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What Happens To Wellbeing When Athletes Retire?

The objective of this research project was to develop and pilot an intervention to support elite athletes as they transition out of elite sport

Athlete jumping over a hurdle on an Olympic track.

Dr Chris Brown is a social psychologist who researches how people manage and make sense of change, including the psychological, social, and cultural factors that influence adjustment to significant life transitions. He typically uses qualitative methods to explore how people understand their own experiences of life transitions.

Dr Brown has a passion for applying research to make a real difference in people’s lives. On researching with former Olympians to understand and to try to improve their experience of retirement he tells us – “working with Rick Cotgreave at Lane4 to design and deliver a programme to help athletes to navigate such a challenging experience in their life was immensely rewarding. On a professional level, developing an effective intervention using principles from psychology was intellectually satisfying. But more important, on a human level, it was extremely gratifying to have made a difference to the people that took part in our programme and have a meaningful impact on their lives."

Supporting elite athletes during their retirement

The majority of athletes experience some form of difficulty associated with their transition to retirement, including decreased physical health, loss of self-worth, and difficulties finding and adapting to new occupational roles. Despite these challenges, there has been little work on evaluating support that may help athletes to navigate retirement.

Dr Brown collaborated with management consultancy firm Lane4. Many of their employees are former athletes and they have a long history of working with sports teams and organisations in areas of people and team development, leadership, and skills training. The objective of this project was to develop and pilot an intervention to support elite athletes as they transition out of elite sport.

The underpinning research

The intervention design drew upon Dr Brown’s body of qualitative research with former Olympic athletes which investigated the kind of support that can help athletes to achieve better transitions. Dr Brown identified a number of key facilitators and barriers of the adjustment process.

For example, mental toughness was central to success as an athlete, but upon retiring, this strongly held component of personal identity became a significant barrier, making it very difficult for athletes to seek support. As a result, retiring athletes tended to avoid help-seeking and were at increased risk of social isolation. Dr Brown’s research also found that retiring athletes were much more likely to seek and accept advice or guidance from other former athletes than they were from psychologists or other professionals.

The intervention pilot

Former Olympians attended a series of monthly workshops designed to promote and facilitate the process of adjustment following retirement and maximise wellbeing. Developed in accordance with the findings of Dr Brown’s research and existing academic models of transitions, the workshops provided a group-based intervention to help normalise individual experiences, build confidence and encourage participants to develop and extend their social networks. In order to maximise trust and understanding between people that had a shared a similar experience, the workshops were delivered by former athletes that worked for Lane4.

The evaluation

Pre and post survey evaluation included assessment of wellbeing, resilience, and support seeking. Dr Brown also conducted post intervention focus groups and 1-1 interviews to understand the nature and extent of impact the programme had. All the participants indicated that they had gained practical and psychological resources from participation in the programme (e.g. knowledge, skills, support) which facilitated the start of a more positive transition. Key to the reported success of the programme was its focus on facilitating athletes to identify beliefs and values that could help them to redefine their sense of self outside of sport.

The rollout

The successful pilot was rolled out nationally with support from the British Athletes Commission. To date, workshops have been hosted in London, Manchester and Leeds. The programme has been attended by athletes from across the spectrum of Olympic sports. Plans for the future include expanding the reach of the programme through peer-to-peer delivery, developing online access and virtual support, and creating an ‘alumni network’ of athlete mentors.

About this project

Explore the people, research centres and partner organisations behind this project.

Research partners

Lane4

Get in touch

Contact the CeBSAP to discuss facilities, partnerships, doctoral research and more

Contact us

Publications

Brown, C. J., Webb, T. L., Robinson, M., & Cotgreave, R. (under review). A realist evaluation of a program to facilitate the transition out of sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.

Brown, C. J., Webb, T. L., Robinson, M., & Cotgreave, R. (2019). Athletes’ retirement from elite sport: A qualitative study of family members’ experiences. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 40, 51-60. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.09.005>

Brown, C. J., Webb, T. L., Robinson, M., & Cotgreave, R. (2018). Athletes' experiences of social support in their transition out of elite sport: An interpretive phenomenological analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 36, 71-80. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.01.003

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