Disengagement From Organized Sports

Dr. Robert Pankey, Ed.D.

Texas State University – San Marcos







Retirement from sport generally occurs as a result of deselection, injury, or expiration of eligibility.  In todayÕs sport environment, one may be cut from a team, traded to another team, graduate from high school or college, become seriously injured, transfer to another school, or the team itself may be disbanded.  There are a host of behavioral problems that accompany the process of being retired from sport.  The purpose of this article is to address the issues of disengagement from organized sport and provide recommendations pertaining to the intervention strategies that can be applied to individuals who are entering the disengagement process.

Disengagement From Organized Sports


Involuntary retirement from sport generally occurs as a result of injury, being deselected from a team or loss of eligibility (Ogilvie, 1984).  Weinberg and Gould (1999) report that in todayÕs sport environment, one may be terminated from a team, traded to another team, lose there eligibility when one graduates from high school or college, become seriously injured, transfer to another school, or the team itself may be disbanded.  When such disengagement occurs, a host of behavioral problems may interfere with the process of retiring gracefully from organized sport.  The purpose of this article is to address the issues of disengagement from organized sport and provide recommendations pertaining to what can be done to better prepare athletes for the retirement process.


At some time or another, retirement from competitive athletics will occur. It may be due to one's inability to continue to play because of arthritis, or it could be the result of terminating a high school sports career with no prospect of participating in college athletics. Whatever the case may be, retirement from competitive athletics will occur with all sports enthusiasts. Many times, it happens suddenly, without warning. The careers that athletes so painstakingly trained themselves in for five, ten, maybe fifteen years could be terminated in an instant.


There are various movements addressing the disengagement process by organizations such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the CHAMPS/Life Skills program that supports the academic progress of the academic-athlete in their pursuit of intellectual development and graduation.  Since there is a high number of college athletes who will not participate at the next level of competition, programs such as these have been said to help prepare athletes for the next step and pursue career goals (The NCAA News, 2003). These programs address the athleteÕs developmental needs based on their year in school.  The emphasis in CHAMPS/Life Skills program is to focus on "life after sports" and how the lessons that were learned in sports can be applied to life in general.  Some other organizations include Lifeaftersport, Gamesover, Players-Own and the Positive Transitions for Student-Athletes (PTSA) program.  The PTSA program focuses on the career development and college sport retirement transition.  The PTSA disengagement model is grounded in reality therapy that teaches college athletes self-responsibility for addressing retirement rather than focusing on "what could have been" (Stankovich, Meeker, & Henderson, 2001).


The PTSA model used in counseling college athletes utilizes the athleteÕs transferable skills as a tool to assist them in building skills and abilities that can be used beyond sports.  The program is fit into a ten-week course and addresses identity exploration, goal setting and an exploration of career issues such as professional networking.   The results of this program have been shown to increase the confidence and readiness of college athletes to disengage from sports.  Pearson (1990) indicates that the presence of a program that addresses Ōlife after sportĶ can provide a responsive, resource-rich support system needed to ease the impact of anticipated or unanticipated transitions. 


Other than a few noteworthy programs, little attention continues to be paid to the disengagement process in our overall sport society.  Why is so little attention being paid to athletes prior to and after the athlete disengages from sport?  There are two general reasons:  1) The athlete may be of little concern to the sport establishment after his or her sport career is over, and 2) the AthleteÕs consideration of termination issues can be highly threatening to most who have built their personal identity around their sport.  For many athletes, the dream of continuing to a higher level of competition or for lasting another season may be so realistic that the prospect of being forced to disengage from sport is blocked-out or distorted from their thoughts.


The Athletic Identity

The identity of an athlete is a major part of who the athlete is.  When one disengages from sport, this transition changes almost everything about the life that the athlete has come to know.  The physical skills and talents that develop over time have given the athlete a special relationship to sport.  Praise and abundant support from family, friends, media, and their community plays a significant role in the developing bond and the athletic identity.   Eventually, the sense of self-worth and status becomes closely tied to athletic success in sport.  The athleteÕs involvement more than satisfies some of the most basic human needs such as recognition, approval, accomplishment and validation from others.  Public adoration, at all levels of competition, grants the athlete a high degree of social status.


Webb (1998) emphasizes that the time and commitment to the athletic identity is so strong that by the time they reach high school, successful athletes may have internalized this identity, and it supersedes some of the other necessary social needs.  As a result, the athletic identity may tend to dominate role of the individual self-concept.  OneÕs personal identity begins to shift developmentally once the athlete enters the college years (Pearson & Petipas, 1990).  When athletes receive so many intrinsic benefits from being successful, they tend to develop a natural instinct to want to hold on to that source of support and identity.  As the personal identity becomes defined as being an athlete, it is obvious that problems can occur long before the disengagement process begins.  Eventually when retirement denies opportunities to foster and maintain that identity, athletes find that they lack the flexibility necessary to redefine their self-concept (Web, Nasco, Riley & Headrich, 1998) and they are hesitant to seek help through counseling (Brewer, Van Raalte, Petipas, Bachman, & Weinhold, 1998).


The perception of an athleteÕs eventual termination from sport should be predicted and controlled internally during the athleteÕs disengagement process.  When athletes perceive and exercise control over their retirement, a more positive psychological adjustment of retirement may occur (Webb, Nasco, Riley & Headrick, 1998).   If disengagement is attributed more internally, with a strong sense of knowing why an athlete has disengaged from sport, this will greatly impact how the athlete responds to career termination and help them with the transition out of sport (Williams, 2001).


Our athletic society has been shaped and organized to help us be intrinsically involved in athletics, but there are few organized entities that help athletes find a constructive way out of athletics.  When one analyzes the positive values of making an athletic team or playing for the Ōhome townĶ school, it's no wonder why being an athlete can be such a fulfilling experience.  Being an active athlete takes on meaning when he or she is engaged in sport competition.  Athletes become physically conditioned, take on new shape and feel good about their physical strength, fitness and the way they look.  Socially, they learn new ways of communicating with others.  And mentally, they learn how to be competitive.


In the peak of the glory days, when athletes feel they have a command of all the elements that make them feel successful and meaningful, the rug may be pulled out from under them, and they may be forced to retire.  Gauber (2007) recently noted that the NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, said, "the biggest challenge many of our players have is looking ahead for the rest of their lives.  They have everything, in a sense.  In the NFL, they've achieved their dream of playing at the highest level. They have a lot of money, but it comes to an end quicker than most of them can even imagine." 


Gauber (2007) further states that for many retired athletes there is only one thing that matches the intensity of the game, it is the feeling of despair when itÕs over.  A survey of 1,425 former NFL players showed that 18 percent of the former players experienced severe emotional problems during their first year out of football.  Almost every former NFL player interviewed said they felt a significant letdown after leaving the game.  Most alarming was the fact that 96% of the subjects surveyed felt that they had received no counseling from the league to help them with the adjustment to life after football.  Many players said they experienced some form of depression.  Since 1980 seven former NFL players have committed suicide!  That is higher than the number for the other three major sports combined during the same period.  Though the taking of a life seems rather extreme, it reinforces the fact that adjusting to life after athletics is to be taken seriously, and may take many former players months, and sometimes years to fully adjust to life after sports.


In a testimony given from an athlete in counseling at the Lifeaftersport agency:

Going from "on-field stardom" to "sideline has-been" is brutal. No more autographs, applause, million-dollar contracts, front-page photos, and product endorsements. Retirement is more than the end of a job – it feels like death.


Retirement happens to all people in business or industry, but the difference with occupational retirement is that it happens at an age when one is mature and at the end of their career cycle.  It generally occurs as a planned part of terminating a career. 


When business executives are fired from jobs before their retirement age, they simply move to a different location and find another job related to the experiences and training they had in the past.  Athletes are rarely afforded this kind of opportunity.  When eligibility is used up in high school or college, there is no other team to join.  When one is terminated from a basketball team in college, there is no other college team to play on.  There are no more crowds to play in front of and there are no other places to move to in order to resume an athletic career.


