The neuroscience of transition – why does change cause anxiety?



If you are like me, leaving your sport to find success elsewhere can be a journey that is both confusing and at times really challenging. Questions such as “who am I?”, “what do I do now?”, “why don’t these people understand me?” were a big part of trying to make sense of the transition to a new phase of life beyond sport.

I’d played lacrosse since I was 11 but from 16 was fully immersed and ‘lacrosse player’ was the main thing that I allowed to define me. I am now a long time retired yet it has taken many years to come to terms with the anxiety and sense of loss I experienced.

I have been researching athlete transition for the last five years and have had the opportunity to speak to a diverse range of athletes about their own experiences and the challenges they faced. The research has been enlightening and deeply cathartic as I recognise that I am not alone. The unfortunate reality is that many athletes suffer the same stresses as I had.

When I read David Rock’s research into the neuroscience of anxiety it helped put some of the pieces of the jigsaw into place giving a great insight into how the challenges of change are deeply wired into our brains and are common to all people, not just athletes.

Rock’s work suggests five factors that trigger the threat or reward response. These form the SCARF model: Status – our relative importance to others; Certainty – the ability to predict the future; Autonomy – our sense of control; Relatedness – the extent to which we fit in with others around us; Fairness – our perception of how rewards are shared.

Making the decision to retire from sport had a significant impact on each of these factors – during the years I was playing, all elements of SCARF were well catered for:

Status – success within my sport helped shape my identity. I knew who I was within the lacrosse world. With success came respect and recognition

Certainty – the routine of the domestic season, international tours and the four-year cycle of World championships provided a predictable backdrop and structure to my life

Autonomy – I had control of my training, my diet, my social life, I knew the choices I was making and could measure the impact they were having on my performance

Relatedness – I had grown up within the lacrosse community, I knew everyone and I was surrounded by people who shared my passion, shared my values and understood competition

Fairness – the meritocracy of sport was easy to understand, performance was directly connected to reward, the rules were clear

With my retirement all the SCARF factors were deeply challenged:

Status – who was I? I had defined myself for so long as ‘lacrosse player’ that I didn’t know who I was off the field, the success I had worked hard to achieve in sport wasn’t as valuable in the wider world.

Certainty – where’s the routine? A newfound freedom was great but so much choice was paralyzing. Predictability had been replaced with the unknown.

Autonomy – what to do now? I had choice but the loss of identity and routine had also removed the sense of understanding of where to apply effort and how to measure progress.

Relatedness – how do I fit in? The things I’d taken for granted, the language and values of the new world were subtly different. What was important to me didn’t seem to matter so much to the new people I found myself interacting with.

Fairness – how do I get on? The rules of engagement had changed. Performance and success were much more difficult to define. Who received the rewards was even less easy to understand.

The SCARF model gave me the opportunity to look at my whole experience of retirement in a new light. My experience wasn’t unique, I wasn’t losing it – I was going through something that is common to all people experiencing change.

With fresh eyes I have been able to make sense of those things that were causing stress and begin to find the ways in which I can find Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness in a world that can be just as rewarding as the one I found during my lacrosse career.

For more information on David Rock’s work follow the link: