic, the past few years have seen many
high profile athletes go public about their retirement struggles and a renewed public interest in
athletic retirement as part of a broader societal conversation about athlete welfare and wellbeing
(Duhatchschek, 2016, August 29; Rumsby, 2017, May 9). The result has been increased scrutiny
of the high performance sport sector “rais[ing] challenging questions about whether the current
balance between welfare and winning is right” (Grey-Thompson, 2017, p. 4). In a recently
produced report to the British Minister of Sport, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson stated that “it is
clear that the drive for success and desire to win should not be at the cost of individuals involved”
(Grey-Thompson, 2017, p. 4). Moreover, the research evidence makes clear that, while athletes
may experience poor mental health after they leave sport, interventions and protective measures
need be taken while they are still in sport (Larkin, Levy, Marchant, & Martin, 2017).
Despite a growing body of research exploring athletic retirements and increased media
reporting on the topic, few have considered the experiences of para-athletes. Wheeler and
colleagues (1996, 1999) carried out a pilot investigation on the retirement experiences of 18 elite
Canadian para-athletes and later interviewed 40 international para-athletes. They found that para-
athletes shared many of the anxieties around sport retirement expressed by their non-disabled
peers. Wheeler et al. (1996) also proposed five areas for future research consideration which they
termed the ‘quintuplet jeopardy’ of para-athlete retirement: (1) loss of sport, (2) employment and
financial issues, (3) overuse injuries contributing to a ‘secondary’ disability, (4) facing and coping
with the original disability, and (5) issues associated with aging with a disability. These five areas,
they stated, need further investigation as each has different implications for para-athletes than for
their able-bodied peers. Martin (1996, 1999, 2000) also studied the careers and transitions of para-
athletes and found that there are situations unique to para-sport that have implications for
retirement. These included understanding that some para-athletes will have entered sport as a
means of coping with an injury or as part of the rehabilitation program. In turn, leaving sport may
raise unresolved emotions about the traumatic event and/or their identity as a person with a
disability (Martin, 2017). Yet despite theorizing that para-athletes transitioning out of sport will
encounter different challenges to able-bodied athltes and could benefit from additional, targeted
types of support to assist them to cope (such as employment training programs that address the
discrimination people with disabilities often encounter in the workplace), there has been little
development in this area over the last two decades.
Philosophical and Theoretical Framework
The research sits within the interpretivist paradigm underpinned by ontological relativism
(i.e., reality and truth are multiple and context dependent) and a subjective and transactional
epistemology (i.e., knowledge is subjective and socially constructed) (Smith & Sparkes, 2016). In
keeping with the epistemological and ontological foundations of the work, the research was
designed to engage directly with already retired para-athletes to hear their experiences of leaving
sport. No preconceived theoretical frameworks were considered before starting the work as it was
determined this would be inconsistent with aims of seeking to understand the topic from the
perspective of the para-athletes involved. We were, however, guided by the previously cited
literature and, in particular, the concept of retirement as one of the many normative transitions in
an athlete’s career (Wylleman & Lavallee, 2004), the multi-faceted and co-acting reasons for
retirement (Fernandez et al., 2006), and the ‘quintuplet jeopardy’ facing retiring para-athletes
outlined by Wheeler and colleagues (1996; 1999). The research team also brought to the project
our own knowledge, perspectives and experiences garnered from many years of participating in
para-sport as coaches, volunteers, sport practitioners and disability sport researchers. We had
ongoing discussions about our shared values, our reasons for undertaking the research and our
expectations for who would benefit from the research. As a result of these conversations, we
position this project within the field of critical disability studies (CDS) (Smith & Bundon, in
press). For us, working from a CDS approach means being attentive to the processes and
structures that contribute to the ongoing marginalization and exclusion of disabled people from
everyday life. We conceptualize sport as a everyday space where disabled identities are
(re)produced and understand that the practices of the sport sector have the potential to further
oppress people with disabilities and/or transform societal understandings of disability (Smith,
Bundon, & Best, 2016). It was our intent, when embarking on this research, to use our findings to
challenge conditions of disablism (the systemic oppression of people with disabilities stemming
from negative assumptions about disability) and ableist culture (a culture which assumes ‘most’
people are able-bodied) (Goodley, Hughes, & Davis, 2012). While some may be unfamiliar with
the idea of conducting research with the express intent of engaging in advocacy (ie. ‘challenging
oppression’), this stance is supported by many leading CDS scholars who feel that research should
be used to improve their lives of those who have given their time and knowledge to make the
research possible (Kitchen, 2000; Meekosha & Shuttleworth, 2009).
Consistent with our philosophical and theoretical position, we also adopted a relativistic
stance towards the issue of methodological rigor. Rigor has been described as a marker of
excellence or quality sought through method (Smith & McGannon, 2017). While qualitative
researchers demonstrate rigor in various manners including the use of member-checking, inter-
rater reliability and/or the application of a criteriological approach these approaches were deemed
incongruent with our ontological and epistemological frameworks (Smith & McGannon, 2017).
Instead, and consistent with the aims of CDS scholarship, we propose two means by which the
quality of our work be judged. First, we sought to be transpartent in our practice and maintain a
clear link between the knowledge produced (the findings reported, the conclusions arrived at, and
the claims made) and the steps undertaken in producing this knowledge (the design of the project,
the process of data collection, and the methods of data analysis). As disability activists have
frequently called out researchers for their parasitic practices that ‘take’ from disabled people
without reporting back (Stone & Priestley, 1996), we attempted to have open and honest relations
with participants. We communicated to potential participants our research aims, we invited them
to ask questions of the team and ended each survey and interview with the option to share with us
anything they felt ‘important for us to know.’ We also provided regular updates on the progress of
the project. In the writing up of the research, we have been transparent by communicating the
decisions made and actions taken during the research and providing details about the recruitment
process, the demographics of the sample, the number and length of interviews, and the stages of
the analysis. We have used direct quotes from participants so that readers can assess for
themselves our interpretations and the appropriateness of our themes.
The second criteria by which our work can be judged is by the extent to which it
accomplishes our stated goal of producing research that directly and indirectly benefits people (in
this case ‘athletes’) with disabilities and contributes to more inclusive practices. While we
acknowledge this can only be assessed in retrospect, as a starting point we would point to recent
changes at the English Institute of Sport that have been informed by this work including the
creation of a para-athlete advisory group and additional training for Performance Lifestyle (PL)
practitioners working with para-athletes in the areas of career planning, employment law and
issues of (de)classification (Bundon & Ashfield, 2016).
Material and Methods
The design for this project was multi-method and included a survey and semi-structured
interviews. The survey questions were developed by the research team drawing on the previously
cited literature. Once the survey closed, the research team analyzed the responses and then
developed the interview questions. This approach is aligned with Gibson’s (2016) description of
mixing methods for the purpose of complementarity. Projects with complementarity designs use
multiple methods to reach a deeper understanding of the phenomenon and “the true strength of
this approach is aggregation of the strengths of each method” (Gibson, 2016, p.388). Online
survey methods were selected because these allowed us to hear from a large and geographically
dispersed group of retired para-athletes. Additionally, like in Braye, Dixon and Gibbons’ (2013)
similarly designed project exploring Paralympic sport in the United Kingdom, these methods were
chosen in order to capture detailed responses from diverse participants.. The interviews
subsequently provided us with an opportunity to further delve into issues raised by survey
respondents providing more richness to the data. The design of the project was reviewed and
approved by the research ethics board of the host university.
