Adaptation to Athletic Retirement and Perceptions About Aging: A Qualitative Study of Retired Olympic Athletes

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Self-perceptions about aging have implications for health and well-being; however, less is known about how these perceptions influence adaptation to major life transitions. The goal of this study was to examine how high-performance athletes’ perceptions about aging influenced their adaptation to athletic retirement. In-depth interviews conducted with 24 retired Olympic athletes using thematic analysis yielded three key themes: (a) perceptions about aging influenced participants’ postretirement exercise habits, (b) perceptions about aging motivated participants to engage in civic activities, and (c) participants who lacked formative perceptions about aging associated their athletic retirement with their own lost sense of purpose. These findings provide evidence that perceptions about aging influence athletes’ adaptation to retirement by directing their subsequent engagement in postretirement activities. Furthermore, this research highlights theoretical implications for the literature regarding embodied processes, retirement transitions, role models, and adaptation to new physical states.

Evidence suggests that an individual’s perceptions about aging can influence their health outcomes later in life, as well as how they adapt to life transitions (Levy, 2009; Levy & Myers, 2004; Pelssers et al., 2018). This holds relevance for high-performance athletes, who tend to experience retirement early in their lives due to injury or because they are deemed too old to compete (Huxley, O’Connor, & Healey, 2013; Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). In both cases, but particularly for those who have sustained injuries, retired athletes are forced to adapt from the experience of inhabiting privileged bodies, capable of demonstrating the limits of athletic potential, to living in bodies in which they must reproduce their sense of social purpose. Unsurprisingly, prior literature demonstrates that retirement can be a difficult transition for athletes by prompting a recalibration of their identities away from athletic focus (Cosh, Crabb, & LeCouteur, 2012; Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997; Stirling, Cruz, & Kerr, 2012). What remains less understood is how high-performance athletes’ perceptions about aging influence their adaptation to athletic retirement. This study examined the retirement experiences of high-performance athletes from different sports and stages in life to gain a better understanding of how their perceptions about aging influenced their adaptation to athletic retirement.

High-performance athletes push their bodies to the farthest limits of what humans are physically capable of. At the peak of their athletic careers, they are admired for achieving seemingly impossible physical standards. However, the extreme demands of high-level sports can limit athletes’ development of well-rounded interests at early stages in their lives (Barker-Ruchti, Schubring, Post, & Patterson, 2019; Lavallee, 2005; Stambulova, Stephan, & Jäphag, 2007). Once they retire, high-performance athletes are often pushed to disengage from the world of sport, and many tend to struggle to find new forms of employment (Martin, Fogarty, & Albion, 2013), to find social support and people they can confide in (Lavallee, 2006; Park, Lavallee, & Tod, 2013), and feel abandoned by society (Miller & Kerr, 2002; Warriner & Lavallee, 2008). Being forced into retirement can exacerbate the challenges associated with the transition (Martin et al., 2013). Retirement from sport has been associated with other challenges such as eating disorders (Jones, Glintmeyer, & McKenzie, 2005), low self-confidence (Stephan, Torregrosa, & Sanchez, 2007), substance abuse (Mannes et al., 2019), and even suicide (Malcolm & Scott, 2012).

Self-Perceptions of Aging

Across multiple cultures, stereotypes about aging have been directly linked to individuals’ perceptions about aging (Löckenhoff et al., 2009) in ways that influence their health, habits, and behaviors, including participation in physical activity and sport (Beyer, Wiest, & Wurm, 2019; Knowles, Niven, & Fawkner, 2013; Tulle, 2017). The term “self-perceptions of aging” has been used to refer to an individual’s perception of their own age and aging process (Levy, 2003; Sneed & Whitbourne, 2005). Numerous studies illustrate the importance of self-perceptions about aging in the context of successful aging (i.e., Kotter-Grühn & Hess, 2012; Romo et al., 2013; Wurm, Warner, Ziegelmann, Wolff, & Schüz, 2013), suggesting that positive ideas about aging are associated with more favorable health outcomes such as being physically active and greater longevity (e.g., Levy, Slade, Kunkel, & Kasl, 2002; Wurm, Tomasik, & Tesch-Römer, 2010). In some contrast, other research finds that positive age stereotypes did not positively influence self-perceptions of aging and that positive age stereotypes made participants feel older (Kotter-Grühn & Hess, 2012), raising questions regarding whether and how perceptions about aging interact with life transitions in different contexts. These contrasting empirical observations highlight a need for further research and beg the question of what it means to be “successful” with age.

Stereotype embodiment theory posits that individuals internalize socially constructed negative views into their perceptions about their own aging, thereby creating self-fulfilling prophecies, which might result in declining health outcomes (Levy, 2009; Levy & Myers, 2004; Wurm et al., 2013). Perceptions about aging develop early in life, and negative perceptions about aging are prevalent among individuals from all age groups (Chasteen, Schwarz, & Park, 2002; Kotter-Grühn & Hess, 2012). While negative perceptions about aging can have a less favorable influence on later life outcomes (Levy & Banaji, 2002), individuals with positive perceptions about aging report lower levels of depression and higher life satisfaction (Bryant et al., 2012; Kornadt & Rothermund, 2011), enhanced cognitive function (Mazerolle, Regner, Rigalleau, & Huguet, 2015), and are more likely to engage in preventive health behaviors and to exhibit greater longevity (Levy et al., 2002; Levy & Myers, 2004).

In recent years, research on self-perceptions about aging and age stereotypes has emphasized the need to differentiate between views on aging in different life domains (e.g., Rothermund & Kornadt, 2015; Wurm, Diehl, Kornadt, Westerhof, & Wahl, 2017). Perceptions about aging are dynamic and context dependent (e.g., Kornadt et al., 2020; Levy & Leifheit-Limson, 2009). Conceptualizations of older people in different contexts, with an understanding of the diverse social, economic, cultural, and other factors that can shape people’s lives, lead to differential applications of age stereotypes that are distinct from whether they are categorized as being old (Kornadt & Rothermund, 2011).

Role Models, Sports, and Aging

Evidence suggests that perspectives on aging are shaped by culturally shared beliefs about older adults that are formed early in life, which can be shaped by role models (e.g., Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, & Strahm, 1995; Jopp, Jung, Damarin, Mirpuri, & Spini, 2017). The importance of role models has been demonstrated through research focused on role models for successful aging among young adults (e.g., Hurd & Zimmerman, 2010), as well as among middle-aged and older adults via research focused on role models for successful aging (Jopp et al., 2017). Having positive role models for successful aging has led some to question or critique negative aging stereotypes (Levy & Banaji, 2002). Evidence also suggests that individuals are motivated by role models to varying degrees based on the individual’s goals and the extent to which a role model encourages strategies that fit the individual’s worldview (Lockwood, Jordan, & Kunda, 2002). Studies on role models in sports have identified the importance of role models for athletic career development (Fleming, Hardman, Jones, & Sheridan, 2005) as well as subsequent career development and identity construction (e.g., Ronkainen, Ryba, & Selänne, 2019). Role models also play an important role in youth sport participation (e.g., Fraser-Thomas & Côté, 2009) as well as sport and physical activity participation in adulthood (Carr, Smith, Weir, & Horton, 2018).

