Transitions in Sport: Not as Easy as It Sounds

pole vault-1Generally we are used to the idea of important or critical transitions in life: we joke about mid-life crisis, understand the importance of the transition to parenthood, expect challenging times during the transition from student to working life, and provide emotional support when our closest ones lose their job or retire. Although much less acknowledged and spoken about, the topic of transitions also relates to sports. Indeed, one of the major recent trends in sport psychology is to view athletic careers from a lifespan perspective, proposing that throughout their careers athletes experience several turning phases. Moreover, scholars and practitioners argue that these transitions can be quite challenging processes which an athlete should prepare for and/or have support and help with. Finally, the athletic career is seen as an integral part of one’s life, which is why transitions in sport can be influenced by and interrelated with other transitions outside of the sport context.

Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say a 14-year-old elite football player is switching from junior to senior football team within the same division. What could such a transition entail? Naturally, there is a higher level of football being played in the senior team, higher expectations towards performance, more serious competition, and greater training loads. But it doesn’t end there. Changing teams implies a new social environment, where it is very likely that the majority of players will be much older. At first, this doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? However, what should be accounted for is that being 14 years of age, this player is in his/her adolescent years, when friendships and other social ties become of great importance, and hence such changes can be quite significant in social terms. Finally, higher training loads and possible changes in the training schedule may interfere with the player’s school duties, potentially disrupting normal functioning on both academic and athletic levels. As such, what is expected to be a simple and ordinary change may turn into a complex transition process.. Such a ‘holistic’ view of transitions is mainly advocated by scholars Wylleman and Lavallee (2004), who argue that athletic career development should be viewed not only at the athletic level, but also at the psychological (e.g. transition from adolescence to adulthood), psychosocial (e.g. moving out from parents´ home), and academic (e.g. changing from secondary to high school) levels. Plainly speaking, what happens in an athlete’s sport life is never independent of the athlete’s development in other areas of life.

Without wanting to make it sound like every transition is a vastly complicated situation requiring urgent attention, here follows a brief summary of the most important points to consider during a transition period.

First of all, not every transition is complicated and critical. Research in the field has found that the most critical transitions in athletic careers are transitions from junior to senior levels and from amateur to professional levels of sport. Furthermore, unexpected transitions (e.g. athletic career retirement due to injury) are generally more challenging than expected transitions (e.g. planned retirement).

Secondly, the majority of normative (in other words expected transitions) can be coped with without a great deal of external help. However, being aware of transition risks and being a little bit more attentive to the transition process may help to prevent possible problems with the change.

Thirdly, even though a sport psychologist may be a necessary source of aid in the case of an unsuccessful transitions, as well as and a beneficial support in preparation for an important transition, other parties such as coaches, parents and sport organizations can also positively reinforce the process of transition from their perspective.

Practical implications

One of the most prominent theories in the field of athletic career transitions comes from Natalia Stambulova (2003), and emphasizes that the meaning of the transition process as a whole is to cope with a set of specific transition demands or challenges. Coping is possible due to available resources and coping strategies, while it also may be hindered by various barriers.

As such, what could be done first and foremost is to raise awareness of transition demands, athlete’s resources and possible barriers. Coming back to the 14-year-old football player, it would be positive if coaches looked into this player’s expectations with  regards to being in a senior team. Possible difficulties of integrating into the team, or a higher physical training load can be also discussed. Finally, the athlete’s personal characteristics (e.g. positive attitude, hardworking nature etc.), motivation for the transition (e.g. dream goal of playing in a professional team), previous experiences (e.g. transition from lower division to higher division), and external support (e.g. family support, club support), should be suggested as available resources aiding in the transition process. Furthermore, monitoring the transition process and providing support is essential.

All in all, it is important not to view the transition process as something conventional and also not to take the transition success for granted. Even if nine players out of ten cope with the change seemingly effortless, the tenth might fail for no better reason than a simple lack of understanding and support from others.

Further reading:

Stambulova, N. (2003). Symptoms of a crisis-transition: A grounded theory study. In N. Hassmen (Ed.), SOPF Yearbook, 2003 (pp. 97-109). Örebro, Sweden: Örebro University Press.

Wylleman, P., & Lavallee, D. (2004). A developmental perspective on transitions faced by athletes. In M. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 507–527). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

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