Problems Seen With Disengaged Athletes

In order to get a more applied perspective on the difficulties that retired professional athletesÕ face, some of the concerns and problems stated in the interviews of disengaged professional athletes are stated below (From, 2006).  When the game is over, players face unexpected and sometimes overwhelming problems in their personal lives.  Among them include: 


1.  Denial

2.  Drinking & Drugs

3.  Divorce

4.  Financial Loss and/or Challenges

5.  Physical Loss and/or

6.  Lack of Purpose and

7.  Depression

8.  Anger and Bitterness

9.  Loss of Structure

10.  Isolation


As mentioned earlier, there are various ways that an athlete can disengage, either forcefully or voluntarily, from organized sport.  The works by May & Asken (1987) and (Patterson, 2005) classify some of the basic reasons for disengagement such as deselection, injury and loss of eligibility.


Disengagement Due to Deselection

The term for being cut from an organized sport team is often referred to as deselection.  Most people remember, all too well, their first thoughts when they were omitted from the team roster, often through a posting on a bulletin board, during their initial tryouts.  Others will often relive the experience they shared when they were asked by the coach or manager to turn in their gear and locker because they were being terminated from the team.  When an athlete's career is ended due to deselection, the athlete is faced with the limitations of his or her inherent athletic ability.  The athlete has to come to the realization that he or she was not good enough to continue with the team or organization.


Athletes who are intentionally deselected from the team, or not chosen to move on to higher level from high school or college athletics, fall into this category.  The signs of being disengaged from sport may have been there, but may have been ignored or denied.  Athletes may be resigned to the fact that their ability will not carry them into a career in sport.  This challenges their plans they had made for moving on to the next level of competition.  A sense of guilt and the assumption that they had not tried hard enough, practiced enough, or taken their sport seriously begins to invade their thinking.  Deselection is a traumatic and disruptive blow to one's self-esteem and athletic identity. When asked to compare their feelings and emotions during this period with other experiences they perceive in life, many athletes have indicated that their feelings parallel that to death or dying (Blinde & Stratta, 1992).


There are more athletes who are deselected from teams when they arrive at the next level of competition.  The probability of being deselected from college athletic team and remaining on that team until his or her eligibility expires is very low.   The question that should be raised, internally and externally, is whether or not coaches, family or other individuals involved in the lives of athletes are being realistic about their true ability level?  Is an athlete being given accurate information about the level of competition to which he/she should aspire to compete in?  Very often, coaches provide inaccurate information to the athlete, and to coaches at the next level, concerning the characteristics of an athlete such as size, speed, ability, and academic background.  Athletes may believe what they are hearing and base their levels of expectations accordingly.  Unfortunately, when the time comes for college or professional scouts to begin assessing the athletes' physical attributes, he or she is often unprepared for the reality of not being selected to play for a team at a higher skill level. 


The emotional frustration that occurs when being omitted from a team may occur very early in life.  A prime example is seen in youth sports, where young kids are cut from public school sport teams.  How do these athletes, cope at this young age?  The reality of deselection is even greater as the athlete competes at higher levels.  Early studies in 1987 on 700,000 high school basketball players found that only 15,000 (.021%) made an NCAA varsity team, and only 50 (.00007%) made a team in the National Basketball Association (Ogilvie & Howe, 1987).  The probability levels of making professional careers in football and baseball were found to be similar.  Even after successfully making it to professional athletics, the careers of those who do make it to this level are short lived.  Over twenty years ago, the average career in the National Football League (NFL) as 4.2 years, while the average career in the NBA was slightly less (Dietzel, 1983).  Today, media coverage primarily focuses on the popular athletes who have longer and more lucrative playing careers.   Little coverage is given to the typical cases or those who play for one or two years before being deselected or forced to quit for other reasons such as being injured.  We simply donÕt hear about athletes whose one-year contracts are not renewed after their first season.  Coakley (2008) stated that the average players, on the oldest NFL team in 2008, were less than 28 years old.  Therefore, the deselection process is very typical to the 22-year-old athlete who suddenly faces an end to his/her professional sport career.


