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Who Am I Without My Sport? Addressing Student-Athlete Transitions

By Sarah Stokowski, PhD, University of Arkansas; Amanda Paule-Koba, PhD, Bowling Green State University; Chelsea Kaunert, PhD, Coastal Carolina University

It is inevitable that, at some point, every student-athlete will leave their sport. Some athletes will stop participating once their eligibility has expired. Other athletes will suffer injuries that will force them to discontinue sport participation. For the select few (2%) that make it to the professional level, most will have a very short professional career (e.g., the average NFL career is three years, three games). Numerous research studies have repeatedly demonstrated the difficulties student-athletes face when they are no longer competing in intercollegiate sport.


Not long ago, Sarah was talking to her sister Laura, an all-American at age 15 and a former student-athlete at Kentucky, about what it was like for her when she stopped playing volleyball. Laura said, “imagine driving a car. Relying on that vehicle to get you where you need to go. Then imagine having your car suddenly taken from you. No warning. No notice. You are left…stranded. That is what it is like when you stop competing.”


We were curious to see if such narratives were common, so we turned to Twitter and asked, “Former college athletes, in a tweet (240 characters) what was your experience like transitioning out of sport.” Within five days, the tweet had 178 comments, 191 likes and had been retweeted 109 times. The results of this experiment was published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics earlier this month with the title, “Former College Athletes’ Perceptions of Adapting to Transition.” We hope the results of this study will provide you with insight as to the experiences of student-athletes transitioning out of sport.


In this piece, we wanted to provide you with “best practices.” Many athletic departments around the country have wonderful programming that we believe can be implemented throughout college sport. Lastly, we wanted to provide you with ideas on how to best prepare student-athletes for sport a life beyond sport.


Our study was informed by Schlossberg’s (1981) Model of Analyzing Human Adaptation to Transition. This model is particularly helpful in understanding what transition in sport might be like. The model explains that there are three factors that contribute to how an individual adapts to transition, and it all starts with the event – in this case, transitioning out of sport. The first factor is the perception of the particular transition.


How does leaving sport affect the athlete? Was this a normative transition (e.g., eligibility expires) or a non-normative transition (e.g., injury)? Is the transitional experience positive, negative, stressful? The second factor is the characteristics of the environment which consist of internal support systems (e.g., family, friends, institutional support). Lastly, the third phase is the characteristics of the individual (e.g., age, sex, race, gender, health, socioeconomic status, value system). Together, these three dynamics indicate how an individual will adapt to a new environment. As indicated in the model, transition and how one adapts is very much an individual process. All athletes will discontinue sport participation, yet how each athlete adapts to transition is an individual process.


We analyzed 178 responses to the initial Twitter thread. 57.3% of student-athlete respondents indicated their transition was a negative experience. Specifically, those who indicated a negative transition reported: (1) a profound sense of loss, (2) not being ready for the future, (3) feeling that something was missing in their lives, and (4) physical problems in regards to athletic injury, disordered eating, and/or body image issues. A little over 42% of the sample expressed a positive experience transitioning out of sport. Those that reported a positive transition felt: (1) liberated and (2) prepared for the future.


When we think of transitions and athlete identity, we often think of high-profile sports at the Division I level. What we found so interesting about this study was that the respondents played a variety of sports, both men’s and women’s, and indicated that they participated throughout the membership (e.g., Division I, II, III). Using Schlossberg’s (1981) model as well as the voices of the participants, there are several practical implications that can assist athletic departments in better preparing student-athletes to adapt.


The first recommendation is to encourage and allow student-athletes to participate in high-impact practices. Many athletic departments are already participating in high-impact practices with their student-athletes; however, these activities are often not thought of as active learning initiatives nor are they evaluated. High-impact practices involve active learning and student engagement (e.g., study abroad, internships, practicums, service learning, job shadowing). For example, athletic departments promote and provide community service initiatives, which should be viewed and evaluated as service learning.


However, service learning initiatives must seek input from student-athletes. Student-athletes should be asked what organizations or social justice issues are important to them. Current student-athletes are members of Generation Z. This generation grew up in a post 9/11 world. They are advocates and value social justice, with a keen sense of what initiatives are important to them.


Allowing student-athletes the freedom to select work they are passionate about will not only internally motivate student-athletes but will make them feel valued. And, such initiatives will allow student-athletes to evoke positive change in matters that they view as significant. Elon University and members of the Colonial Conference have invested in high-impact practices, such as service learning, and have created a conference-wide initiative to encourage high-impact practices.


Second, promote and provide study abroad opportunities. Due to the time demands of sport, many student-athletes are unable to study abroad for an entire semester, but most universities offer two-week study abroad opportunities. These opportunities allow for a cultural experience and participation in such high-impact practices enables student-athletes to develop greater social and emotional intelligence skills, like building empathy.


Study abroad programs allow student-athletes to develop a purpose-based identity to combat the loss of athletic identity. Student-athletes can begin to see a life outside of collegiate sport. The Ohio State University as well as the University of Washington (among others) have encouraged and provided study abroad opportunities for their student-athletes.


Third, support practical learning experiences (e.g., internships, job shadowing opportunities, and practicums) for student-athletes. These high-impact practices should be promoted during the recruiting process and made available to student-athletes pre-college (e.g., summer bridge). Have student-athletes complete a career assessment (pre-college). Then have student-athletes meet with a career counselor (these services are often available on college campuses) to discuss the results of the test. The students can then bring their results to their advisors which will assist them in picking a major as well as selecting classes that align with their professional goals.


Fourth, coordinate with the athletic alumni group. Pair student-athletes with former student-athletes who can help both mentor them in regard to their future professional careers and navigating life as a student-athlete. The University of Notre Dame does an excellent job utilizing their athlete alumni network to assist in the professional development of student-athletes. Athletic departments should consider partnering with local businesses or your apparel sponsor and create internship opportunities for student-athletes.