Embodiment and Athletic Retirement

The body is at the heart of our social lives and is fundamental to our sense of self (Synnott, 2002): at all stages in life, the body can be considered an occupational resource that interacts with social structures to influence one’s adaptation to life transitions. As bodies change with time, and decline due to injury or for other reasons, the economic and social standing they confer tends to deteriorate (Woodspring, 2016). Prior research examining individuals’ subjective interpretations of embodied experiences generated by alterations to the body, such as tattoos and reconstructive surgery, as well as changes that occur with age, such as graying hair or wrinkling skin (Gilleard & Higgs, 2015, 2017; Waskul & Riet, 2002), illustrates the importance of examining perceptions of aging in relation to transformative experiences like retirement. Embodiment researchers have also investigated the extent to which socially embedded fears about physical decline and marginalization influence physical activity and exercise later in life (Dionigi, Horton, & Baker, 2012; Tulle, 2008; Whaley, 2003). Critical perspectives on embodiment suggest that the nature of physical experiences is mediated through the body’s interaction with the social world to shape individual perceptions of life transitions (Bourdieu, 1986; Foucault, 1973; Shilling, 2001).

Embodiment has become an increasingly well-recognized avenue of research that has enhanced understandings of corporeal processes and changes in and to the body, as well as social preoccupations with youthfulness (Hyman, 2009; Keathley, Melissa, & Grace, 2013). The body is not a static entity but instead can be understood as fluid and subjectively interpreted. Corporeal experiences, such as physical decline, are experienced in ways that interact with social expectations about life transitions (Gilleard & Higgs, 2011; Griffin, 2017; Shilling, 2001). As such, adaptation to different physical, emotional, and social phenomena, such as retirement, become embodied experiences that can be examined to enhance personal and social understandings (Lee & Cho, 2018; Rai, Jongenelis, Jackson, Newton, & Pettigrew, 2019b).

A growing literature has introduced greater insights into the retirement experiences of high-performance athletes (Grove et al., 1997; Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000). Much of this literature has applied narrative analytic techniques to focus on the unique retirement experience of a particular athlete or set of young athletes from a particular sport (Agnew, Marks, Henderson, & Woods, 2017; Barker-Ruchti et al., 2019; Jewett, Kerr, & Tamminen, 2018). This approach allows us to gain insights into the experiences of athletes of different ages and sports, thereby enhancing our understanding of how their perceptions of aging influence their adaptation to athletic retirement. It has also led to important questions about whether engagement in high-performance sport is a pursuit that favors youth over physical maturity and perpetuates negative stereotypes about aging (Dionigi & O’Flynn, 2007; Oghene, McGannon, Schinke, Watson, & Quartiroli, 2015; Phoenix & Smith, 2011).

Building on prior research, this exploratory study aims to examine the athletic retirement experiences of high-performance athletes, from a range of different sports and life domains, in order to better understand how their early perceptions about aging influenced their adaptation to athletic retirement. This study is informed by existing research that emphasized the need to differentiate between views on aging in different life domains (e.g., Rothermund & Kornadt, 2015; Wurm et al., 2017). It does so by exploring whether and how perceptions about aging interact with life transitions in different contexts. Drawing from research suggesting that role models can shape perceptions about aging (e.g., Hummert et al., 1995; Jopp et al., 2017), this study also explores how mature role models who were present during participants’ competitive training years influenced participants’ ideas about postretirement engagement. Furthermore, this study questions how subjective understandings of the body as a fluid, as opposed to a static, entity can enhance interpretations of the link between perceptions about aging and adaptation to athletic retirement.

Method

Qualitative research is an interpretative, naturalistic approach to understanding the meaning people bring to different phenomena. Qualitative research begins with the assumption that there are multiple, subjective realities, and the perspectives participants share matter (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011). The guiding worldview for this study is constructivism, which asserts that individuals’ perceptions of their experiences are constructed out of their reflections on those experiences (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Patton, 1990). This approach seeks to elicit the responses of participants in a way that may create meaning or relevance in other contexts or may simply lay the foundation for further exploration (Finlay, 2006). This exploratory qualitative study employed semistructured interviews and applied a narrative approach (Chase, 2003; de Medeiros, 2013) to understand how perceptions about aging influenced adaptation to athletic retirement among a sample of retired high-performance athletes.

Design and Procedures

Purposive sampling techniques (Patton, 1990) were used to recruit 24 high-performance athletes originally affiliated with the Pan American Games held in Toronto (Canada). With the assistance of Game organizers and experts in the field of sports and recreation, the author established a set of inclusion criteria and identified a set of coaches and organizations that worked with retired high-performance athletes. The initial set of participants were recruited through e-mail and targeted announcements by experts in athletics and high-performance sport who shared information about the study and introduced the author to eligible participants. Additional participants were recruited through snowball sampling, where existing participants were asked to share information about the study to other potentially eligible participants within their networks (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Patton, 1990). For this exploratory study, the sample size was determined at the outset by the author in consultation with experts in the field of sports and recreation, with the intention that the sample would include near even gender distribution and participants from a range of different age groups, countries, and sports.

The inclusion criteria were as follows: participants who had represented their country in at least one Olympic Games competition and self-identified as being “retired” from their sport for over 4 years at the time of interview. The 4-year retirement benchmark coincides with the reoccurrence of Olympic Games; it was selected because it is not uncommon for high-performance athletes to retire once they have participated in an Olympic Games, given the intensity that is required to train for competition in high-performance Olympic sports.

A narrative approach encourages the researcher to listen to participants’ stories, to engage with participants, and to discuss substantive issues directly with them (de Medeiros, 2013). In keeping with a traditional narrative approach, the primary objective during each interview was to hear participants’ stories in a way that focused on their retirement experience while also considering their perceptions about aging and retirement (de Vries, 2015). The semi-structured interview guide was informed by prior research, which emphasized that athletic retirement ought to be studied as a process, rather than a specific outcome or event captured by a single moment (Coakley, 2006; Kelly & Hickey, 2008), as well as a life course approach, which emphasizes how earlier life experiences can influence adaptation to later life transitions (Giele & Elder, 1998). To that end, a semistructured interview guide ensured that the same topics were covered during each interview while also allowing for the conversations to be sufficiently open so as to avoid restrictions on topics or events that participants may raise. The narrative approach applied in this study assumed that participants would have unique life experiences that would inform their subjective interpretations of their athletic retirement and subsequent life experiences. The interviews were guided by the assumption that athletic retirement would be experienced as a significant life event for all participants and that each participant would be able to identify perceptions formed early in their lives about aging in later life.

During the interview process, participants were first asked to share their life stories with a focus on their athletic retirement transition: participants were asked to tell their story “from the earliest days that you can remember so that I can understand how you first got into your sport up to your experience with retirement from your sport.” All participants were asked follow-up questions that focused on participants’ daily routines during their life prior to participating in an Olympic Games, the circumstances around participants’ retirement decisions, how they adapted to the end of their athletic career, and their postretirement daily routine and activities. Typically, at the midpoint of each interview, participants were asked to describe their early perceptions about aging—namely, ideas formed before their athletic retirement about what their own lives would be like as they grew older. Follow-up questions focused on participants’ early ideas about what their own aging in mid- and later adulthood would be like and, if relevant, the extent to which their early perceptions about aging influenced their retirement habits or activities. Participants were also asked to describe their interactions with older adults and mature role models who were present in their lives during their competitive training years. At the end of each interview participants were asked a series of demographic questions, following the work of Cunningham and Sagas (2008) and Lawrence (2017), to determine gender identification, socioeconomic status, ethno-racial background, current age, and age at the time of their athletic retirement.

In-depth interviews were conducted by the author and were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Interviews lasted approximately an hour and a half (range: 58–193 min). The majority of interviews took place in Canada; some were conducted in the United States and Europe and, in a few cases, via online video chat. All interviews were conducted in English. Notes were taken during each interview. These notes were used immediately afterward to flesh out records, and an audit trail was created to enhance transparency and establish conformability of the findings (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Miles & Huberman, 1994). In interpreting qualitative research, and in an effort to enhance rigor in qualitative research (Darawsheh & Stanley, 2014; Long & Johnson, 2000; Meyrick, 2006), it should also be stated that the author of this study lacked personal experience as an athlete or coach. Informed written consent was obtained from each participant. Ethical approval for this study was received from the University of Toronto Social Sciences Humanities and Education Research Ethics Board. To protect the confidentiality of all participants, pseudonyms are used, and potentially revealing demographic information is presented in the aggregate.

Data Analysis and Coding Procedures

The analytic process followed a method often invoked in narrative gerontology and by story analysts from a range of disciplines (Atkinson & Delamont, 2006; de Medeiros, 2013). Audio recordings of each interview were listened to multiple times; after the audio files were transcribed, each transcript was coded beginning with an open-ended code sheet. The open-ended code sheet featured initial (first level) codes that corresponded to responses to questions asked of each participant about how they first got into their sport and how they described their experience with retirement from their sport (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Saldaña, 2015). Timeline trajectory maps were developed, which described each participant’s athletic career and retirement trajectory: their entry into their sport, training, major life events before their athletic retirement, and other significant developments in and after their athletic retirement transition. Figure 1 presents a simplified example of a participant’s trajectory mapping.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Sample trajectory map.

Citation: Journal of Aging and Physical Activity 2021; 10.1123/japa.2020-0270

A second round of coding was then conducted, which focused on participants’ descriptions of their postathletic retirement habits and activities. From this, categories corresponding to groups of codes among participants emerged into the final themes. Based on participants’ responses, codes were refined into emergent themes, which pertained to exercise habits, engagement in civic activities, and a lack of engagement in structured habits or routine activities. Another set of coding focused on participants’ perceptions about aging whereby categories were created that corresponded to favorable, negative, and lack of early formed perceptions about aging. Initial codes and themes were organized with the assistance of NVivo Software (version 10; QSR International, 2012).

Codes were analyzed to integrate participants’ postathletic career retirement habits or activities and their perceptions about aging. A thematic framework was developed by clustering shared experiences. Patterns that emerged were guided by the trajectory maps created in the first stage of coding and based firmly in the descriptions provided by participants. To improve the validity of findings and to provide a record of the analytic process, written memos summarizing the protocols, processes, and preliminary findings were shared with a panel of experts in the field of sports and recreation. In addition, member checking (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Sandelowski, 1993) was performed to enhance the author’s interpretations by presenting summary thematic analyses to five participants who corroborated the author’s interpretations of the data.

Participants

In total, 24 retired athletes were interviewed. Each participant represented one of 12 countries at an Olympic Games (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Kenya, Japan, Poland, Russia, and the United States) and competed in one of 12 different sports (alpine skiing, athletics, diving, football, gymnastics, ice hockey, judo, kayaking, rowing, ski jumping, speed skating, and swimming). Key characteristics of the participants are presented in Table 1. The average age of the participants at the time of the interview was 52 (range: 25–78); 8 participants identified as female and 16 identified as male, 15 participants self-identified as “White” and nine participants self-identified as having distinct non-White ethno-racial backgrounds, and all participants identified as having obtained the equivalent of a high school degree and being above the poverty threshold. Participants retired from their sport between the ages of 15 and 36 years old, with the average retirement age being 24 years old.

Table 1

Participant Information

PseudonymSportGender identificationCountry representedAge when retiredAge at interview
AllisonGymnasticsFemaleGreat Britain2125
AdrianFootballMaleFrance3350
AlbertJudoMaleBrazil2531
AlexanderSpeed skatingMaleRussia2451
CamilleSwimmingFemaleFrance2052
CarlosFootballMaleArgentina3678
FelipeGymnasticsMaleArgentina2577
JackRowingMaleGreat Britain2750
JonIce hockeyMalePoland2758
KeikoDivingFemaleJapan1751
LuizJudoMaleBrazil2836
MaryAthleticsFemaleKenya2565
MathiasSwimmingMaleCanada2550
MaxIce hockeyMaleDenmark3567
McKennaSpeed skatingFemaleGreat Britain1539
NalaGymnasticsFemaleCanada1742
OmarAthleticsMaleCanada2173
PeterAlpine skiingMaleDenmark2067
RubyAthleticsFemaleAustralia2360 
RyanRowingMaleUnited States2545
SamSki jumpingMaleUnited States2327
ScottKayakingMaleCanada1750
SharonGymnasticsFemaleAustralia1656
WilliamDivingMaleAustralia2550

Findings

Participants described their athletic retirement as a challenging life event which marked their transition into early adulthood and signified a shift in their life’s purpose. Participants’ transitions to athletic retirement coincided with significant changes in their bodies; many former athletes either gained or lost significant amounts of weight when they stopped training, and several retired with serious injuries. In retirement, and as their bodies deteriorated from being among the best in the world at their sport, some participants struggled to identify their formative ideas about aging, and all struggled in their quest to identify a new sense of purpose that was not tied strictly to their physical abilities. In examining their struggles through the transition to becoming retired athletes, three key themes emerged: (a) perceptions about aging influenced participants’ exercise habits in retirement, (b) perceptions about aging motivated participants to engage in civic-minded retirement activities, and (c) participants who lacked formative perceptions about aging associated their athletic retirement with their own lost sense of purpose.

Theme 1: Perceptions About Aging Influenced Exercise Participation in Retirement

A subset of participants described how perceptions about aging shaped their exercise habits in the wake of their athletic retirement. Among this subset, some participants held positive ideas about aging that motivated their engagement in postretirement exercise, while others described how fears and negative perceptions about aging motivated them to keep active. Participants also associated their perceptions about aging with a reduced interest in continuing to exercise at the termination of their athletic careers.

Participants, like Nala, described how favorable impressions of aging fostered a strong interest in remaining physically active when their athletic careers ended. Nala retired from gymnastics when she was 17 years old, after a serious accident that took place during training. She struggled with her athletic retirement, both physically and emotionally. Though her injuries might have preempted any subsequent engagement in exercise, Nala attributed her recovery to the fact that she had been raised in an intergenerational household where she regularly interacted with her elderly grandmother and aunt, who both demonstrated the importance of exercising later in life. She explained,

When I retired, I was wrecked. What helped me become who I am now, was thinkin’ about my aunties and my grandma, and their strength…. They showed me that to live long you have to be strong and keep moving. (Nala, 42, gymnastics)

Nala was constantly reminded of the importance of exercise in aging, largely by her aunt and grandmother, who continued to work and exercise well into their 80s. She viewed her continued engagement in exercise as critical to her adaptation to retirement and credited the older women in her family with helping her view exercise as an important part of aging.
Peter also described his early perceptions about aging as favorable and shaped by older family members. Much of his formative impressions of aging were based on his father’s stoic nature and consistent athleticism. Like Nala, Peter struggled with the end of his athletic career and looked to his family for models of how to adapt to critical life transitions. Although Peter looked back on the end of his competitive athletic career as a difficult time, he explained that remaining physically active was the factor that most helped him endure the transition. Peter knew exercise would remain an important part of his life because he observed the positive role it played in his father’s life. Peter’s father remained physically active throughout his own life and consistently emphasized the importance of exercising to Peter. As he was reflecting back on his athletic retirement Peter said,

I retired ok because I’d had a good outlook on getting old. I went on and focused on other things, work, family, staying active. My father was always my inspiration. (Peter, 67, alpine skiing)

Unlike Nala and Peter, Carlos had long held negative ideas about aging, which he credited as his motivation to stay physically active when his athletic career ended. Carlos viewed his coaches and older role models from his youth as poor examples of how to age gracefully. He described several examples of adults who had each struggled with alcoholism and being overweight. In a desire to take a different approach to aging, Carlos explained that he viewed exercise as the key to his own positive adjustment to retirement. He said,

I never looked up to my coaches…. I knew I never wanted to end up like them—physically or in any other way …. I am now in the best shape of my life maybe because I never wanted to end up like the models I had growing up. (Carlos, 78, football)

Ruby discussed a deep-rooted fear that she would end up out of shape and overweight once she stopped running. Fears based on Ruby’s observations of her mother instilled negative ideas about aging and served to heighten her desire to stay physically active well into her athletic retirement. Ruby stated,

Oh, I’d always been terrified of looking like my mum. I still am. (Ruby, 60, athletics)

Scott also explained that his negative perceptions of aging motivated him to maintain his athleticism after he stopped competing. Despite several serious injuries to his back and shoulders incurred during his athletic career, Scott knew his life would deteriorate if he ever stopped exercising because he had witnessed the physical decline his uncle experienced when he stopped training, as well as the early death of one of his coaches who had not maintained a healthy lifestyle. Scott’s need to remain physically active was rooted in a desire to age in ways that were different from those two models. He said,

I never wanted to get old. Then I retired at 17 and I was like, “Oh shit, this is bad, and I am old now.” And I realized I need to be, I absolutely need to be, physically active. I am just not the kind of person that can be still, even after my worst injuries, I had to. I am just the kind of person that has to exercise or I will die. (Scott, 50, kayaking)

In some contrast, Keiko had numerous examples of productively engaged older adults from her childhood, including distinct memories of her grandmothers and three uncles who worked well into their 90s. However, she attributed injury coupled with the sharp contrast she observed between herself and those positive role models as reason for her disengagement with physical activity postretirement. Keiko explained,

I am not the old woman I imagined being. I had always been strong and useful … my family worked hard … they were strong, physically limber and strong always …. My body was everything until it failed me …. I imagined that I would retire and always be strong. (Keiko, 51, diving)

Once she stopped diving competitively, Keiko’s relationship with her body changed; she lost all interest in exercise. Keiko had never anticipated the adverse impact of the sudden physical decline and chronic pain that accompanied the end of her athletic career. She viewed her retirement as a time that marked her transition into a nonathletic and less productive body.
Mathias also had favorable ideas about what aging would be like; however, once his athletic career ended, he found himself unable to enjoy the sport he had once dedicated his life to. Swimming had made Mathias strong and resilient, both physically and emotionally, but once he retired from competitive swimming, he had absolutely no interest in getting back into the water. Because he only knew the water as a place to compete, it was never a place where he could resort to relaxing or finding comfort. He explained,

People I know they like to relax in the pool. I know some of my older neighbors swim for exercise. I get that. But I could never do that … 25 years later and I still have anxieties about getting in the water. (Mathias, 50, swimming)

While swimming is considered a relaxing, life-long exercise habit by many, for Mathias it was an anxiety-inducing endeavor. Despite once being among the most physically fit men in the world at the peak of his athletic career, at 50, Mathias was obese and disappointed in many ways with his postretirement body. He battled a number of health issues and his own disappointment that he was not aging gracefully like the formative images in his head of how he would age.

Athletic retirement was viewed by some participants as a transition point into a nonathletic body, while for others, it marked a shift from athlete to athletic person. Perceptions about aging shaped the extent to which participants embraced exercise in their athletic retirement. Some participants attributed growing up in an intergenerational household and exposure to mature adults in their youth with their own continued exercise participation postretirement. However, both positive and negative role models were associated with sustained athletic engagement.

Theme 2: Perceptions About Aging Motivated Participants to Engage in Civic-Minded Postretirement Activities

As they discussed the termination of their athletic careers, a subset of participants articulated personal interests in civic-minded postretirement activities, which were motivated by positive ideas about aging, formed early in their lives. In contrast, other participants associated their interests in postretirement community engagement with less favorable perceptions about aging.