Minorities from low socioeconomic backgrounds may require more attention than those who come from higher socioeconomic status.  We have all heard stories about athletes who were told that the Ōbest way to make it out of the environment is through sport.Ķ  Athletes from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are sometimes led to believe that sport is the best chance to achieve success.  Total commitment to athletics may encourage a Ōsingular focusĶ on sports, at the sacrifice of other potential means of achieving success.  Many minorities have made inroads into some of the team sports in the United States, and some international sports such as boxing and track and field, but their overall participation level in professional sports is disproportionately low.  Additionally, African American athletes are rarely seen excelling in such sports as golf, bowling, soccer, automobile racing and tennis.  In reality, minorities remain underrepresented in some professional sports in the United States.


Even though the black athlete is highly visible in basketball, football and baseball, the opportunities remain low.  Coakley (2008) found that professional sport opportunities, regardless of race and ethnicity, are short-term, averaging three to seven years in team sports and three to twelve years for individual sports.  This means that after the professional sport career has ended, there is about forty remaining years in a personÕs working life.  In 1986, it was estimated that of the thirty million blacks in the United States, only one out of every 460,000 blacks made a living from major football, basketball or baseball leagues (Coakley. 1986).  Ironically, research in the 1990Õs revealed that 43% of all black male high school athletes believed that eventually they would play professional sports as a career (Johnson, 1991).  The odds or chances for a person, regardless of race, to become a college or professional athlete are difficult to calculate.  Many different methods have been used and the estimates reported in the media are probably inaccurate, but the calculations all point to the fact that playing at the professional level is a long shot at best.


Too often we hear of athletes who have mistakenly placed all their eggs in one basket.  They counted heavily on making it to the professional leagues just to find out that they did not possess the ability to continue their sport career at a higher level.  When they were forced to terminate their career because they were unable to live up to the expectations of the coach or trainer, their discouragement intensified when they realized that they had no occupation or means to make a living.  The unrealistic expectation of earning a living in sport has to be addressed through proper counseling of athletes at all levels of competition.  Additionally, it is the duty of the coach and athletic administration to give all athletes a proper perspective on the odd against making a living in professional athletics.  In reading the literature on the probability of making a career in sport, it is obvious that coaches and parents should be preparing the athlete for careers in fields that have a higher probability for success, such as becoming a lawyer, doctor, business professional or teacher.  If the athlete fails to make a team at a higher level of competition for some reason, he or she would at least have something to fall back on as a means of survival. 


Disengagement Due to Injury

Forced termination due to injury is a reality that many athletes experience but many collegiate and professional athletes are generally unprepared for this form of disengagement.  Unfortunately, the chances that most athletes will be forced to retire as a result of injury is very high.  Mihoces (1988) reported that 66% of all NFL athletes retired with some type of permanent injury.  The situation is serious at all levels of competition. At the University of Iowa, Pankey (1993) found that 21,000 athletes from 351 high schools reported injuries, with 21% of these serious enough to prevent further competition.  Contact sports are among the most dangerous workplaces in the occupational world (Rice, 2005).  The same could be said about high-profile power and performance collegiate sports in which 80 percent of male and female athletes sustain at least one serious injury while playing their sports and nearly 70 percent are disabled for two or more weeks (Nixon 2000).  The contact inherent in most sports takes a definite toll on the health of athletes.


It is important to understand that a traumatic sport injury does not always end an athletic career immediately.  Athletes often go through a very lengthy physical and emotional process in coming to grips with their injury, while preparing for surgery and rehabilitation.  It is common for athletes to push themselves for several months or an entire season before it is determined that injury will disengage them from sport.  In situations where the injury is obviously a career ending one, the athlete with still go through a similar process, but with no hope for continuance in organized sport.  Reactions to injury may include grief, identity loss, separation, loneliness, fear, anxiety, loss of confidence and deviant behavior (Albert, 2004).  There are numerous cases seen in sport where athletes have suffered acute depression, abused alcohol, and have developed suicidal tendencies (Pearson & Petipas, 1990).  Athletic career termination by way of injury is a situation that happens to a large portion of our population every year.  Such a form of departure from athletics results in one's feeling less life satisfaction.  Apparently, a sense of unfilled promise weighs heavy on the minds of athletes and therefore has a tendency to plague them for years after the injury terminated their playing careers.