Online Survey
An online survey was created using Bristol Online Surveys (BOS). BOS is compliant with
all UK data protection laws and also meets UK accessibility requirements. The survey included 13
sections and 22 questions (and 55 sub-questions) and asked athletes for demographic information
including the history of their sport participation (years in sport, type of sport, etc.), the history of
their impairment (congenital or acquired, stable or progressive), their education and employment
history (including whether they worked or studied while in sport) and their current employment or
education status. Conceptual questions pertaining to their reasons for and experiences of leaving
sport were also included. Para-athletes were asked about when, how and why they made the
decision to end their competitive careers, what types of services and support they accessed during
their transition, and their advice to current para-athletes regarding preparing for sport retirement.
Inclusion Criteria.
Criterion-based sampling was used (Sparkes & Smith, 2014). To participate in the survey
athletes needed to be at least 18 years of age, have represented Great Britain at a Paralympic
Games or other international para-sport event and/or have been an elite para-athlete receiving
direct funding from UK Sport in the form of an Athlete Personal Award. The final criteria was
that athletes must have retired from international competition. As we were interested in if the
experiences of athletes leaving sport may have changed over time, we set no limits on ‘time since
retirement’ and recruited athletes from earlier Games.
Organizations that provide services for or support to elite para-athletes were asked to
circulate survey information to their constituents. This included UK Sport (distributes funding to
athletes preparing for international competition), the British Paralympic Association (selects,
prepares, funds and manages the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Paralympic Games team) and
the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust (works with current and retired elite athletes to mentor young
people). These organizations distributed information through email newsletters and/or shared links
to a project webpage on their social media networks. It should be noted that most organizations do
not update contact lists for athletes once they have left sport and/or had their funding terminated
so it is unclear how many retired para-athletes were reached through these channels. Contact
information for athletes was never shared with the research team. Rather potential participants
were asked to contact us if they wanted further information. Social media was also used as a
recruitment tool with the research team sharing the link to the project page on their own Facebook
and Twitter accounts and those of their institution.
Semi-structured interviews
A subset of 13 of the 60 survey respondents participated in follow-up, semi-structured
qualitative interviews. The purpose of these interviews was to provide more depth and detail
around the topics previously addressed in the survey.
The online survey included text informing participants of the full project design and
stating that some survey respondents would be contacted by email to request they participate in
follow-up interviews. They were also informed that, if contacted, they would have the option to
accept or decline to be interviewed. Fifteen participants were contacted for an interview and 13
agreed to participate and signed consent forms.
Sampling criteria.
Maximum case sampling was used to identify athletes for interviews (Sparkes & Smith,
2014). Maximum case sampling consists of the research team defining in advance the dimensions
of variation in the population that are most relevant to the project and then systematically
contacting individuals that can speak to the most important possible variations of these
dimensions. From the survey responses, the research team determined that the most important
dimensions of variation included: gender, sport, impairment type, time since retirement, reason for
leaving sport, duration of sport career, education and employment history and present
employment status. The interviews averaged 63 minutes in duration for a total of 13.8 hours. All
interviews were conducted by phone or over Skype, were recorded and transcribed verbatim.
While some have questioned whether phone or video call interviews provide the same quality data
as in-person interviews, a recent study by Rathwell, Camiré and Young (2016) found no
difference in depth, vividness, nuance or richness when comparing Skype and in-person
interviews. In her research, Bundon (2017) found that these technologies have infiltrated our daily
lives to the point where many individuals do not distinguish between online and offline
communication. For these reasons, the research team was confident in our decision to conduct
interviews in this manner.
Data analysis
The survey responses were exported from BOS into an Excel file. The interviews were
transcribed as Word documents. Survey responses and interview transcripts were assigned an
identifying label and participant names were removed. All data were analyzed using an iterative
hybrid thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Braun, Clarke, & Weate, 2016; Fereday & Muir-
Cochrane, 2006). This process includes six phases: (1) familiarization with the data, (2)
generation of preliminary codes using the research questions to develop initial ideas (inductive
codes) and notes of what is ‘interesting’ in the data (deductive codes), (3) searching for themes by
sorting codes, (4) reviewing themes by searching for negative instances or alternative
understandings, (5) defining and naming themes, and (6) identifying which themes are important
and how they explain the phenomenon. We refer to this approach to thematic analysis as
‘iterative’ in that it is described in six steps for the purpose of clarity but in application some
stages happen concurrently and steps are revisited as many times as deemed necessary. It is
‘hybrid’ in that it includes the use of both codes identified by the research team during the design
phase (ie. closely linked to the research questions and the review of the existing literature) and
codes developed as we immersed ourselves in the data. This approach to data analysis aligns with
our relativist and subjective stance in that it recognizes that codes and themes are not fixed, final
or complete but are useful ways of organizing accounts to go beyond description and provide
meaningful insights into the phenomenon (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The management of data was
facilitated using NVivo 10 software, with node reports exported as Word files and memos further
annotated during subsequent readings by research team members. In reports, presentations and
manuscripts identifying factors have been removed.
Sample description
Survey participants.
Sixty para-athletes completed the survey including 48 Paralympians (17 had competed in
one Games, 17 in two Games, seven in three Games and seven had competed at four or more
Games). Twenty-one had won medals at Paralympic Games. Of the remaining 12 respondents, 12
had represented Great Britain internationally and/or were recipients of UK Sport funding. Twenty-
four different sports were represented. The age range of survey respondents was 20 to 77 with an
average age of 45. Five athletes had retired in the year preceding the survey, 19 in the past one to
two years, 13 in the past three to four years and 23 had left sport five or more years prior to the
survey. The sample was also diverse in terms of gender and impairment type including 39 men
and 21 women, 25 athletes with congenital impairments and 35 with acquired impairments. In
analyzing the data, the research team observed what appeared to be differences in the reasons for
and circumstances surrounding retirement based on the ‘era’ in which the athlete had competed.
To explore these differences in more depth and better understand how the timing of their
Paralympic career may have impacted their sport experiences, we divided the 48 Paralympians
into groups based on the year in which they made their final appearance at a Paralympic Games.
Cohort 1 included 14 Paralympians whose final appearance was Sydney 2000 or earlier. Cohort 2
consisted of 12 Paralympians who last competed at a Paralympic Games between 2002 (Salt Lake
City) and 2010 (Vancouver). The largest group, Cohort 3 retired from sport after either London
2012 or Sochi 2014. We then compared the responses of each cohort within the previously
identified themes.
Interview participants.
In total, 13 para-athletes participated in the interviews including six men and seven
women. Twelve were Paralympians and one had competed internationally for GB. They came
from the sports of sailing, boccia, swimming, archery, rowing, wheelchair rugby, goalball and
judo. One participant had retired that same year, six in the past one to two years, three in the past
three to four years and three had been retired for more than five years. The average age of
interviewees was 31 and the group was diverse in terms of impairment type.
Results and Discussion
In the section that follows we address four thematic areas drawn from combined survey
and interview data: (1) the multiple, concurrent and complex reasons elite para-athletes leave
sport, (2) the increasing professionalization of para-sport and the implications on when, why and
how para-athletes retire, (3) the challenges and discrimination para-athletes face in leaving para-
sport and entering the workforce, and (4) suggestions to better prepare para-athletes for their
transition out of elite sport. These themes are brought into conversation with the previously cited
literature on para-athletes and sport retirement.
Multiple, Concurrent and Complex Reasons for Sport Retirement
The survey asked respondents to select from a list of 12 reasons for leaving sport all that
applied to them. The list was drawn from the previously cited literature on the most frequent
reasons for leaving sport among athletes generally (Fernandez et al., 2006; Lavallee et al., 1997)
and the research team added three ‘para-specific’ choices including: ‘my classification changed
and I was no longer eligible to compete,’ ‘my class was eliminated from the Paralympic Games,’
and ‘my sport or event was eliminated from the Paralympic Games.’ Table 1 includes the survey
Table 1
Survey Responses to ‘Reasons for Leaving Sport.’
Reason for leaving sport
Number of
respondents that
selected this option
I felt it was a good time to retire.