Though the early part of Omar’s life was almost entirely focused on sports, he always knew that his later years would be focused on giving back to others. Omar’s father’s strong work ethic and his mother’s community work illustrated that there was much to be gained in terms of personal fulfillment from participation in activities that benefited society. In Omar’s youth, athletic competition had been an effective way to channel his desire for attention. It brought him an adrenaline rush that was satisfying, but when his athletic career ended Omar had to find other ways of filling the void of no longer being the center of attention. With time, he recognized that the most fulfilling way to address the void created by the end of his athletic career was to focus on finding other adrenaline sources:

When I retired and stopped being competitive at the international level, I became a sports politician …. I loved going for the jugular, I was competitive, focused and I was impatient. I had this terrible Olympics and I had to find other adrenaline. So, I found some other ways to do what I thought was important and to channel my desires to be the centre of attention. (Omar, 73, athletics)

Omar found his “other adrenaline” in civic engagement. He dedicated much of his life to the civil rights movement and to advocating for broader inclusion of women in sports. He lamented the fact that he could never replace the nervous, excited energy he had experienced as an athlete, but knew that civic engagement was the best way to rechannel his energy because at an early age, he formed a connection between aging and giving back to others. In his mind, there was a link between being older and becoming involved in issues greater than one’s own circumstances that was formed based on observations of his parents’ civic-mindedness.
Like Omar, Luiz came to view his athletic retirement as an opportunity to focus on helping others. Luiz experienced his retirement from judo as a challenge that altered his sense of self: he was unsure how he would support himself and found himself looking to his roots to understand what to do with his life when his athletic career ended. At an early age, Luiz forged a positive association between aging and feeling good based on generous deeds. As a young boy, he observed the older adults around him sacrificing their interests for his athletic career and putting his needs first because of his athletic potential. In favorable terms, Luiz explained that, his elders exuded a sense of pride that was based on their sacrifices for his athletic accomplishments. Luiz said,

When you retire, even family treats you different. When they know that you are not that champion anymore, you know, it’s different. It’s not about you anymore … what you gotta understand is that as an athlete everything goes around the athlete. It’s all about your needs and what you’re doing. So, when I retired, I didn’t know what I was going to do …. The main thing was I had to come to terms with that it wasn’t about me anymore. (Luiz, 36, judo)

Luiz came to terms with the fact that he was no longer the center of attention in his athletic retirement by choosing to dedicate his life to teaching his sport to others. Luiz also established a large international charitable organization that helps children whose families could not afford training to learn judo.
McKenna grew up in a religious household that demonstrated tremendous respect for community elders. Reflecting back on her training as a competitive athlete, McKenna believed that she had developed important skills, which were reinforced by the support she received from her family and older community members. When she retired with major injuries to her knees, shoulders, and joints, she felt as if she were no longer in control of her body. What helped her was remembering her grandmother, who suggested that feeling strong and whole came from giving back and connecting with a broader community. She explained,

When I retired, it was like I lost a piece of myself. But then I recalled my grandmother’s words to remember the bigger picture. (McKenna, 39, speed skating)

McKenna’s athletic retirement was marked by the loss of her physical and emotional strength and followed by a period of time when she struggled with an addiction to painkillers. Reflecting back, McKenna recognized that while her athletic retirement had been difficult, the experience gave her the opportunity to understand the importance of her grandmother’s advice to give back to others. Eventually, McKenna went on to work in a community center for addiction recovery and attributed the sense of satisfaction she had with her work to the formative ideas she had about adulthood as a time to be generous and do meaningful work.
Other participants also described postretirement community engagement, or their desires to create a legacy that featured work to help future generations, but suggested their motivation was associated with less favorable perceptions about aging. For example, although Camille characterized her early ideas about getting older as overtly negative, she found that these ideas motivated the work she did later in her life with physically limited and challenged patients. She said,

I am amazed by how the ideas I had about aging remain with me to this day. I imagined that growing old would be terrible and now every day I see what aging and disability can do. The idea of wrinkling the way I do now out of the pool would have terrified me! Now what I worry about is becoming stiff both in my body and in who I am. I feel better about myself now, more than ever. My starting point was surely pessimistic and yet it inspired my work. (Camille, 52, swimming)

When he retired at 25 years old, Albert claimed that his body was comparable to an injured 70-year-old man because of the injuries he endured throughout the decades he spent training as a high-performance judoka. Albert viewed retirement as his opportunity to transition into a different life; he framed his early fears about aging as the motivating factor that pushed him to become more civic-minded. He said,

Retiring from judo was the hardest thing I ever did, it was painful. But it was also, for me … it was the best thing I ever did. My retirement forced me to find other aspects of myself and to look beyond my own interests. (Albert, 31, judoka)

Like Albert, Felipe described negative perceptions he held as a young boy about getting older. He said,

I thought I knew what it was to be old. I thought being old was being tired and grey and being served. (Felipe, 77, gymnastics)

Felipe’s negative perceptions about aging were largely shaped by his upbringing in the world of competitive gymnastics, which valued youth over maturity. Felipe lamented the fact that he lacked role models to give him advice about the physical decline that accompanies aging. However, with time, he decided to break from his past: as he contemplated the concept of retirement, he spoke in generative terms about his interest in continuing to remain connected and give back to his community. Felipe found that his perceptions of what he would be like as he aged had been wrong. With age, he gained a better sense of himself. He became more energized and developed a strong interest in helping others. Felipe said,

When I retired, I slept at least 12 hours every day. I wasn’t sure how much to eat or even how much to exercise. I lost all sense of who I was. I thought I was a really old man then …. When I retired, about 50 years ago now, I slept so much. Now I don’t. You see me, I’m not so grey. I spent my whole life working. Now I want to give back. I want to serve others. I have responsibilities to guide the next generation. (Felipe, 77, gymnastics)

Felipe fulfilled his desire to be different from what he observed in his youth by dedicating his life to giving back to others as a social worker. Felipe frequently expressed gratitude for his ability to do civic-minded work and proudly reflected on his success as a community leader.

As participants came to terms with no longer being the center of attention, formative experiences with grandparents or other role models inspired interests in doing socially engaged and meaningful work after their athletic careers ended. However, not all participants held positive views of aging; indeed, participants demonstrated a range of different means by which their prior perceptions about aging motivated postretirement engagement in civic activities. Negative perceptions about aging inspired some participants to break away from the early formed ideas they held about aging in ways that went beyond their personal interests toward broader, more generative activities.

Theme 3: Lack of Perceptions about Aging, Loss, and Sense of Purpose

A subgroup of participants was not able to identity formative perceptions about aging. This group explained that their youth had been focused almost exclusively on athletic training; aging was not something they contemplated before their athletic careers ended. Participants in this subgroup described ways that their athletic retirement signified a loss of their own physical strength and focused on how their retirement necessitated a recalibration of their personal identities.

Sharon felt a sense of disconnect from her body when her career as a gymnast ended at 16. Her body changed dramatically after she stopped training, and she experienced rapid weight gain. In her youth, Sharon had been surrounded by coaches and trainers who consistently emphasized the virtues of being youthful and competitive. Sharon could not recall having had perceptions about aging before her athletic retirement, and she was certain that she had very little understanding of how her life would change upon retirement. She explained,

In gymnastics, we all know retirement is inevitable. I knew my body wasn’t gonna hold out forever. But when I retired, I wasn’t prepared for anything that came next …. I thought I would be young forever. I never thought about myself any other way or I guess if I thought about being old—it was something I quickly pushed out of my mind. I got to a point where I realized, I’ll never find something quite like that again—you know it really is like you’ve lost something you love; you lose the body you will never have again. (Sharon, 56, gymnastics)

Sharon felt completely unprepared to adapt to the world outside of gymnastics, and she characterized her athletic retirement as a loss that had been marked by significant physical change.
Like Sharon, Jon felt that he lacked early role models of aging and associated his athletic retirement with loss. He said,

I had no models of moderation or what happens next. People just disappear when they retire. I just had drunkards, no really. I had no models that were any good. They retired and became totally useless people. (Jon, 58, ice hockey)

Jon viewed retirement as a turning point where a person either succumbs to their injuries or pushes themselves to remain productive and useful. He went on to explain that,

It makes retirement harder when you’ve pushed so hard because you’re going to be hurt and you’re going to miss the highs you achieved. (Jon, 58, ice hockey)

Jack emphasized how his lack of ideas about aging contributed to fears of the unknown. He explained that before his athletic retirement, much of his life had been highly structured and planned. Once he retired, he felt that he had lost his own sense of purpose in life, and he associated this sense of loss with a lack of knowing what to expect as he aged. He said,

I learned a lot from sports … made some good pals … unfortunately much of it was unhealthy …. How to bulk up, how to binge, how to push myself to the point where nothing made sense anymore …. I didn’t really learn much about other aspects of life … aging I don’t have much to say there. (Jack, 50, rowing)

Sam, too, lacked any formative impressions of aging, and viewed his lack of foresight as a hindrance to his ability to adapt to the changes that accompanied his athletic retirement:

Yeah, no, I can’t say I’ve spent much time thinking about how my body will be when I’m older …. Maybe the transition would have been better if I’d spent some time thinking outside of my next competition. (Sam, 27, ski jumping)

Adrian explained that when he retired,

I was pretty worn down, worn out, depressed, and unsure of what I was to do next because football was all I knew. Stopping was the end for me. I had no reason to take care of my body anymore. (Adrian, 50, football)

Several participants battled alcoholism and/or addiction to painkillers early in their retirement as they struggled to cope with the loss of their athletic careers. As a young man, Alexander struggled with substance abuse, which was a response to his desire to fill the void created by the end of his athletic career. Alexander had little to say about his early perceptions about aging. He explained that there was nothing in his postathletic career that could replace the intensity of being an Olympic athlete. Like other participants, Alexander also described his retirement in terms of loss:

For me retiring was a lot like losing. I was having dark times when I retired. I had to remember that I had losses and I survived. I thought I was prepared to retire, but no. (Alexander, 51, speed skating)

Mary had little sense of what aging would be like and of what would follow her athletic career but, like Alexander, she recognized the importance of learning to cope with major life transitions. Mary’s earlier experiences coping with losses throughout her career as a competitive runner, including the lost races and sacrifices she made in moving away from her family for her athletic career, were the experiences that she drew strength from. Mary explained that,

I had not the sense of what would come next or what it meant to grow old …. My body had a hard time adjusting …. I felt like a failure. So, do you know what I did? I thought about when I had nothing. I thought about when I lost so many times before … you use all your losses to help you find a new way to be a part of the world again. (Mary, 65, athletics)

Like Mary, Ryan learned to use the skills he developed as an athlete to cope with challenges in life. The time Ryan spent as an athlete taught him to be competitive in ways that helped him advance in his subsequent career. He viewed the low points he experienced in his retirement as helpful because they forced him to better anticipate future challenges. He said,

I am transformed from my work as an athlete. How I look at life is different, like I realize I don’t experience things the same way as other people …. I’m super, super competitive, and it’s hard to turn that off. (Ryan, 45, rowing)

Max explained that

Every time I walked, or even just when moved at all, I was in pain. That made it hard to find a job! The real pain came from acknowledging I was retired and not an athlete anymore. I had no backup plan, or there was a back-up plan, but I didn’t end up doing it. (Max, 67, ice hockey)

Max recalled minimal interactions with older people in his youth; he had very little sense of what his life would be like as he aged, but he also sensed that his experiences with earlier losses would serve him well:

It was a real let down for me to live in the real world. Eventually I realized I survived other losses: I had been outranked, beaten, divorced, abandoned, all that. I think about it now because I’ll probably retire again soon. (Max, 67, ice hockey)

William did not believe that he had formed any ideas about aging in his youth. He knew that his athletic career had extracted a toll on his physical and mental health, but he also emphasized the importance of learning from loss. He recognized that his athletic experiences had opened up new opportunities for him. He said,

Winning isn’t everything. To truly believe that is valuable. That said, I still have to believe I have more wins ahead of me. (William, 50, diving)

Like many participants, Allison started her athletic career very early: she started training at 4 years old and continued to train at least 8 hr a day, 6 days a week for much of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. When she retired at 21 years old, Allison’s career as a gymnast left her body wracked with pain. She had to adapt to losing the community and companionship she had known for most of her life, as she adjusted to retirement’s autonomy and independence. She explained that in retirement,

It’s really scary because you lose your sense of purpose. What’s interesting about retiring is that all of the sudden my name is still the same, but I am not a gymnast anymore. I remember it being really weird the first few months when you meet people and they ask you, “What are you doing?” And you’re like, “Nothing, I am not doing anything right now.” Even when I was 7 years old, I was constantly working, you know? (Allison, 25, gymnastics)

Allison also struggled to recall any ideas about aging or what her life would be like when she retired. However, with the end of her athletic career, she came to understand that her time as an athlete made her a stronger person:

The amount that you have to learn and the drive that you must have and the discipline and hard work ethic you learn as an athlete is amazing. Just the type of worker and professional that you become, you should be at a big head start in a way. Coming out of my career, I knew how to be a professional immediately. I knew how to work hard immediately. My body is weaker, but I am very strong, and I know with certainty that I can go through a lot. (Allison, 25, gymnastics)

Like other participants, Allison’s athletic retirement signified a loss of her physical strength and sense of purpose. She was unable to identify formative perceptions about aging, in large part because her youth had been focused almost exclusively on her athletic training. However, she was able to recognize how her experiences helped her recalibrate and become stronger in new ways.

Among participants who struggled to identify formative perceptions about aging, there was a shared sentiment that athletic retirement was experienced as a loss, marked by lack of preparation for the world outside of high-performance sport. All participants described battles to combat the low points that came in the wake of their retirement; some battled substance abuse. This sense of loss regarding the end of their athletic career, and loss for what to do next with their lives, was also met with a vow to channel the lessons they had learned from sports about how to rechannel negative experiences into new experiences.

Discussion

Participants generally described their athletic retirement as a challenging experience that marked their transition into early adulthood and signified a major shift in their life’s purpose. In examining the relationship between self-perceptions about aging and the athletic retirement experiences of high-performance athletes, this study illustrates several ways that participants’ perceptions about aging, or lack thereof, influenced their adaptation to athletic retirement. For a subset of participants, self-perceptions about aging influenced their postretirement exercise habits. There was a diversity of perspectives in this regard: some participants believed that their perceptions of aging negated their exercise habits, while others felt that their perceptions enhanced their postretirement engagement in exercise. Several participants focused on how their perceptions about aging facilitated a recalibration of their personal identities in ways that tended toward broader and more social, as opposed to personal, goals. Among participants who were unable to recall any formative perceptions about aging, there was a tendency to associate their athletic retirement with loss.

Much has been written about the challenges that can accompany the transition to retirement (Chambliss, 1988; Cosh et al., 2012; Reitzes & Mutran, 2004). Findings from this study build on prior literature on early retirement (Potočnik, Tordera, & Peiró, 2010) and perceptions about aging (de Oliveira, Sherrington, Rowling, & Tiedemann, 2019) to illustrate that perceptions about aging can influence athletic retirement transitions. Findings are consistent with the notion that perceptions about aging are dynamic and context dependent (e.g., Kornadt et al., 2020; Levy & Leifheit-Limson, 2009); they stand to enrich discussions of self-perceptions of aging by illustrating that both positive and negative perceptions about aging can shape retirement activities. However, not all participants were able to describe early ideas about aging, suggesting that the development of formative perceptions of aging is not a universal experience, particularly among athletes whose young lives are dominated by athletic training and competition. These findings suggest that young athletes stand to benefit from exposure to positive role models and supportive mature adults who can share insights about later adulthood.

Consistent with prior literature (Lavallee & Robinson, 2007; Wylleman, Alfermann, & Lavallee, 2004), level of preparedness for retirement and degree of choice influenced the ease of transition among athletes in this study. Nonetheless, many participants struggled with ways to cope with their own physical decline due to injuries, dramatically altered routines that no longer featured regular physical training, and their own physical aging. The emphasis on youth and lack of preparation for life after sport can have a detrimental impact on retired high-performance athletes. While findings from this study cannot suggest ways to avoid specific detrimental pathways such as substance abuse or low self-esteem, the findings clearly highlight a need to enhance awareness of present biases against aging and to develop stronger support systems for athletes in the wake of athletic retirement.

Findings illustrate the importance of differentiating between views on aging in different life domains (e.g., Rothermund & Kornadt, 2015; Wurm et al., 2017). Although all participants retired early in their life course, depending on their age at the time of interview, some participants reflected on their more recent athletic retirement while others reflected on an athletic retirement that took place many decades ago. For example, at 73 and 77 years old, respectively, Omar and Felipe described their athletic retirement as a profound life transition and described ways that their perceptions about aging fostered their interest in subsequent civic activities. Though Allison also viewed her athletic retirement as a significant life transition, at 25 years old, only 4 years after her retirement, it was difficult for her to articulate how she would rechannel her energies. Instead, Allison focused on the loss of her physical strength, sense of community, and sense of purpose. These findings highlight the importance of recognizing a participant’s age and stage in life, as well as gains or losses experienced in other domains of life, such as an expanding or contracting family. Individuals can concurrently experience gains in one domain and losses in another (e.g., Kornadt & Rothermund, 2011; Rothermund & Kornadt, 2015), and the experience of profound loss does not necessarily increase with age. Furthermore, these findings suggest that mature participants’ experiences do not always fit into stereotypical assumptions about decline and instead support the notion that narrative foreclosure risks masking multidimensional pathways toward remaining engaged and active across the life (Phoenix & Smith, 2011).

The importance of recognizing the system of inequality that privileges youth over physical maturity has been well demonstrated in prior research (Calasanti, 2005; Vannini, 2016), which illustrates how societies organize on the basis of age, with membership in age categories shaping self-concepts (Hunter & Emerald, 2016). In the typical labor market, age tends to serve as an indicator, be it of holding a position of prominence or as a signifier of nearness to retirement (Calasanti, 2005). The world of high-performance sport is similar to the broader labor market in this regard—namely, age relations dominate the power dynamics within it. Youth is a highly valued characteristic in high-performance sport; it is often associated with a greater potential for winning and favored over maturity, which tends to be associated with risk of injury and decline (Wellard, 2016; Rai, Jongenelis, Jackson, Newton, & Pettigrew, 2019a). Age is something to exert control over and, thus, athletes are motivated to present their bodies in ways that help them avoid exclusion.

Participants experienced retirement as a process that followed from inhabiting a privileged body into a state in which their social purpose had to be reconstructed. High-performance athletes’ careers tend to peak and decline very early in life. At the point of their athletic retirement, most participants had bodies that functionally aged rapidly: they faced chronic physical pain, experienced social isolation, and had to rediscover their life’s purpose. While their bodies had once been in glorified form (Adler & Adler, 1989), participants’ varied perceptions about their aging influenced their transitions to retirement in ways that altered their self-concept (Michel, 2015). These findings suggest that high-performance athletes stand to benefit from greater exposure to the range of changes associated with the aging process. They ought to be supported through their athletic retirements by mature adults, coaches, or other potential role models. Retired athletes may be distinct from more traditional retirees in their need for support due to the intensity of their athletic training. Moreover, they experience a potentially unique need to redefine their focus in life due to the fact that their retirement occurs so early in their life course.

When they retired, participants described feeling a sense of disconnect from their bodies; as high-performance athletes, they were physically and emotionally invested in their sport. Once they stopped competing, their sense of self-worth was no longer tied to their physical abilities. Many struggled with eating disorders, overeating, substance abuse, and poor body image. For some participants, the desire to reconstruct their sense of purpose manifested in a desire to find new ways to engage in exercise. A subset of participants chose to focus on how their adaptation to athletic retirement was enhanced by continued exercise engagement, as a result of the positive perceptions they formed about aging. Other participants described negative perceptions of aging, based on role models or their experiences of their parents’ aging, which influenced their adaptation to retirement. Taken together, these findings suggest that young athletes stand to benefit from exposure to positive role models and supportive mature adults who can share insights about later adulthood.