How do athletes react to this forced termination due to injury?  Many feel a great deal of stress.  Typically, the athlete responds to the challenge by attempting to work their way through the challenge, to "tough it out."  Denial is used as a protective shield. "This can't be happening to me" are typical reactions by the athlete.  Some will express depression, resentment, anger and hostility.  Many of these emotions are visible in Ogilvie's (1987) example of a college linebacker he had counseled.  Ogilvie titled the young man's reaction to injury as the "raging bull" syndrome. 

The young man had suffered a leg injury that was slow in healing; therefore, he could not start fall practice on schedule. The young man was blaming the doctor's supposedly conservative treatment for his slow recovery, and the player was looking for some doctor with a "magic wand" to cure him when the previous doctor could not.


Emotionally, the young man was resentful and angry, and outwardly expressed hostility to the physician, trainer, and coach who were not allowing him to compete.  Emotionally discouraged, the young man had left counseling to pursue his case with another orthopedic surgeon.


There is a personal misfortune that occurs when disengagement from sport is the result of injury Athletes in counseling often reveal their innermost feelings and tell their courageous battle they had fought against overwhelming circumstances.  Such accounts exemplify the extreme commitment to sport that many athletes possess in the face of a debilitating injury.  For the athlete their life is the sport, and the threatening loss of sport because of injury is tremendously profound.  While one has to feel respect for persistence and inner-strength that athletes have in the face of injury, the underlying problem for many who compete in higher level sports is their inability to look at themselves more broadly and consider their other aptitudes and abilities which can lead to alternative careers and a successful life.


Disengagement Resulting From Expiration of Eligibility

The third prime reason for termination of a competitive athletic career is the expiration of eligibility.  Termination of eligibility happens to all athletes, in both college and high school.  After a prescribed period of time in high school or college, the athlete simply becomes ineligible because an athleteÕs four or five years of competitive play is ending.  Again, it is not unrealistic to see an athlete being ill prepared for the eventual last game of their senior year.  They strive for many years to make the varsity team and they spend an insurmountable time in training and preparation to make it to the playoff in their last year of eligibility. Then when they fail to progress any further in the playoffs, the ŌgameĶ is truly over.   Most athletes are left with a low probability of playing at the next level of sport competition.


Not so definite is the amount of emphasis in preparing athletes for life after sports in academics.  According to numbers reported by the NCAA, it appears that with all male and female athletes, particularly minority athletes, the academic emphasis remains low.  Recent NCAA reports provide a strong argument for increasing academic standards for incoming athletes in order to improve graduation rates.  Ironically, it may also indicate that tougher academic rules are forcing a disproportionate number of black athletes out of sports at the higher education level.  Recent figures show that graduation rates of athletes continue to be higher than those of all students. Women athletes were found to graduate at a higher rate than their male counterparts, but graduation rates for blacks continue to be lower than those of white athletes.  The consideration of these and similar findings make it obvious that many of the 22-year old athletes leaving college are acquiring few skills other than that of being able to play sports.  Over fifteen years ago, Harry Edwards, a Sport Sociologist from California Berkley University, maintained that athletes are not being taught to aspire to legitimate goals in sports, and should focus their aspirations in a balanced perspective with the rest of their lives (Sperber, 1992).


Counseling and Intervention Strategies for the Coach and Sport Psychologist

What can we do to help prepare athletes for the time when sport is no longer a dominant force in the athleteÕs lives?  Coaches, educators, and all people involved with athletes need to help athletes balance sports with "real-world" life.  A "preretirement" approach to counseling the athlete, with the philosophy that positive actions taken before disengagement will prevent or minimize social and emotional deprivations after athletics.  There can be no substitute for early education to inform athletes of all the contingencies involved in the process of disengagement.  Coaches should have a plan on what to do to help prepare their athletes for life after sports.  They should talk openly to their athletes about this subject. They may want to communicate with their former athletes about how their future career path, encourage them to attend different workshops, help to pinpoint their career interests, and provide networking opportunities and resources to better prepare them for their eventual disengagement from sport.