I had achieved my sport goals.
I wanted to spend more time with family.
I was deselected or not selected to the team.
I wanted to pursue an employment opportunity.
I left because of illness or injury.
I needed to earn more money.
I lost my sport funding and could not afford to continue.
I wanted to pursue an educational opportunity.
My classification changed and I was no longer eligible to compete.*
My sport or event was eliminated from the Paralympic program.*
My class was eliminated from the Paralympic program.*
Note: *indicates a reason for leaving sport unique to para-sport
Earlier research reported that elite athletes generally leave sport for multiple and
cumulative reasons (Alfermann, 2000; Fernandez et al., 2006; Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000; Taylor &
Ogilvie, 1994). This is consistent with our survey findings with 39 respondents selecting more
than one reason. When asked in a follow-up question in the survey to elaborate on the
circumstances of their retirement, most indicated that their reasons were not only multiple but
acted in concert. For example, one para-athlete who had competed in two Games replied:
I felt that I had achieved all of my goals and was ready to start a family and get married
following a lifetime of training and competition. My decision was confounded by a
reduction in my funding following not achieving Paralympic gold despite competing with a
significant injury. Additionally the performance centre moved from where I had located to
and I wasn't prepared to relocate again.
Another Paralympian wrote:
I thought it was a great time to retire after 2012. I wanted to be at home more as well as to
go into business for myself. I didn’t see much changing for the next cycle in terms of the
team’s results. I believe that if you’re an international athlete, you should give 100% to
the team all of the time… The things that I mentioned about led me to conclude that I was
ready to retire and let others step in.
The above quotes include what Fernandez et al. (2006) have termed pull factors (desire to get
married, start a family, spend more time at home, go into business) and push factors (reduction in
funding, need to relocate, predictions of future team performance). Being simultaneously pushed
from sport and pulled towards other opportunities was consistently reported, and even survey
respondents who selected a single reason from the list generally elaborated in their written
responses. For example, one athlete selected only ‘I had achieved my sport goals and was ready to
retire’, and then wrote:
I came late to sport and having always worked I was fortunate that my employer allowed
me to go 'part time' in order to qualify for London. After the games and my return to 'full
time', it became clear that it wasn't possible to train enough and work. Although my place
in the team was still 'safe', I didn't want to continue if I wasn't competitive.
In the above example, the retirement thought process included weighing the feasibility of staying
in sport against employment demands and an assessment of the likelihood of future sport success.
Indeed, many of the participants spoke to the increasing competitiveness of para-sport, the
growing pressure to win medals, and the challenge of matching (or bettering) the performances of
younger or newly recruited competitors. Their comments are consistent with Wheeler et al. (1996)
predictions that the growing popularity of Paralympic sport would have implications for how and
when para-athletes retire.
In total, seven participants in the survey selected one or more of the ‘para-specific’ reasons
for retirement. As there is no existing data on rates of declassification or athletes who leave sport
after being reclassified into fields where they are less competitive, we are not able to comment on
whether our sample is representative. This said, it maybe that this work resonates with readers or
research in the future, thereby potentially displaying naturalistic generalizability (Smith, 2018).
Futhermore, though only seven chose these responses, other para-athletes used the open-ended
questions to explain that their impairment had impacted upon their decision to leave competitive
sport. For example, one athlete explained that the deterioration of her physical condition had made
her less competitive precipitating her retirement:
[It was] mainly due to the fact my condition was worsening (but probably not enough to
move me down a class) and therefore I was becoming less competitive in my class and
whilst my skills were improving I was unable to improve on my personal bests because I
was physically getting worse and compensating for that. It was a good time to stop
because I realised the difficulty of me physically being able to maintain training hours
required to the make the 2016 Paralympic Games...
The above example is provided because it highlights the additional complexity of para-sport,
where athletes’ retirement decisions may be influenced by the progression of the impairment that
qualified them for Paralympic competition in the first place. By definition para-athletes start their
athletic careers with an injury or an impairment. In many cases their conditions are stable and do
not negatively impact upon their physical health (for example, an amputation or a vision
impairment). In other instances, their impairments are caused by underlying health conditions or
medical diagnosis that are not stable (for example, an athlete may use a wheelchair due to
degenerative conditions that impact their muscles or joints) and the progression of the condition
could precipitate their retirement from sport. The stories heard in the project also fit with
empirical evidence that para-athletes may become injured through sport participation and that this
injury, when compounded with the original impairment, has a disproportionate impact on their
overall wellbeing (Burnham et al., 1993; Bloomquist, 1986; Fagher & Lexell, 2014). For example,
an able-bodied athlete might decide to continue to compete with a shoulder injury whereas an
athlete who uses a wheelchair might decide that it is not worth the risk of not being to
independently wheel and leave the sport. Thus the cumulative impact of these ‘secondary
disabilities’ need to be accounted for when considering the retirement of para-athletes (Wheeler et
al., 1996).
It is also important to note that to date there is no existing literature on para-athletes forced
into retirement because of (de)classification. While this option was selected by only three
participants, those who were in this position reported very traumatic and unsettled transition
experiences along with difficulties in coping indicating this is an important area for further work.
Their stories shared many characteristics with other reports of forced and undesired retirements.
For example, para-athletes who were (de)classified out of sport spoke of having no control over
the situation and feeling powerless. This is similar to how athletes have described retirements due
to injuries (Clowes, Lindsay, Fawcett, & Knowles, 2015) and it may be that sport psychologists
and other practitioners supporting athletes can draw on this literature. However, while there may
be some similarities, there are also elements where the para-athletes experiences depart from those
of non-disabled athletes. Our participants described feeling isolated because most people do not
understand the classification system and how or why an athlete might be reclassified. They felt
that others thought they must have been cheating or intentionally misrepresenting their
impairment status and that they had finally been ‘caught out’ by the classifiers. Whereas an
injured athlete might reasonable expect sympathy, these para-athletes felt shamed and this further
contributed to the trauma of their experience.
The para-athletes also made many comments about how their NGB responded when they
were declassified. The para-athletes perceived that their NGBs were unfamiliar with retirements
dues to classification issues (as there is no equivalent in ‘able-bodied sport’) and thus under
prepared to support para-athletes in these situations. While one para-athlete reported being intially
angry with her association for their lack of support, in the interview, she reflected that the
situation was probably new to her NGB as well. She said:
I think at the time I was all sort of emotional but looking back rationally I think well
actually they didn’t really know what to do either. They had no mechanisms in place for
transitions [due to declassification]. And really I suppose they did the best they could. It
wasn’t what I needed at the time. But I would really like it to get better for others in that
position because I would hate for them to go through what I did.
The examples offered illuminate the need for retirement research that is para-sport specific. The
existing literature addresses forced retirements but does not explain the roles and responsibilities
of sport federations with regards to supporting declassified athletes. The research also confirms
earlier theorizing that research conducted with able-bodied athletes cannot simply be generalized
to understand the experiences of para-athletes (Legg & Wheeler, 1998).
The Professionalization of Para-Sport and Implications for Para-athlete Retirement
Athletes are not just pushed from sport and/or pulled to pursue other opportunities. As
previously stated, Fernandez et al. (2006) has defined anti-push factors as an attachment to the
current situation and anti-pull factors as related to perceived risks about future situations. Anti-
push and anti-pull factors were most evident when comparing and contrasting the interview and
survey responses by cohort. Para-athletes in Cohorts 1 and 2 described a Paralympic sport system
that had limited funding, infrastructure, programming and support services. Subsequently, many
of these participants reported that they had struggled to stay in sport and that they were often
working or studying in addition to training. As one athlete described it:
You just fit in training when you could and hoped that you [did] more than the other
countries. It was just part-time, fit it in when you can at university. Because it wasn’t
really fully funded and whilst we were committed to it, it was a bit more than a hobby but
not quite a career.