For participants who revealed that earlier held perceptions about aging fostered their own interests in civic engagement, the athletic retirement transition was transformative. These participants’ retirement experiences interacted with their perceptions of aging in ways that were described as powerful motivators, which helped participants readjust their senses of self and social purpose. These findings support the notion that perceptions about aging developed early in life can impact how an individual’s views of aging can influence subsequent behavior or adaptation to major life transitions (Levy, 2009; Ng, Allore, Monin, & Levy, 2016). These perceptions may inspire participants to embrace continued physical activity, civic engagement, and a renewed social purpose. Thus, findings also support a multidimensional understanding of “successful” aging by highlighting a broader range of ways to engage relative to those that might typically manifest in the dominant narrative.

Not all participants were able to articulate formative perceptions about aging: throughout their narratives, retirement was often described by participants who lacked formative perceptions about aging in ways that were synonymous with loss. Their retirement experiences included the sensation of losing control over their bodies and of being in a state of decline. In some cases, the sense of loss participants experienced was accompanied by depression and substance abuse. Findings thus suggest that athletes’ retirement experiences offer potential insights into pathways for adaptation to physical and emotional transitions. They might further our understanding about the process that follows from the peak of one’s career into a state in which one’s social purpose must be reconstructed (Silver, 2018).

Drawing from critical perspectives on embodiment (Calasanti, 2005; Hunter & Emerald, 2016; Shilling, 2017), findings here further reinforce the idea that corporeal experiences, such as physical decline, are experienced in ways that interact with social expectations about life transitions (Gilleard & Higgs, 2011; Griffin, 2017). As the athletes in this study transitioned to retirement, their bodies declined, thus eliciting socially embedded fears about marginalization and creating challenges in their transition to retirement (Gilleard & Higgs, 2013; Shilling, 2001). Uniquely, some participants in this study created advantages from their fears about physical decline and aging in order to stay in shape physically. Because the body is a mechanism for understanding the world as well as a means of interacting with others (Haynes, 2008), these results suggest that the corporeal decline associated with athletic retirement has implications for our understanding of how the body symbolizes an embodiment of perceived identity.

Olympic athletes are closely scrutinized during their athletic careers, yet often overlooked by society once they retire from their sport. While the participants in this study were by no means ordinary, their athletic retirement experiences reflect a sentiment, typically experienced later in life by nonathletes, that retirement can be a challenging transition that necessitates a recalibration of one’s personal identity and social purpose (Silver, 2019). In our excitement to celebrate winning in sports, we often ignore the lessons that can be associated with loss and adaptation to new physical states. The injuries that high-performance athletes endure can affect their capacity to engage in subsequent activity, thus casting a shadow over the opportunities that retirement can present. Formative perceptions about aging offer an opportunity to enhance the subsequent behaviors of people going through major life transitions. Participants’ transitions from inhabiting privileged bodies, which were once the center of attention, to retired bodies outside the sphere of influence illustrate the value of examining and discussing retirement experiences. Findings from this study demonstrate the value of channeling difficult retirement experiences into new desires for physical and social engagement.

Limitations, Reflections, and Suggestions for Future Research

This qualitative study explores formative perceptions about aging in later life and the retirement experiences of an international sample of former Olympic athletes to enrich understandings of the relationship between perspectives on aging and adaptation to retirement. It is important to consider some of the limitations of this study, including the fact that since participants competed in a wide range of different sports, some of the nuances associated with differences across sports were omitted from the present study. Furthermore, the 4-year retirement inclusion criterion is a limited means of studying fully retired high-performance athletes because there remains the possibility that some participants may not stay retired and may reenter athletic competition after 4 years. In addition, this study included participants from a wide age range; therefore, participants shared their athletic retirement experiences from several different points in the life course. The wide age range is a unique strength of this study as it allowed for the discovery of common themes in the athletic retirement experience of high-performance athletes. At the same time, the broad age range means that some participants reflected on experiences that occurred significantly earlier in their lives, while others reflected on experiences that were more recent; therefore, each participant’s memory was susceptible to reconstruction with the passing of time, and participants’ recollections were each based on varying amounts of time that had passed since their athletic retirement. It should also be noted that participants could have reported on several key issues and, thus, each participant could have experienced overlapping postretirement activities or interests and fallen into multiple themes; however, that was not the case with this set of participants. Additional interviews and/or additional probing regarding the extent to which each of these separate themes resonated with participants could have yielded reporting on multiple or more dynamic themes. Finally, the interviews were all conducted in English, which may have imposed a language restriction that limited the range of experiences that could be shared.

Qualitative methods were employed in this study to help provide a deeper understanding of aging and athletic retirement from the perspective of participants, giving emphasis to the meaning that participants attach to their experiences (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Pope & Mays, 1995). It is important to highlight the fact that the author of this study lacked personal experience as an athlete or coach, which might have limited aspects of this study. Another researcher with greater personal experience in the world of sport may have elicited different responses from participants or may have had different interpretations of participants’ responses.

Future research should build on findings from this study to examine generational differences in athletes’ conceptualizations of retirement, as well as the persistence of high-performance athletes’ perceptions of aging over time. The broad age range of participants sheds light on the fact that there are some retirement experiences that can be shared across participants from a broad age range. Future research should more systematically include participants from varying age groups to explore and examine differences based on age in the relationship between perceptions about aging and athletic retirement. Because age stereotypes are not independent of perceptions of gender (Antonucci, Blieszner, & Denmark, 2010; Kornadt, Voss, & Rothermund, 2013; Teuscher & Teuscher, 2007), future research should be designed to address potential gender differences in the relationship between perceptions about aging and athletic retirement. Moreover, research building upon this exploratory study also ought to examine comparisons between athletes’ early retirement experiences and their later experiences with retirement from nonathletic careers. In addition, interviews with participants’ spouses, partners, and family members would provide more diverse insights and a deeper understanding of high-performance athletes’ perceptions about aging and athletic retirement.

Conclusions

Interviewing high-performance athletes who are no longer in their prime about their perceptions about aging and their retirement transitions offers potential insights into human development, particularly the process of adaptation to life transitions and corporeal changes that nonathletes are also susceptible to. Young athletes stand to benefit from exposure to positive role models and supportive mature adults who can share insights about later adulthood. A near exclusive emphasis on youth and lack of preparation for life after sport can have a detrimental impact on retired high-performance athletes. Findings from this exploratory qualitative study illustrate the salience of formative perceptions about aging in the process of adaptation to retirement. Findings also demonstrate the value of sharing athletic retirement experiences and highlight a need to enhance awareness of present biases against aging and to develop stronger support systems for athletes in the wake of athletic retirement.

Acknowledgments

This paper draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The author declares no conflict of interest and wishes to acknowledge the participants in this study for their time and thoughtful input.

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Silver (michelle.silver@utoronto.ca) is with the Department of Health and Society, the Department of Sociology, and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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