Disengagement from athletics is usually a natural, but sometimes painful, process.  Most people can and do retire from being an athlete without help.  Time heals, they find other occupations to involve themselves in and their lives go on.  With college athletes, research has shown that a shifting of priorities over the collegiate years took place in the majority of athletes, with sport becoming less significant in their lives and education assuming an increasingly prominent role.  On the other hand, for those athletes who never make it to college, disengagement from athletics can be overwhelming - an obsession, an intense, enduring immobilizing pain.  Wanting to be in sports and training with a team and friends for a common goal when the opportunity for doing so is no longer available, can lead to depression, obsessive thoughts and self-destructiveness.  For all sorts of reasons some athletes hold fast to the memory of being associated with an athletic team.  The experiences they shared with friends when they won a tournament or playoff game, the love that the school had toward their effort in sports and the support that the coach and family gave them when they played were so real, so precious that they fear letting go of it.  They are afraid of the great void that comes in the aftermath, the perceived insignificance of their lives, the feelings of rejection and anguish.






Transition Phases In The Disengagement Process

The phases that athletes go through during the disengagement process has been well documented in the literature.  Blinde (1992) indicates that along with the initial shock of being cut from a team, athletes may attempt to deny that their sport career is actually over.  Athletes may isolate themselves from other individuals because they have few support systems that remain or can be drawn upon, possibly because their closest peers were still a part of a team.


After career termination, there may be a period of helplessness and disorientation.  The individual may not have the tools to be able to deal with the freedom from the structured existence within the athletic world.  He or she may exhibit certain forms of denial as a result of being so disorientated.  Often the athlete develops unrealistic expectations of returning to sports or making a miraculous comeback from an injury.  Over time, the reality of the situation becomes clear.  It is at this point that anger often sets in.  Anger is often a response and surfaces when athletes feel betrayed by those responsible for decisions leading to the termination of their sport career (Blinde & Stratta, 1992).  The athlete suffering from forced termination may express anger against himself or herself in self-destructive ways.  Some have reported that they had resorted to extreme behavioral forms to vent their anger such as abusing alcohol or taking excessive risk in exercising of taking performance-enhancing substances (Coakley, 2008).  The athlete may even direct the anger outwardly at an athletic establishment, family or friends.


Another psychological phase that the retired athlete may experience includes a bargaining period, where the athlete attempts to bargain with the coach, or God, promising changes in his or her actions in exchange for continued playing time.  In comparison to other adjustment phases, bargaining is rarely utilized as a coping phase to reverse the decision of the coach (Blinde & Stratta, 1992).  When these attempts to deal with disengagement begin to fail, or are considered futile by the athlete, the reality of the termination can bring on a period of depression.  Many times, this is again followed by destructive life styles (Pankey, 1993).


If and when depression subsides, as with most emotional trauma, it is questioned as to whether or not actual acceptance begins.  Most sport psychologists feel that when depression eventually subsides, a renewed energy emerges.  The athlete often begins an era of self-development and starts to explore new alternative careers and life styles.  If the athlete completes this phase, then a more healthy existence may prevail.  If athletes do not choose to examine the causality of their frustrations and seek ways of modifying their behaviors they may experience negative feelings and thoughts of past athletic experiences.


Psychologists categorize this recall situation as a form of "state" learning.  In essence, one recalls situations about their past once put into the state that they were in when a negative experience occurred.  Law enforcement values some aspects of hypnotism to bring out the state of an individual who witnessed a crime.  With the athlete, a negative state may occur when watching a basketball game, or when seeing a son or daughter play little league baseball.  Old memories about a touchdown pass that was dropped, embarrassing moments when the athlete finally realized that his or her career was over, or the guilt and hatred that was felt toward the coach is suddenly remembered once a similar situation occurs.  Cognitive strategies such as self-talk, thought stopping, imagery or some basic behavior modification and counseling may be suggested in dealing with negative states or experiences in a positive way.