The participants’ descriptions of a Paralympic Movement under resourced through the 1980s and
into the 1990s, and then a gradual build towards increased support leading to the Sydney Games
in 2000, is supported by accounts of when leading Paralympic nations such as Great Britain,
Australia and Canada started investing in para-sport (Hammond & Jeanes, 2017; Howe, 2007).
In contrast, Cohort 3, the group of para-athletes that competed in London 2012, described
a Paralympic sport system that was highly developed with significant funding. Although
participants spoke of the advent of funding for para-sport in terms of ‘progress’ (i.e., a growing
public awareness of and financial support for Paralympic sport), they also referenced intensified
demands on the athletes. This change in the Paralympic sport system had implications on para-
athletes retirement decisions. Some athletes in Cohort 3 described the changes as placing undue
stress on them (and their families) ultimately contributing to their decision to leave sport. For
example, in an interview, one athlete had this to say about the final year leading to London 2012:
The culture in [the sport organisation] is incredibly results oriented. Of course in
competition that is expected but on one level it takes the human factor out of it completely.
For me with the structure of the coaching set up, the rigidity of the coaching set up – this
took the fun and excitement out of the sport completely. I felt like I was just a number on
the spreadsheets. Suddenly it wasn’t about myself. It was about getting results for other
people, people I didn’t like… if you’re not really enjoying the training then the training is
not going to be effective and you’re not going to get results and everything kind of goes
from there really.
This athlete did attempt to continue in sport past London 2012 but retired a few months later when
he realized the sport culture was unlikely to change in the next Paralympic cycle.
Yet other para-athletes in Cohort 3 benefitted from the increased funding, support and
structure. Freed from the need to earn income from other sources, they were able to focus on their
athletic careers. When discussing their decisions to retire from sport, these para-athletes were
more likely to report anti-push and anti-pull factors. Rather than struggling to stay in sport, these
participants struggled to leave. Whereas Cohorts 1 and 2 left sport because they could not afford
to keep competing, Cohort 3 was concerned they could not afford to retire. For example, one
Paralympian who competed in London spoke of ‘taking a pay cut’ when he retired from sport and
delaying his decision until he had confirmed employment:
I don’t think I would have retired unless I had a job ‘cause we had a baby so I wouldn’t
have been able to. I would’ve carried on doing [my sport] until I had a job or an income
so that I could retire… When I was competing I was quite well paid… if you’re in that
position its quite difficult to retire…
While concerns about being able to financial support oneself after leaving sport has been reported
in the literature on able-bodied athletes (Agnew & Drummond, 2015; Aquilina, 2013; Fernandez
et al., 2006), it has not been a large part of the discussion when researching para-athletes’
experiences as, until very recently, Paralympians ‘earning a living’ in sport have been few and far
Challenges and Discrimination When Leaving Sport and Entering the Workforce
Coupled with concerns about loosing their income from sport was uncertainly about future
employment options. One reason the more recently retired Paralympic athletes felt apprehension
regarding life after sport was their relative lack of work experience. Ten of the 14 para-athletes in
Cohort 1 reported that they worked full-time while competing compared to only 5 of the 22 para-
athletes in Cohort 3. Furthermore, over a third of the athletes in Cohort 3 reported they had zero
work experience when their sport careers ended. Although lacking formal work experience might
be a concern for any elite athlete (Aquilina, 2013), there were two ways in which this impacted
para-athletes differently compared to able-bodied peers. First, despite laws and policies in the UK
such as the ‘two tick guaranteed interview scheme’ (or more recently the ‘Disability Confident
scheme’) and the Equality Act 2010, people with disabilities still face greater rates of
unemployment and underemployment (Connor, 2010). It is reported that, in the UK, 48 per cent of
disabled adults age 16 to 64 are employed and compared to over 80 per cent of non-disabled
adults (Mirza-Davis & Brown, 2016, December 14). Athletes were certainly aware of this and
some (though certainly not all) understood that the very impairment that had enabled them to
pursue a career as an international athlete would be a barrier when trying to enter the post-sport
workforce. In the survey one para-athlete wrote:
There may be relative parity between Olympic and Paralympic teams within sport, but that
does not relay to the non-disabled and disabled employees in the open market. There are
extra hurdles that any person with a disability has to jump [through] to get to the same
place as a person without a disability.
Suggesting the significance of disablism and ableism for para-sport athletes, the concern
that participants had about being discriminated against in the employment hiring process led to the
second point. Within disability communities there is considerable debate about if and when to
disclose to a potential employer that one has a disability (Charmaz, 2010; Lindsay, Cagliostro, &
Carafa, 2017). However, while some individuals may be able to decide when and if to disclose
their disability, the para-athletes interviewed felt they did not have this option. As one participant
I had more success with kind of major corporate [companies] than I did with small
business. Probably because major corporate have a diversity department and are used to
dealing with this and have HR teams that are trained and a smaller organisation is just
put off instantly about the thought of disability and they maybe never met anybody with a
disability... I pretty much had to disclose because if I removed [my sport] from my CV
there would have been very little on it and they would have just thought I was incredibly
Accordingly, some para-athletes felt they were in a bind in that they were relying on their
experience in sport and their athletic curriculum vitae to secure them employment after sport but
by highlighting their para-sport experience so they were de facto disclosing their disability status
and opening themselves up to discrimination in the employment sector. Although it would be
clearly egregious to suggest that people with disabilities do not encounter discrimination while in
sport (see Bundon & Hurd Clarke, 2015), many participants did contrast their experiences within
the ‘sport bubble’ (Smith et al., 2016) to their experiences in other contexts. While many of the
participants had been recruited to sport because they had an impairment that qualified them for a
particular para-sport or filled a niche on the squad, outside of sport their impairments were more
likely to be impediments to finding a job. When asked what they had learned from their own
experiences of looking for employment, several interviewees referenced the importance of finding
mentors who were also disabled and in the workforce, and/or accessing schemes that assist
disabled people to find employment.
Suggestions to Better Prepare Para-Athletes for Sport Retirement
As previously stated, the reasons that athletes ended their sport careers were complex, with
some leaving sport voluntarily and at a time of their own choosing and others being forced from
sport for reasons such as injury, deselection or declassification. Yet even if participants could not
have foretold the time or circumstances of their retirement, they all knew that sport “was not a
lifetime career.” The extent to which this understanding influenced how they prepared for life
after sport was varied. Some participants felt that it was important to pursue education and
employment opportunities even whilst pursuing their sport goals. One athlete spoke of continuing
her education and then part-time employment even as she trained towards the Paralympics:
When I was going for the Paralympic team I was doing a part time job on the side. Then
that [sport career] finished and I could go straight into the other thing and make that a
career for the rest of my life.
However, most participants stated that it was only when they saw signs that their sport careers
were coming to an end that they gave serious consideration to what else they might do. Consistent
with the current research with able-bodied athletes, for many athletes these signs included
realizing that their best performances were behind them, that upcoming athletes were challenging
their records or that they had achieved many of their sport goals and the opportunities for new
achievements were limited (Cecić Erpič, Wylleman, & Zupančič, 2004). The issue of what
actions para-athletes took when faced with a growing awareness that the end of their sport careers
was imminent, was an interesting one. A few explained that even though they knew the transition
was coming they greatly underestimated how difficult it would be. A para-athlete had this to say:
Interviewer: You said you were thinking of retirement before London. Was there any sort
of long term planning happening?
Athlete: Not really. I kind of assumed that because I had a degree and a master’s degree
that I was quite employable. No, I think it was probably quite naïve… I just assumed that I
was going to be in a relatively good position in terms of employment but I hadn’t really
thought much about it… I probably should have.
Other participants described feeling panicked and applying for many jobs despite not wanting to
work in that field or not having the qualifications.