Encourage student-athletes to complete a job shadowing experience over a long weekend, in the summer, or during the holiday break. We would challenge athletic departments to utilize the career services available on their respective campuses. Most universities offer career counseling, resume and cover letter assistance, career fairs and job placement opportunities. Make professional development a competition among student-athletes. Athletic departments often give praise for team GPA – why not give praise to student-athletes and athletic teams that participate in high-impact practices?

Fifth, Offer a professional development certificate and/or a leadership certificate that student-athletes can earn for their involvement. This is a great way to encourage participation and allows student-athletes to highlight their preparation for the workforce on their resumes. Help student-athletes emphasize the skills they learn from sport participation (e.g., leadership, time management, teamwork). Teach student-athletes how to take those skills and apply them to a professional setting.


Oregon State University has leadership development programs to assist student-athletes in transferring the skills learned in the playing field to the workforce. Also, why not allow student-athletes to gain professional, applicable experience by working in the athletic department? Our study demonstrated that those who stayed connected with sport expressed an easier transition. Further, by implementing some of these suggestions, it will help student-athletes to “have a plan.” This study demonstrated that those who had a plan often had an easier time acclimating to a life beyond sport. Such practices will allow student-athletes to gain employment upon graduating.


Promote student-athlete involvement and investment in their program and their teams post-graduation. As previously stated, allow former student-athletes to mentor current student-athletes. Invite former student-athletes back to campus. Recognize their professional accomplishments. Have a student-athlete alumni reunion once a year that would allow student-athletes to stay connected with their teammates. Perhaps even have competitive events, like a field day, that would allow former student-athletes to be competitive and enjoy being with their teammates. Inform student-athletes about the NCAA’s LinkedIn group, “After the Game.” This group was created to provide former student-athletes the opportunity to connect with their peers.


Our study also demonstrated the need for mental health services. Participants reported that leaving sport was traumatic and that leaving sport mirrors the grief process. The University of Michigan’s Athletes Connected program encourages student-athletes to share their experiences and has greatly reduced the stigma associated with mental health. Offering institutional support by way of mental health services can greatly assist in the transitional process.


This study also demonstrated the sheer impact of injury. Athletic trainers need to collaborate with mental health professionals and coaches to assist student-athletes who have been injured. The University of North Carolina utilizes therapy animals to assist with recovery. The University of Arizona has a group for student-athletes that are injured which provides student-athletes an opportunity to reflect upon the trauma that they have experienced. Create and define roles that injured athletes can play on the team. Further, don’t simply have injured athletes stand on the sidelines at practice and at games – keep them involved and invested.


It should also be noted that some participants reported instances of disordered eating upon leaving their sport. Along with effective mental health services, athletes need food literacy to teach them how to eat now that they are no longer participating in sport. Encourage athletes to meet with nutritionists and dietitians. If you do not employ these individuals, you can find experts in this area within the campus community. The University of North Carolina Greensboro is truly the leader in this space, offering modules on food literacy through its “Moving On” program.


One comment that has really resonated from this study was, “I think my parents had a harder time with it [transition] than I did.” The guardians of student-athletes are just as invested in sport as the athletes themselves. The parents and guardians have been taking their children to practices and attending games for well over a decade by the time their child transitions out of sport. As such, the parents need to be involved and should be kept involved even after their children are done playing. After all, parents create bonds with other parents. For many parents, their child participating in sport is often their identity. Athletic departments need communicate with parents.


Athletic departments need to have a “Guardians” club or organization. Inform parents of all of the professional development opportunities available, so parents can in turn encourage their child to attend. Let parents know what to expect when their child is no longer participating in sport so they can be there to support their children and in turn help themselves as both experience this transitional phase. And encourage parents to ask their children about their lives outside of sport. Parents can be an incredibly ally in promoting a holistic student-athlete identity simply by making sure student-athletes know that their parents’ value and support them beyond what they do on the field or the court.


Most importantly, however, integrate student-athletes with the general student body. The respondents in this study indicated that getting to know faculty members played a large part in successful transitions. Student-athletes are an invaluable part of the campus community. Yet, often they are isolated within their teams. Allow student-athletes to complete group work with their non-athlete peers in the academic center. Encourage athletes to room with non-athletes their freshman year. Allow student-athletes to bring their friends to the dining facility (where non-athletes can use their dining money to eat). Get faculty involved in your programs.


Follow institutions like McDaniel College and have faculty mentors for every team. Faculty mentors are wonderful additional resources for student-athletes and provide additional institutional support. There are faculty experts on your campuses that are often underutilized. By student-athletes becoming acclimated into the campus community, athlete stigma and stereotypes are reduced. Such practices also assist in rounding out athlete identity by allowing athletes to been seen as students and not just as athletes.


Athlete development and particularly managing transitions must be a collaborative effort. We know if we come together to ensure student-athletes are prepared to adapt to transition, all student-athletes will have the ability to have a positive experience transitioning (and adapting) to a life beyond sport. Below is a list of programs that truly do an amazing job with in assisting with athlete transitions (some of their practices were addressed in this article). We would encourage you to find out more about these initiatives and implement such practices at your institution.


Also, there is great work being done in this space. Highlight what you are doing on your campuses so we can share ideas and continue to create effective programming to serve this special population of students. We also challenge athletic departments to have a data driven approach to student-athlete transitions. All programming should be assessed and evaluated to demonstrate its effectiveness.


Based on:

Stokowski, S., Paule-Koba, A. L., & Kaunert, C. (2019). Former college athletes’ perceptions of adapting to transition. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, 12, 403-426.