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Sport career transition: Strengths, challenges, and innovations over time

By Zarina A. Giannone

Evolution of Sport Career Transition Research

Research in the area of sport career transition has demonstrated that 15-20% of retired athletes experience transition distress, often necessitating career intervention and psychological support (Alfermann, 2000; Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler, & Cote, 2009; Wylleman, Theeboom, & Lavallee, 2004). Over the past six decades, several major advances in research and theory have emerged contributing new knowledge about transition coping and adjustment, further characterizing the evolution of career development and intervention with athlete populations. Pioneering studies focused on athletic retirement as analogous to work retirement, often citing the negative and traumatic nature of sport career termination (Sinclair & Orlick, 1993; Brewer, 1993; Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). In the early 2000s, an observable shift occurred in the literature which emphasized the “whole career” approach, focusing on a range of transitions during an athletic career (Durand-Buch & Salmela, 2001), in addition to the departure from the sport setting. Next, athlete career transition theory progressed to include the “whole person” approach, emphasizing a lifespan perspective which considered the intersection of developmental tasks, stages, and challenges relevant to children, youth, and adults (Wylleman & Lavallee, 2004). Finally, the fourth shift spurred research on other relevant contextual factors (e.g., culture, sport administration) impacting sport transition outcomes and intervention development (Stambulova, Stephan, & Japhag, 2007). As such, modern theoretical frameworks embody a holistic, lifespan, and multi-level approach to best capture athletes’ experience of sport career transition (Stambulova et al., 2009; Wylleman et al., 2004).

Career Development and Athlete Career Transition Intervention

Whereas career development refers to the progression through career stages, sport career transitions refer to normative (predictable; e.g., voluntary retirement) or non-normative (unpredictable; e.g., athletic injury) turning points during an athletic career (Alfermann & Stambulova, 2007; Stambulova et al., 2009). Previous research has demonstrated that sport transition is a potentially vulnerable time for athletes, indicating an array of psychological sequelae which hinder post-transition adjustment (Brewer, 1993; Manuel, Shlit, Curl, Smith, DuRant, Lester, & Sinal, 2002), including diminished career maturity, impaired career decision-making, among other clinical conditions (e.g., depression, substance abuse). Given the gravity of these outcomes, there is a fundamental need to support athletes’ transition adaptation through developing and implementing evidence-based career assistance programs (Giannone, 2016).

Existing career transition models emphasize athletes’ coping processes as imperative to successful transition adjustment, underscoring the match between sport transition demands and athletes’ available resources, both internal and external (Stambulova et al., 2009). Career transition programs (i.e., individual or group-oriented multidisciplinary support services) assist athletes in preparing for and adjusting to sport transitions, particularly retirement, through a combination of prevention, crisis coping, and clinical interventions (Wylleman et al., 2004), extending athletes’ vocational and personal development beyond the sports environment. For example, career programs often include individual counselling, career exploration and planning, goal setting, mentorship, and life development interventions (Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1993; Stambulova et al., 2009), in addition to fostering transferable skills and competencies. In line with the evolution of sport career transition research described above, career programs typically work from an orientation which emphasizes the whole person and career, often with the added consideration of multicultural factors (Gill, 2007).

Summary and Future Research Directions

Advances in research and theory contribute to our understanding of athletes’ phenomenological experience of sport career transition, informing the development of appropriate intervention supports. Previous research has demonstrated a link between retirement planning, voluntary sport termination, diverse personal identities, social support, and active coping, with positive post-transition adaptation (Park, Lavallee, & Tod, 2012; Stambulova et al., 2009); however, there continues to be a paucity of research evaluating the effectiveness of sport career transition programs. While addressing methodological limitations in previous research (Lavallee, 2005), future investigations should provide comprehensive and rigorous evaluations of programs, enabling career practitioners and other helping professionals to make well-informed and evidence-based decisions regarding their selection of sport transition interventions, thereby enhancing athletes’ career development and post-retirement adjustment.