Four of the para-athletes interviewed were more proactive in their planning. These athletes
made strategic decisions to turn their casual public speaking engagements and volunteer activities
into post-sport careers. One para-athlete described how he managed to balance the two careers
until the speaking career was able to support him full-time:
When I was swimming it was absolutely a priority and I would take some speaking
engagements when they came as long as it fitted in with my programme and my coach was
okay with it. So I took a small number of jobs really throughout the year. So then when I
retired – well in fact even before I retired- I was able to take bookings in a different way…
I remember being in the Olympic [Paralympic] village in Athens and going and checking
my email and taking bookings for when I retired. So it wasn’t overly complicated and I
was still able to be focused on what I was doing as an athlete but still a step quite
comfortably into that work situation. But that wasn’t a luck thing – that was from being
Another difference observed was in the para-athletes use of PL support services. While
‘athlete advisors’ have been active within the UK sport system for many years, it was after the
Beijing Olympics and Paralympics that PL was formalized as a unit within the EIS and PL
support provided as a core service to elite GB athletes (J. Harrison, Performance Lifestyle Lead at
the EIS, personal communication, October 12th, 2017). Thus it was most commonly Cohort 3 that
spoke of having interactions with PL advisors and the role these practitioners had in supporting
them in their transition out of sport. Those who had had ongoing contact with PL advisors
throughout their sport careers were most likely to comment on the positive impact that this had
had on their transition out of sport and into employment. In contrast, those who had had less
interactions with PL practitioners during their careers, reported that they did not access PL
services during the retirement process or, if they did access, they felt PL practitioners had little to
offer them. As one participant explained:
I meet with Performance Lifestyle a couple of times and they sent me examples of CVs and
sent a few emails round… I wish on the support side it had started years ago and years
ago we had sat down and gone ‘right – you might chose when you want to leave sport… or
you could get an injury and you don’t know what’s around the corner, so while it’s really
really important to keep training it’s really really important to think about what you want
to do afterwards.’ I really wish we had that conversation and then I really wish I’d have
got mechanisms in place - because in the moment I had no clue what I was doing, I had no
clue what to do.
In addition to learning about the experience of already retired para-athletes, a key focus of
this research was to understand how to improve the future retirements of current para-athletes.
With this in mind, participants were asked what advice they would give to para-athletes still in
sport and what could be done to better support athletes during this time. The overwhelming
majority of participants stated that they had started thinking about and planning for sport
retirement too late. This theme was named ‘starting with the end in mind’ to signal that although
leaving sport might be the final transition in the sport career as an elite athlete, planning for it
needs to start when the athlete first transitions into the high performance system. It is also
interesting to note that while much of the advice included recommendations that athletes should
be studying, working or volunteering during the sport careers, several participants believed this
would not have been endorsed by their own sport organizations and that their own coaches,
managers and other sport staff had discouraged them from engaging in other pursuits. This finding
can contribute to the growing body of literature exploring the experiences of athletes who pursue
‘dual careers’ (ie. work or study whilst in sport) and the challenges encountered by athletes who
go this route (Aquilina, 2013; Brown et al., 2015; Stambulova et al., 2015; Tshube & Feltz, 2015).
Speaking in public for the first time since her recent appointment as chairperson of UK
Sport, Katherine Grainger declared that “transition is the biggest challenge of the moment” and
that those involved in the high performance sport sector needed to take immediate action to better
support athletes to cope with life after sport (Rumsby, 2017, May 9). However, in order for these
actions to equitably benefit all elite athletes leaving sport, there is a need to ensure that para-
athletes are considered in the design and delivery of initiatives and support services. As stated in
the introduction, to date the existing research on athletic retirement has almost exclusively
focused on able-bodied athletes with assumptions made that the findings are transferable to para-
sport. With the aim of examining the experiences of Paralympic athletes and the subsequent
implications of their experiences, we set out for the first time since important changes have been
made to para-sport to survey and interview retired para-athletes .
Adding to the existing literature on the common reasons athletes leave sport (Werthner &
Orlick, 1986; Taylor & Olgivie, 1994) and the implications of voluntary or involuntary
retirements (Alfermann et al., 2004; Blinde & Stratta, 1992; Lavallee et al., 1997; Taylor &
Olgivie, 2001), we identified reasons for retirement that are unique to para-sport and related to the
classification process. We also revealed support for the ‘quintuplet jeopardy’ proposed by
Wheeler and colleagues (1996, 1999). Specifically, we identified how issues associated with the
progression of certain types of impairment can force some para-athletes to leave sport sooner than
they otherwise would (dealing and coping with original disability and aging with a disability),
while concerns about employment opportunities and discrimination in the workforce can lead
athletes to overstay in sport (financial and employment related issues). Moreover, we confirmed
what others have previously theorized (Wheeler et al., 1996, 1999; Legg & Wheeler, 1998;
Martin, 1996, 1999, 2017), that the context of the Paralympic Movement has changed
considerably since its inception in the early 1960s and this has implications on the transitions out
of sport of para-athletes. Whereas earlier generations of Paralympians struggled to find time to
train while working or studying and to pay for the costs of their sport participation, the most
recent cohort of para-athletes has access to funding but struggles to find time to get work
experience or complete their education. While few are questioning that the recent
‘professionalisation’ of disability sport is a positive step in terms of greater equality in the
treatment of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, this research reminds us that high performance
environments can have a negative effect on the wellbeing of individual athletes in terms of their
future life prospects and progression into a new life phase.
Building on the research of Martin (1996, 1999) and Legg and Wheeler (1998), we also
asked how can sport practitioners better support para-athletes so that they thrive whilst in sport
and after their sport careers end? To this question we propose three responses, all of which are
pertinent for sport psychologists, PL advisors and researchers working in disability sport to better
understand retirement, coping, wellbeing and identity. Firstly, while most para-athletes leave sport
for similar reasons as able-bodied athletes, there needs to be better mechanisms in place to
identify para-athletes at risk for being pushed from sport due to classification issues. Because
these instances are relatively rare, individual NGBs may not see the need to have a plan to support
an athlete in this situation. But these types of forced retirements are not outliers. As long as there
is a classification system, there will be athletes found to be ineligible (either because of changes in
their impairments or because of changes in what impairments are deemed ‘classifiable’). Every
UK Paralympic sport has access to a Performance Lifestyle advisor thats supports and mentors
athletes throughout their careers (Ashfield, Harrison & Giles, 2017). Our research suggests that
these advisors are ideally positioned to identify these athletes who, for a variety of reasons, may
be heading towards particularly difficult or traumatic retirements. If, for example, PL advisors
become aware of athletes at risk for declassification, they can mobilize the high performance sport
sector (including sport psychologists) to support to athletes. Furthermore, practitioners can draw
on the findings of this study when developing processes and resources to aid NGBs to navigate
events such as (de)classification and to understand the impacts of these events on the psycho-
social wellbeing of para-athletes.
Secondly, our research highlights the need for more assistance in preparing athletes for
post-sport employment. While many of the athlete employment and professional development
initiatives currently in place and being developed are open to para-athletes, there are further steps
that could be taken. For example, participants spoke of facing discrimination when trying to enter
the workforce. Not only was this discrimination disturbing in and of itself but they were also ill-
prepared for it because of the relative equity between Olympic and Paralympic athletes that they
had experienced whilst in the high performance sport system. Sessions informing para-athletes of
the various laws and legislations that protect equality in hiring and interview processes and when
negotiating terms of employment and promotion would be very beneficial. Participants also stated
that they felt there would be value in creating opportunities for para-athletes (at all stages of their
athletic careers) to network with and be mentored by disabled people who are employed. Practical
information on disability employment schemes, and understanding and managing disability
benefits payments (termed ‘Personal Independence Payments’ in the UK) could be useful to para-
athletes preparing to leave sport. Moreover, given that para-athletes can be largely unaware of the
high levels of discrimination disabled people daily face (Smith et al., 2016), raising their
awareness of possible oppression when retired along with sharing strategies about how to
challenge discrimination could be useful. In light of calls for sport psychology practioners to
directly engage with such social justice concerns (Schinke et al., 2015), and the work that PL
practitioners do, these groups have much to contribute to such awareness raising and strategy
Thirdly, practitioners working in the elite sport sector have an important function to play
in ‘future proofing’ para-athletes. In our findings it was clear that para-athletes who started
thinking about life after sport sooner rather than later had more positive experiences. Yet despite
knowing that their sport careers would not last forever, many failed to take steps that would
prepare them to cope with retirement and later regretted that they had not been more proactive.
Sport psychologists, PL advisors and other members of the sport system have contact with athletes
at different stages during their careers and can play a key role in starting these conversations
sooner. Moreover, this research can be a resource to practitioners when they encounter athletes
who are resistant to thinking about retirement or coaches and other sport staff who feel that
working or studying will detract from an athlete’s ability to focus on their sport performance.
In addition to enhancing the support and services available to para-athletes, this research
expands our understandings of the context in which disability sport is practiced and how this has
changed over the years. When the Paralympic Movement moved from an era of participation to an
era of high performance decisions were made to ‘integrate’ with the mainstream (ie. Olympic and
able-bodied) sport sector (Hammond & Jeanes, 2017; Howe, 2007). This study contributes to a
small but growing body of empirical work exploring how this integration is experienced by
individual para-athletes and the implications it has on their athletic and disabled identities
(Bundon & Hurd Clarke, 2015; Smith & Bundon, 2018; Smith et al., 2016). Our findings make a
novel contribution by highlighting how this move towards integration has provided para-athletes
with more access to funding, coaching, sport science, sport medicine and other related services but
has equally placed new constraints including expectations that they will train full-time, relocate to
centralized training locations and forego other pursuits. It also illustrates that the unique needs of
para-athletes are not always being met by a sport sector that was largely designed for able-bodied
athletes. For example, while there is currently equality in the support being provided to Olympic
and Paralympic athletes preparing to leave sport and enter the workforce, there will only be equity
when those supports include a consideration of the unique retirement forced by classification
issues and the discrimination para-athletes are likely to encounter when pursuing employment.
Addressing these issues and others is part of the sport sector’s duty of care to para-athletes and PL
advisors and sport psychologists play an essential role in creating a system that ensures athletes
thrive in sport and after sport.
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... Though much of the literature points to how athletes with disabilities face the same challenges in sport as their ablebodied peers and benefit from similar supports, there is also an acknowledgment that there are aspects of para-sport that are unique and very little is known about how these might impact upon an athlete's PWB. Foremost amongst these are the transitions into and out of para-sport (Bundon et al., 2018;Bundon, 2021;Martin and Prokesova, 2021), the process known as "classification" whereby athletes are assessed for their eligibility to compete in para-sport and placed into sport classes based on impairment type and/or physical functioning (Guerrero et al., 2020;Campbell and Brown, 2021), and experiences of trauma related to sustaining a major injury and acquired impairment (Martin et al., 2011;Swartz et al., 2019). Only very recently have researchers started to take a more holistic approach to understanding the PWB of elite athletes with disabilities that considers their intersectional identities and the social and cultural contexts in which discourses of ability/disability are (re)produced. ...
... This theme is also an example of what has been termed the "Olympification" (Gérard, 2020) of Paralympic sport in that there is an underlying assumption that the Olympics/Olympians are the standard that the Paralympics/Paralympians should be aspiring to reproduce and thus an expression of internalized ableism. This can have detrimental implications during sport retirement because outside the "sport bubble" individuals with disabilities are still marginalized and discriminated against in broader society (Bundon et al., 2018;Martin and Prokesova, 2021). This resonates with what we observed in this study, where Paralympians had a moment where they felt included and saw themselves as on the same team but that experience was fleeting. ...
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In March 2020, it was announced that the Tokyo Games would be postponed for one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While athletes commonly face challenges in sport such as injuries, the pandemic and rescheduling of the Games was an unexpected event that had serious potential to challenge the psychological wellbeing of athletes. Furthermore, it was an event that was simultaneously experienced by all athletes preparing for the Games. It provided a novel opportunity to explore how athletes navigated this challenging environment and the subsequent potential impact on their psychological wellbeing. It also provided a unique opportunity to engage para-athletes and explore how they experienced the pandemic and postponement. This manuscript draws on a larger qualitative study of 21 Canadian athletes (14 Olympic and seven Paralympic) who were on target to compete at the 2020 Games when the postponement was announced. For this manuscript, we focus on the accounts of seven Paralympic hopefuls and their experiences of adjusting to the postponement, while attending to the unique social identities of athletes with disabilities. Adopting a constructionist lens, semi-structured interviews were conducted at two time points. Through reflexive thematic analysis, we developed three themes. “We are all in the same boat. . . or are we?” describes the Paralympic hopefuls experiences early in the pandemic and how they felt united by the Canadian response to withdraw from the Games. It then discusses how, over time, they started to understand athletes with disabilities were being inequitably impacted by the pandemic and related public health measures. “Maybe it means more to them than us” examines how their perceptions changed as they acknowledged that although all athletes were facing a disruption to their sport careers, the implications were not the same for all. “Vulnerability and the Paralympic athlete” addresses how Paralympic athletes engaged with societal narratives about risk, vulnerability and disability and what this meant for the Paralympic Movement's response to the pandemic. “Honestly, I've experienced it before” examines how the Paralympic hopefuls drew on past experiences of injury to navigate the pandemic and the protective impact on their psychological wellbeing. Findings shed light on how systemic ableism interacted with the pandemic to magnify feelings of inferiority and further marginalization but also how para-athletes drew on past experiences to navigate challenges to their psychological wellbeing.
... Research into experiential aspects of classification is limited. While the quality of athletes' experiences in parasport, and indeed classification, is a determinant of long-term participation and satisfaction (Evans et al., 2018;Patatas et al., 2020), extant research often reports the process of being classified as a negative experience for athletes (e.g., Bundon et al., 2018;Howe, 2008;Peers, 2012). Negative experiences arise from inconsistencies in the application of classification procedures (i.e., athletes perceive the assignment of Sport Classes as subjective), poor communication between athletes and classifiers, and athletes being unprepared for classification (i.e., athletes have a limited understanding of classification procedures or unrealistic expectation of the outcome of their classification; Lawson et al., 2022;Van Dornick & Spencer, 2019). ...
Undergoing classification can be a difficult experience for athletes with disabilities, yet coaches may support athletes during this event. However, research has yet to examine either coaches’ roles during classification or how coaches learn to navigate this unique aspect of parasport. We purposed to explore parasport coaches’ roles during classification as well as the ways in which coaches learn about classification. Twelve Canadian high-performance coaches representing eight parasports participated in semistructured interviews. Inductive reflexive thematic analysis of the transcripts was conducted. Results show coaches view their role as intuitive and centered on preparing the athlete, ensuring fairness, and reframing classification outcomes. The ways coaches learned about classification varied, but coaches agreed there is a general lack of structured resources available to coaches interested in learning about classification. In addition to learning about classification, coaches valued understanding the athlete and their impairment to effectively fulfill their coaching roles.
... El cual es entendido "como la etapa que comienza a partir del retiro como atleta activo, que consiste en el proceso médico-pedagógico mediante el cual su organismo va a eliminar toda la sobrecarga que ha ido adquiriendo durante su vida como deportista élite de alto rendimiento" (5). En cuanto al retiro deportivo de atletas con discapacidad, en los últimos años el sector del deporte en general y especialmente los psicólogos se han interesado por lo que pasa con los atletas con discapacidad cuando se retiran del deporte de alto rendimiento, por lo que el 2018 se realiza un estudio donde se indica que la experiencias de transición para esos deportistas son particularmente difíciles, debido a la desclasificación, la incertidumbre acerca de las oportunidades de empleo y educativas después del deporte (7). ...