Behavior Therapy For The Disengaged Athlete

Behavior therapy has had much success with athletes who are in feeling rejected or depressed over departing from organized athletics.  It generally helps in decreasing the frustration that these athletes feel once the cheering stops.  Behavior therapy can retired athletes learn to take pride in other forms of recreational play and involve themselves in something else that is physical, that has importance and can teach them to enjoy sport once again.  Athletes can learn to see sport or recreation for the pure act of moving in different ways.  Athletes can learn that their physical self can take shape again, and they can learn take control of their emotions.


Repeatedly you hear about people who have had a close brush with death, a plane was forced to make an emergency landing when it experienced difficulty with an engine.  Everyone escaped unharmed from a possible accident, but for a split second, they were close to being killed.  When people have experiences like these, they almost always shift their thoughts to what is most important in their lives.  In these situations, people force themselves into thinking about the relevant things in their lives, like their family, their loved ones or their religious convictions, and for a time, their behavior changes.  Unfortunately, it often takes a traumatic experience before people will put the emphasis of purpose and meaning into perspective.  The disengaged athlete should be taught to shift his behavior and begin to realize that sport is only a small part of the whole picture of life. 


A traumatic event that suddenly ends an athletic career, may force the athletes to seek ways of looking at their sport with less meaning and stress and begin to spend more quality time with their school, family and loved ones.  They may even devote their lives to the things which bring them fulfillment, like religion, recreation or they may elect to relax more, taking more time to enjoy the real beauty of moving and being a part of a different kind of team such as a scuba club.  Their brush with trauma was a catalyst that permitted them to awaken themselves and turn their own lives into something that would go beyond their next football or basketball game.


Athletes do not have to experience a close call with death before attempting to understand what sport meant to them when they were vigorously competing.  Being an athlete gave them joy, meaning and purpose in life.  Retiring from organized athletics doesn't mean that life will be unhappy or less gratifying.  Athletes can give themselves permission to live their lives in the way that would provide them and their loved ones gratification.  Learning to behave in a different way is the foundation to behavior modification.  Developing a systematic plan that will allow people to take advantage of the things that make them feel alive, eliminating those obstacles from your past athletic experiences that causes guilt, or depression every time they think of their past athletic career and wish it never had ended.  Behavior modification has many advantages over conventional ways of thinking about the past.


The following recommendations can be used to facilitate team and individual transitions following the athleteÕs disengagement from sport.  A trained sport psychologist would be very helpful in facilitating this process.

1. Early, honest, realistic educational programs must be undertaken with athletes, before disengagement, to help the disengaged athlete learn to blend athletics with academics. They must be taught how to see how the characteristics learned in sport, such as self-control and self-esteem can be used in a positive way outside of the athletic world.

2. Work with athletes on thinking how disengagement would affect them personally.  It is especially important to emphasize that athletes learn to accept the responsibility of personal growth.  For example, the athlete needs skill development in physical activities outside team sports. This will provide them alternatives for easing the emotional and physical stress commonly felt as a result of disengagement from competitive athletics.  Therefore, self-responsibility should be taught, teaching the former athletes that they must be responsible for everything that happens to them.

3. Through individual and group counseling sessions, the athlete needs to come to the realization that academic success, in the vast majority of cases, is the best ticket for success in life after sport.  Coaches and counselors should not wait until the dream ends.  They should address these concerns when athletes are young.  Athletes will generally not come to the coach or parent to address disengagement; athletes are taught throughout their athletic career to "tough it out", not to seek help.  So it is up to the coach or parent to approach the athlete about this issue first.