Zarina Giannone is a PhD student in the Counselling Psychology Program at the University of British Columbia (UBC), working under the co-supervision of Drs. Alanaise Goodwill and David Kealy. Her Master’s thesis investigated the influence of athletic identity on mental health and well-being outcomes after interuniversity sport retirement. Zarina’s competitive athletic history has inspired her research and clinical work with athletes. Her doctoral dissertation will involve piloting a positive psychology group intervention with athletes, which focuses on identity development and well-being. Zarina works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Mental Health Institute in the Department of Psychiatry at UBC. She currently serves as the Past-Chair for the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) Section for Students in Psychology and as a Board Member on the CPA Board of Directors. /em>




Alfermann, D. (2000). Causes and consequences of sport career termination. In D. Lavallee & P. Wylleman (Eds.), Career transitions in sport: International perspectives (pp. 45-58). Morgan­town, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Alfermann, D., & Stambulova, N. (2007). Career transitions and career termination. In G. Tenen­baum & R.C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp.712-736). New York, NY: Wiley.

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Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or Achilles’ heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 24, 237-254.

Danish, S. J., Petitpas, A. J., & Hale, B. D. (1993). Life developmental interventions for athletes: Life skills through sports. The Counseling Psychologist, 21, 352-385. doi: 10.1177/0011000093213002

Durand-Bush, N., & Salmela, J. H. (2001). Development of talent in sport. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 269-289). New York, NY: Wiley.

Giannone, Z. (2016). Life after sport: Investigating the relationships between athletic identity and mental health outcomes after elite sport retirement. Retrieved from:

Gill, D. (2007). Gender and cultural diversity. In G. Tenenbaum & R.C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp.823-844). New York, NY: Wiley.

Lavallee, D. (2005). The effect of a life development intervention on sport career transition adjustment. The Sport Psychologist, 19, 193-202. Retrieved from: sportpsych2005.pdf

Manuel, J. C., Shlit, J. S., Curl, W. W., Smith, J. A., DuRant, R. H., Lester, L., & Sinal, S. H. (2002). Coping with sports injuries: An examination of the adolescent athletes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 391-393. doi:10.1016/S1054-139X(02)00400-7

Park, S., Lavallee, D., & Tod, D. (2012). Athlete’s career transition out of sport: A systematic review. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1, 1-32. doi: 10.1080/1750984X.2012.687053

Sinclair, D. A., & Orlick, T. (1993). Positive terminations form high-performance sport. The Sport Psychologist, 7, 138-150. doi: 10.1123/tsp.7.2.138

Stambulova, N., Alfermann, D., Statler, T., & Côté, J. (2009). ISSP position stand: Career development and transitions of athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology7, 395-412. doi: 10.1080/1612197X.2009.9671916

Stambulova, N., Stephan, Y., & Järphag, U. (2007). Athletic retirement: A cross-national compari­son of elite French and Swedish athletes. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 8, 101-118. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.05.002

Wylleman, P., & Lavallee, D. (2004). A developmental perspective on transitions faced by athletes. In M. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 507-527). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Wylleman, P., Theeboom, M., & Lavallee, D. (2004). Successful athletic careers. In C. Spielberger (Ed.), Encyclopedia of applied psychology. (3rd ed., pp. 511-517). New York, NY: Elsevier.

1 Comment

  1. Profile photo of William
    March 22, 2017, 2:21 am   / 

    Hi Zarina,
    I started doing a part-time PhD but was forced to withdraw due to heavy work commitments. Now that things have eased considerably, I am trying to find a university where I can continue. When I withdrew, I was closing in on my Stage I. My research area is ‘the transition of elite sports team leaders to business and life after sport’. There are obviously a number of challenges associated with the transition, including, but not limited to mental illness.
    I am developing a ‘transition model’ that can be used by any sporting organisation/association to successfully transition athletes to life after sport.
    Some interesting point in your article. I am very interested in finding material on the Assistance in Career Transition (ACT) model.
    Apologies for my directness, but do you have any articles on the ACT model which you could send me?
    I would be very keen to stay in touch as I have only touched the surface with this topic and I believe the impacts are significant.
    Look forward to hearing from you
    My email is:
    Bill R

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