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El fenómeno del retiro deportivo es una temática relativamente nueva en el campo de las ciencias del deporte, por ello se abordan ideas actuales acerca del proceso hacia el retiro deportivo, como la última etapa dentro de sus carreras profesionales y longevidad competitiva en deportistas de alto rendimiento. El objetivo de esta revisión sistemática es identificar las investigaciones que hablan sobre la manera como se asume el proceso de transición hacia el retiro deportivo y desentrenamiento en los deportistas. Para ello se realizó una búsqueda en las bases de datos. Scopus, Ebsco y Sciencedirect durante el mes de agosto del año 2022. La consulta se realizó combinando los términos: Detraining, Retirement y Sport utilizando los criterios de inclusión. Artículos de revisión, publicados en los últimos diez años, en idiomas inglés o español y que se tuviera acceso al texto completo. Durante la búsqueda se encontraron 16.642 artículos. Luego de aplicar los diferentes filtros teniendo en cuenta el título y los objetivos de la investigación se tuvieron en cuenta 165 de ellos, a los cuales se les aplicaron de nuevo los ítems incluidos en el check list de la herramienta PRISMA teniendo como resultado 17 artículos para ser contemplados en esta investigación. De estos, dos son de revisión sistemática, 1 de ellos con metodología PRISMA, además cuatro cuantitativas y once de carácter cualitativo.
... Occupational turnover is a critical event in athletes' careers as it refers to willingly leaving an occupation in sport. Athletes can decide to leave sport to pursue an alternative occupation or for reasons unrelated to a new job, such as if athletic training and competition conflicts with their family, health, or wellbeing (Bundon et al., 2018;Park et al., 2013). Pifer et al. (2020) demonstrated that many minor league baseball players would maximize their lifetime income if they decided to leave baseball. ...
Pay fairness and human capital theories make different predictions about trainees’ occupational turnover in situations where trainees perceive unfair pay but receive huge potential returns from training. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine how pay fairness and human capital investment combined to explain why trainees are motivated to persist in employment when they perceive unfair pay. Cross-sectional survey data from 144 minor league baseball players showed that athletes perceived unfair pay but had low occupational turnover intentions because they perceived high learning achievement and expected to play in Major League Baseball eventually. Perceptions of unfair pay only increased occupational turnover intentions under certain conditions, such as when athletes had low expectations of playing at least one game in Major League Baseball in the next 3 years. The results support a framework that combines human capital theory and pay fairness theories to explain boundary conditions for trainee motivation.
... Meanwhile, athletes also gossiped and spread rumours about the validity of others' classifications (Powis and Macbeth 2020), thus demonstrating the potential for both facilitative and debilitating individual and group-level outcomes rooted in classification (Martin et al. 2015). Lastly, athletes' limited understanding of classification may significantly influence their perceptions of their experience, especially in cases where classification results in an athlete's departure from Para sport (Bundon et al. 2018;Molik et al. 2017). In total, research focused on athletes' experiences with classification, while limited, depicts classification as a process fraught with inconsistencies and ableist practices which have a negative impact on athletes and their relationships with their peers. ...
Classification is a defining feature of Para sport; however, little empirical evidence describes the experience of classification and how it can be improved. To date, the primary focus of research related to classification has been on the development of evidence-based classification procedures. Meanwhile, the limited literature which has focused on experiential aspects of classification has shown classification to be a potentially negative experience for athletes. As well, classifiers have been identified as important social actors within the Para sport context, yet no research has examined both athletes’ and classifiers’ experiences with classification. The experiences of athletes and classifiers have yet to be considered alongside one another. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to elucidate athletes’ and classifiers’ experiences with classification in Para sport. Semi-structured interviews exploring the experience of classification were conducted with 18 internationally classified Canadian athletes and an international sample of eight classifiers. Hermeneutic phenomenological analysis was used to conceptualise athletes’ and classifiers’ classification experience. Results demonstrate athletes and classifiers learn about classification by observing others and reflecting on their own understanding of their body or skillset in relation to classification. Additionally, we show how interactions between athletes and classifiers influence each parties’ experience quality and highlight discrepancies between each groups’ understandings of classification. Next, we provide recommendations for future research to address the identified gaps in athletes’ and classifiers’ understanding of classification. Lastly, through the provision of practical recommendations, this work may support Para sport practitioners in improving athletes’ and classifiers’ experiences with classification.
... Psychology in adaptive sports has received increased attention over the years. Researchers were intensely concerned mental health of the athletes throughout their athletic stages of development: (1) the therapeutic potential of participation in sport for mental/emotional health [3]; (2) motivation, barriers, and facilitators that may impact sport participation and athletic performance [3,22,23]; (3) the mental/emotional impact of retirement from sport [24,25]. ...
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Objectives: To identify the research landscape in terms of keywords, annual outputs, journals, countries, and institutions and explore the hot topics and prospects regarding adapted sport research. Materials and methods: Publications designated as "article" on adapted sport retrieved from the Web of Science Core Collection. VOSviewer 1.6.11, Citespace, and Bibliometrix in R Studio were applied for the bibliometric analyses. Results: A total of 1887 articles were identified. Over the past two decades, athletic performance, sociology/psychology, and rehabilitation were extensively investigated. Basketball, soccer, and swimming were the three most focused adapted sports. Researchers showed a growing interest in submitting their studies to sport science, rehabilitation, and sociological journals. Adapted sport research was more common in developed countries and regions. The UK contributed most publications accounting for about 20% of the total publications. Conclusions: With the growth of publications concerning adapted sport, the bibliometric analysis presented an overview of collaboration, trends, and hotspots in the field.
The Paralympics Games are increasing in competitiveness as more countries seek top medal outcomes. In response, governments are focusing on the development and implementation of effective national sport policies/systems to optimise Paralympic success. However, little is known about national sport policy influencing a country’s Paralympic success. Indeed, the literature on national elite sport policy has focused on Olympic sport and emerging Paralympic sport studies are limited to a country/sport. The aim of this research was to identify key national Paralympic sport policy interventions influencing a country’s Paralympic medal outcomes. This exploratory qualitative study was informed by a realist perspective, and by the social relational and human rights models of disability. Twenty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted with national Paralympic sport managers from the United Kingdom, Australia, France and Canada, and the data was analysed using qualitative descriptive analysis. Findings confirm that existing national Olympic sport policies are also important for Paralympic success, however, within these policies, parasport-specific processes were identified, and two policy interventions unique to Paralympic sports were found: integration of disability-specific and Paralympic sport knowledge in the sporting system, and a national framework for Paralympic athlete classification. This study advances knowledge on national Paralympic sport policies and suggests that researchers, evaluators, and practitioners need to account for Paralympic-specific policies and processes. Tailoring policies to the specificities of the Paralympic domain may provide competitive advantage in the Paralympic Games. This study argues for further research to understand how the identified policy interventions may be influenced by the country’s context.
Research pertaining to the experiences and motives of Paralympic athletes who transfer between sports is scant. This study aimed to address this gap through semistructured interviews with Canadian Paralympic coaches ( n = 35) and athletes ( n = 12). Three higher-order themes of “alternative to retirement,” “career extension,” and “compatibility” were identified. The subthemes of “psychobehavioral” and “physical and physiological” (from the higher-order theme of alternative to retirement) captured reasons leading to transfer, which are similar to reasons athletes may consider retirement. The subthemes of career extension—“better opportunities” and “beneficial outcomes”—shed light on factors that contributed to the withdrawal of negative experiences and reinforcement of positive outcomes associated with transferring sports. Last, compatibility had three subthemes of “resources,” “sport-specific,” and “communication,” which encapsulated factors athletes should consider prior to their transfer. In conclusion, the participants highlighted the importance of transparent and effective communication between athletes and sports to align and establish realistic expectations for everyone involved.