4. In working with college level students who are interested in continuing in athletics, possibly through coaching, four to six weeks of group counseling has proven valuable.  The counseling is centered on career orientation and employment opportunities after athletics.  The reality of the career duration expectancy of coaches should be discussed.  It is commonly known that great athletes do not always make great coaches, and with many coaching careers, the ability to remain in the coaching field for a lifetime is very low.  Burnout as well as financial expectancy is a few of the common problems associated with a career in coaching.

5.  Health and wellness skills for the ex-athlete cope must be presented.  The concept of detraining should be discussed, including weight control, diet and exercise.  Positive addictions such as walking, swimming, biking, and other forms of recreation should be emphasized. This allows excess physical energies to be channeled into activities that can be undertaken on an individual basis, contributing to one's wellbeing.

6.  Role differentiation may be utilized with the team.  In this process, the members of the team can chart the role of each person, highlighting the position or role of the athlete who had been retired from the team.  The individuals could be asked to clarify the role of each teammate and their perception of team unity, cooperation, motivation, spirit and the ability to resolve conflict in the absence of those who have left the team either forcefully or voluntarily.  Those athletes remaining on the team must accept the responsibility of the possible change in their roles within the team.

7.  Give the team the opportunity to work together, talk and deal with the absence of a teammate as well as how they perceive the integration of a new teammate into the formerly held position of the absent athlete.

8. Lastly, ex-athletes must be taught to develop their ability to let things go, and to get involved in the rest of their lives.  The concept of "letting go" and transition should be addressed, emphasizing that everything in life, including life itself, is temporary.  Emphasize that transition has been a part of their life in the past, it is a part of the their life now, and will be a part of their life in the future.  For example, when athletes went from high school to college and from college to the pros they experienced transition. When they married, were traded, changed teams or bought a house they experienced transitions that are a part of every player's life.  Some transitions are planned, some are unexpected, and some are unpredictable.  Some are because of an event happening and some are caused because an event didn't happen.  Regardless of the type of transition, their greatest determining factor for success is the perception of their transition and their attitude during transition.  Perception is everything.  Emphasize to the former athlete the importance of getting involved in life while they have their one and only chance.



The author of this article feels that there is a great deal that can be done to help athletes, at all levels, prior to, during and after their inevitable career termination.  The counselor, coach or parent who desires to help the athlete must seek out and counsel players and former players.  A large amount of counseling and behavior modification may be necessary. Friends, families, coaches and fellow teammates should support the athlete during their disengagement process during and after their retirement.  Negative attitudes about retirement from sport, expressed by anyone in the athlete's life, can become barriers to the athlete seeking out, asking for, or receiving help from others.


It is helpful that athletes think about retirement from sport and develop strategic plans for the end of their career.  There are many ways that an athlete can suddenly end a career in sports, so having a backup plan is important for the athlete to disengage from competitive sport.  Petipas (1997) indicates that the goal of a backup plan is to give one an alternative focus in developing and pursuing goals.


There is no doubt that the end of an athletic career is a difficult time.  To properly retire or disengage from sport, the athlete must be able to recognize problems during this transition and know where or how to get help.  Not every athlete experiences a difficult transition in retirement, but research has shown that many do.  Coaches and athletic trainers should help to address the transition that athletes face in retirement and let athletes know that their discouragement and despair is normal.  Mentors can help the athlete identify ways to turn negative feelings into positive outcomes.  All support groups should understand the difficulty of disengagement, support, and point the retired athlete in the appropriate direction to get help if needed.  Athletes should be aware that they may have to establish a new self-identity in their disengagement process, but they can also be assisted in maintaining their own sense of self-worth.


Many things athletes learned while playing sports, such as self-talk, thought stopping, and imagery, as well as leadership and motivational skills can be useful to athletes during their transition and in starting a new career (Pankey, 1993).  Individual schools, universities and organizations can develop programs that assist athletes with disengaging from sport.  These programs should be deemed as important as those that facilitate athletes while they are in school and could be utilized an integral part of any college or university that has an athletic department (Patterson, 2005). If the disengagement process in sport can be appropriately addressed, behavior modification training, as expressed earlier in this article, utilized by the coach or sport psychologist who works with athletes at all levels would be most appropriate.




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