"I Was on Top of the World, Then ... Nothing ... And Today I am Many Things:" Retirement Stories of Former Elite Female Athletes

  • Author / Creator
    Mohora, Andreea I
  • This narrative research explores elite women athletes’ retirement experiences, to answer the following questions: How did the athletes experience their athletic lives? How did the athletes experience their retirement? What supported and/or hindered the athletes’ transition out of elite sport? How do female athletes create new meanings and re-story their lives?
    Being an elite athlete requires a lot of commitment and sacrifices from a fairly young age. Due to the extended involvement in sports, athletes build their identity around their sport and are often ill prepared for life-after-sport. Consequently, retirement from elite sport has caught the attention of researchers who have studied it from different perspectives. The post-positivist research has examined the causes and consequences of sport retirement, the quality of life and life satisfaction after sport, the factors that influence the quality of transition, the body image, physical self, or global self-esteem (Erpic et al., 2004; Price et al., 2010; Smith & McManus, 2008; Stephan & Bilard, 2003; Stephan et al., 2003a; Wylleman et al., 2004). The interpretive research around retirement from elite sport has included personal experiences and how people make sense of their experiences within their contexts (Barker-Ruchti & Schubring, 2016; Carless & Douglas, 2009, 2012; Cavallerio et al., 2017; Douglas & Carless, 2009; Kerr et al., 2020). More specifically, interpretive narrative researchers have used predetermined narratives (e.g., performance narrative) to understand the retired athletes’ experiences. In addition, the post-structuralist research on sport retirement has explored the power relations within the sporting context to explain the retirement experiences (Barker-Ruchti et al., 2012; Jones & Denison, 2017). Existing research, however, has revealed that retiring elite athletes could face significant challenges to their physical, psychological, social, and occupational well-being, possibly struggling with a loss of identity, depression, and even self-harm or suicide.
    While there are a number of narrative studies that have explored the retirement experiences, I also chose to pursue a narrative study. Congruent with the interpretive approach, I focused on the individual athletes’ stories. Expanding from the previous sport narrative research, I examined athletes’ stories during their athletic lifespan and after retirement. I drew on a combination of a more traditional narrative approach and narrative inquiry (Clandinin & al., 2007) to explore 10 women athletes’ stories. My interviewees were over 18 years of age, English speakers, competed at national/international levels in different sports (both individual and team sports), and were at least two years into their retirement. In addition to the ten stories of retired athletes, I, as a former elite athlete, included my own story.
    Through my reflective thematic analysis, I constructed three overarching themes based in the participants’ stories: Life as an Elite Athlete, Life After Elite Sport, and Living a Regular Life. My analysis of the first theme revealed that the retired athletes told very similar stories about their athletic lives: they were very dedicated to their sports that they loved unconditionally despite experiencing injuries, eating disorders and ‘cut-throat’ competition. When I analyzed the second theme, I found that the retirement experiences were all unique. Seven participants perceived their transition to be quite smooth, while three participants experienced a difficult retirement with periods of intense struggles. My analysis of the final theme, Living a Regular Life, revealed that most of the former athletes had found new meanings in their lives, that included family, education, or career. The retired athletes also identified certain skills, such as time management and perfectionism, that were helpful during their athletic lives, but did not transfer well in life-after-sport. They further suggested that hearing other former athletes’ stories and having connections with other former athletes would have been beneficial for a positive transition out of elite sport. My lifespan analysis, thus, revealed that the athletes’ retirement stories were complex and unlinear: a positive athletic life did not necessarily convert into a smooth retirement experience or vice versa.
    My narrative study expanded the previous research by demonstrating the importance of examining the entire athletic lifespan to reveal the complexities of women athletes’ retirement experiences. This allowed me to move beyond focusing on a single aspect of retirement experience, or one narrative framing (e.g., performance narrative), to obtain a more holistic understanding of elite athletes’ retirement as a process.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2023
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.