Paralympic athletes face the same challenges as do all other athletes in terms of their mental health. Far less is known about mental health symptoms and disorders in Paralympic athletes than in other athletes, for a range of reasons. This chapter provides an introduction to the key issues in considering mental health symptoms and disorders in this group. Questions of stigma, stereotyping, and social exclusion are important to consider, along with common histories of trauma, issues of pain, the cost and accessibility of assistive devices, and the strains associated with classification changes and developments. This is an area in urgent need of further research.KeywordsParalympicsDisabilityStigmaDiscriminationMental healthPsychopathologySocial exclusion
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Generalisation in relation to qualitative research has rarely been discussed in-depth in sport and exercise psychology, the sociology of sport, sport coaching, or sport management journals. Often there is no mention of generalizability in qualitative studies. When generalizability is mentioned in sport and exercise science journals it is often talked about briefly or highlighted as a limitation/weakness of qualitative research. The purpose of this paper is to provide a detailed discussion of generalisation in order to dispel any misunderstandings or myths about generalizability in qualitative research and offer guidance about how researchers might consider generalisation. It is emphasised that it is a misunderstanding to claim that qualitative research lacks generalizability. It is highlighted that statistical types of generalizability that inform quantitative research are not applicable to judge the value of qualitative research or claim that it lacks generalizability. Reasons as to why researchers might consider generalizability in qualitative research are then offered. It is emphasised that generalisations can be made from qualitative research, but just not in the same way as quantitative results are. To help guide how generalisation might be considered, four different types of generalizability are presented: naturalistic generalisation, transferability, analytical generalizability and intersectional generalizability. Practical strategies are also offered for considering generalizability when seeking to publish qualitative research or reflect on already published work. The paper concludes with a set of recommendations to support high quality and rigorous qualitative research for scholars – including journal editors and reviewers – in relation to generalizability.
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How we explain and understand disability matters. In this chapter, we examine one way of explaining and understanding disability through a models approach. Two traditional models are first critically attended to. These are the medical model and then the social model. Having problematised these models, the next two more recent models are described, that is, the social relational model and the human rights model of disability. Throughout examples of research using models from sport are noted. We close with a set of future directions for understanding disability, sport, and physical activity. The directions offered for consideration include a focus on critical disability studies, disablism, and ableism.
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Twitter, Facebook, online forums, blogs and websites – scholars are increasingly turning to digital sources to study sport and physical activity. These platforms have generated new digital content ripe for analysis and are making it possible to investigate communities that were previously inaccessible. However, they have also created theoretical, methodological, practical and ethical challenges. This book critically examines the opportunities open to qualitative researchers working in digital spaces and offers novel insights into how the rise of new technology is helping to shape sport studies. Showcasing original research on emerging themes, trends and issues such as digital sociology, media citizenship, online gaming, Big Data, fitness apps and online fan cultures, this collection leads the way in this fast-developing field of study. It not only considers the possibilities and limitations of using digital tools to conduct qualitative research into sport, but also provides innovative examples of how researchers can adapt successfully to ever-evolving technologies. Digital Qualitative Research in Sport and Physical Activity is essential reading for all students and scholars interested in the latest digital developments in sport studies and research methods.
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The purpose of this study was to examine elite Canadian individual-sport athletes' experiences with an Olympic team-selection process. Six nonselected Canadian individual-sport athletes who were attempting to qualify for the Olympics took part in 3 semistructured interviews during the Olympic team-selection process, after they gained knowledge of their selection status, and after the Olympic Games. Data were analyzed using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Three major themes emerged from the interpretation of the athletes' experiences: (a) pursuing and expressing the Olympic athlete identity; (b) navigating the Olympic team-selection process: expectations, barriers, and tensions; and (c) moving on: reactions, life-goal reinvestment, and athletic-goal adjustment. Participants' experiences were shaped by personal motivation and social expectations, with changes shifting across the 3 interview periods. Athletes attempted to manage the discontent of nonselection through processes of positive reappraisal, athletic-goal adjustment, and accentuating other life goals and identities.
This book seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the research done in sport and exercise psychology with individuals with disabilities. Research from diverse academic disciplines such as psychology, medicine, health, recreation, kinesiology, sociology and disability studies is reviewed. In the first part of the book, covering 5 chapters, philosophy of science issues, models of disability, how to conduct quality research, research controversies, and living with a disability are explored. In a second section on sport psychology, covering 19 chapters, diverse topics such as self-efficacy, athletic and superchip identities, motivation, self-esteem, peer relationships, sport retirement, coaching, and performance enhancement are covered. In the last part on exercise psychology, covering 16 chapters, a range of topic such as obesity and fitness, exercise barriers, body image, quality of life, physical education, wounded warriors, intellectual impairments, and gender issues are discussed. All chapters conclude with extensive directions for new avenues of research and exploration.
Few historical accounts of Australian sport policy have explicitly profiled the federal government’s involvement in disability sport. In this paper, we draw on the concept of ableism as a lens to address this lacuna. In doing so, we profile the history of the Commonwealth government involvement in disability sport and explore how the policy of ‘mainstreaming’ has emerged through partnerships led by the Australian Paralympic Committee with National Sporting Originations (NSOs) and government. We highlight that whilst these changes have arguably made mainstream NSOs more aware of their legal obligations and have led to positive changes in the provision of opportunities for people with a disability through the development of ‘Paralympic pathways’, there is some evidence of potential caveats of ‘mainstreaming’. Specifically, we point to an emerging body of evidence which suggests that despite these policy measures, people with disabilities still report being marginalized and excluded from ‘mainstream’ sporting programmes. Therefore, we question if less governmental leadership is the right path given the limitations of the present policy framework. Additionally, we highlight how performance-based funding mechanisms such as ‘Winning Edge’ are narrowing who is eligible for funding and thus curtailing finite resources for only the most ‘abled’ of the disabled.
Purpose: The objective of this systematic review is to critically appraise the literature on disability disclosure and workplace accommodations for youth and young adults with disabilities. Methods: Systematic searches of nine international databases identified 27 studies meeting our inclusion criteria. These studies were analyzed with respect to the characteristics of the participants, methodology, results of the studies and the quality of the evidence. Results: Among the 27 studies, 18,419 participants (aged 14–33, mean 23.9 years) were represented across seven countries. Barriers to disability disclosure and requests for workplace accommodations were found at the individual (i.e., disability type, severity, poor self-concept, and advocacy skills), employment (i.e., type of industry, and working conditions, lack of supports), and societal levels (i.e., stigma/discrimination). Facilitators of disability disclosure included individual factors (i.e., knowledge of supports and workplace rights, self-advocacy skills), employment (i.e., training/supports, effective communication with employers, realizing the benefits of accommodations), and societal factors (i.e., positive attitudes toward people with disabilities). There was little consensus on the processes and timing of how disability should be discussed in the workplace among youth with disabilities. Conclusions: Our findings highlight the complexities of disability disclosure for youth with disabilities. More studies are needed to explore issues of workplace disclosure and accommodations for young people to improve disclosure strategies and the process of providing appropriate accommodations. • Implications for Rehabilitation • Clinicians, educators, and parents should support youth to become self-aware and build self-advocacy skills so they can make an informed decision about how and when to disclose their condition to employers. • Clinicians, educators, and employers should help youth with disabilities to understand the benefits of disclosing their disability, and educate them on the supports available so they can remain healthy and productive in the workplace. • Clinicians should advocate for employers to create a positive and supportive environment where youth feel comfortable disclosing their condition.