Athlete transition and mental health research

athlete transition and mental health research

Lived experience and anecdotal evidence tells us that mental health and transition issues are prevalent for athletes both while they are competing and after they retire. Yet, to date there is still comparatively little high-quality research into why and what can be done (Rice et al., 2016). 

Stats we do have tell us:

46.4% of Australian athletes have experienced at least one mental health problem, including:

  • Depression (27.2%)
  • Eating disorder (22.8%)
  • Psychological distress (16.5%)
  • Social anxiety (14.7%)
  • Panic disorder (4.5%)

Moreover, a greater risk of disorder may be experienced by elite athletes who are injured, approaching or in retirement, or experiencing performance difficulty.

Gulliver, A., Griffiths, K. M., Mackinnon, A., Batterham, P. J., & Stanimirovic, R. (2015). The mental health of Australian elite athletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18, 255-261.

Rice, S. M., Purcell, R., De Silva, S., Mawren, D., McGorry, P. D., & Parker, A. G. (2016). The mental health of elite athletes: a narrative systematic review. Sports Medicine, 46, 1333-1353.

Here’s a look at some more of the research that is available (check out the links to each paper for more info). If you are currently undertaking research in these areas, or would like to work with CTL to do so, we’re keen to hear from you.

1. Beable, S. & Fulcher, M. (2017). SHARPSports mental health awareness research project: prevalence and risk factors of depressive symptoms and life stress in elite athletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 20.

Overall, 21% of participants reported symptoms consistent with depression. Those contemplating retirement, partaking in individual sport, and who were less than 25 years old had significantly increased odds of experiencing depression. Reported life stressors were higher in females, in those who play an individual sport and those in a centralised program.

2. Giannone, Z. & Haney, C. (2017). Athletic Identity and psychiatric symptoms following retirement from varsity sportsInternational Journal of Social Psychiatry, 63.

The study suggests that athletes’ degree of athletic identity (I am an athlete) may be a risk factor for the emergence of psychiatric distress in the months following their retirement from sport. Identity-focused screening or intervention during athletes’ sport careers could potentially mitigate some of the psychological difficulties associated with sport retirement.

3. Hatamleh, M. (2013). The life transition of high performance athletes retirement from sport. European Scientific Journal, 9.

The study shows that the majority of athletes experienced stress in the six months following retirement and the majority of those who experienced stress rating their feelings as high. The majority of athletes surveyed also rated their satisfaction with their retirement decision as low and this was mostly due to not being able to reach their career goals. The study claims that the most traumatic experience of an athlete is career termination which often generates identity crisis and coping difficulties.

4. Knights, S. (2015). Investigating Elite end-of-athletic-career transition: a systematic review. Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 28.

The reviewed studies found that athletes who planned their retirement in advance (compared to those who had unplanned retirements) had higher cognitive, emotional and behavioural readiness for their career transition. Smoother transitions were also correlated with athletes who had achieved their sporting goals. Findings also indicated that retired athletes experience feelings of loss and void. In addition, it was found that athletes who experienced involuntary retirement were at greater risk for experiencing adjustment issues. Athlete identity was another factor in the study and it was found that athletes with a high athlete identity (I am an athlete) found it harder to adjust to life after sport, had a lack of retirement plan and had more frequent and sever psychological difficulties than those who identified in other ways. The general consensus was that an athlete’s identity strongly influenced the individual’s experience transitioning to life after sport.

5. Lavallee, D., Gordon, S., & Grove, R. J. (2008). Retirement from Sport and the Loss of Athletic Identity. Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss, 2, 129-147.

The study suggests that athletes are often more likely to experience a traumatic retirement than non-athletes because of the circumstances that often surround their retirement. Positive and negative changes include: reduction in perceived control, lowered self-esteem, decreases in general life satisfaction. The higher the level of athlete identity at the time of retirement the more emotional adjustment is required. The more perceived success in coping with retirement an athlete has, the fewer negative emotions they experience.

6. Statler, T. and Côté, J. 2009. ISSP position stand: career development and transitions of athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7, 395–412.

The study concludes that successfully coping with transitions both within and outside of sport allows greater opportunity for an athlete to live a long and successful life in sport, as well as being able to adjust effectively to the post‐career. Alternatively, failure in coping with a transition is often followed by negative consequences (e.g., premature dropout from sport, neuroses, alcohol/drug abuse, etc.). Therefore, helping athletes prepare for and/or cope with career transitions should be of primary concern for coaches, managers, athletes’ parents, and sport psychology consultants.

7. Roberts, C. M., Faull, A. L., & Tod, D. (2016). Blurred lines: performance enhancement, common mental disorders and referral in the UK athletic populationFrontiers in Psychology7, 1067.

A comprehensive article covering a variety of research which suggests that the elite athletic environment may generate or exacerbate common mental health disorders, but that stigma and a lack of awareness lead to a lack of reporting among athletes.