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Donna Menke, Kansas State University

DonnaMenke.jpgUpon the end of participation in sport at an elite level, former athletes often experience negative emotions and behaviors.  During the interviews I conducted with former college athletes for my dissertation on their preparation for life beyond college, many participants expressed having feelings similar to depression when their sports careers ended and one basketball player experienced panic attacks after his retirement. These athletes are not alone; researchers have revealed that athletes may experience loss of appetite, weight fluctuation, insomnia, mood changes, decline in motivation and lack of trust in others while going through sports retirement (Stankovich, Meeker & Henderson, 2001).  Other researchers found that 42% of their respondents described a difficult sport retirement as “quite characteristic” or “very characteristic” (Webb, Nasco, Riley & Headrick, 1998).

As academic advisors, we can help students ease this transition by applying Schlossberg’s Transition Framework to our work with student-athletes.  By using this model, academic advisors can help student-athletes prepare for the end of their athletic careers before the situation arises.  By assessing students’ commitment to their athletic identity, the support systems they have around them, and providing them with strategies to use when the situation of sport retirement arises, advisors prepare student-athletes for an easier transition out of sport and into a new role. 


There are three potential triggers for the end of a sports career: end of eligibility, an injury, or retirement from a professional sports career. The majority of college athletes end their sports career as they are ending their college academic career. The trigger is the end of their athletic eligibility. The timing is in line with other college student-athletes, but does involve a permanent role change for most and can be distressing.

For others an unanticipated event such as an injury may trigger the transition.  This may be accompanied by the additional stress of the injury and recovery process.  Studies indicate an injury may make the transition out of sport more difficult (Webb et al., 1998).

Still others may have the opportunity to continue their sport participation at an elite level after college. Even for Olympic and professional athletes, retirement comes well before the typical retirement age of 64. These athletes may risk a stronger athletic identity, one that involves a very public identity which “requires the cooperation of other people in the athlete’s life who are willing to release the athlete from the public expectations demanded by that role” (Webb et al, 1998). This may make the transition more complex.  


By the time they enter college, student-athletes have participated in sport for many years; they have achieved success in their sport and have developed an identity as an athlete. Once in college, these students face intense time commitments associated with college sports (Danish, Petitpas & Hale, 1993) and a sports culture that emphasizes athletics over academics (Adler & Adler, 1985; Benson 2000), causing them to be at risk for lack of engagement in academic pursuits and delayed career development.

Schlossberg (2012) advocates assessing the “personal and demographic characteristics of the individual” (p. 92). With student-athletes, the strength of identity as an athlete should be assessed.  Does the individual have a network of friends or others outside of athletics? Encourage the engagement in academic activities such as getting to know other students in their classes, talking with instructors, understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, and establishing their values which are at the core of their athletic and student identity. 


Schlossberg asks the crucial question: “Does the client have a range of types of support – spouse or partner, other close family or friends, co-workers? Colleagues? Neighbors, organizations, and institutions?” (Anderson, 2012, p. 87). (Editor’s note: please confirm whether the preceding p. 87 citation refers to the Anderson publication in your reference list; if so, it would be noted as (Anderson, 2012, p. 87) While coaches, teammates, and athletic counselors are an important part of a student-athletes support system, advisors should encourage these students to establish a support team that includes significant others inside and outside of athletics.

Encourage their participation in academic activities by pointing out the benefits. When student-athletes participate actively in their classes, they get to know their instructors and classmates, and they can help debunk the myth of the “dumb jock” and establish a rapport that will be helpful when they must miss class due to their athletic commitment. They will also develop role models for a non-athletic identity.  Campus resources such as counseling center, career center, and alumni associations can be valuable support networks that student-athletes may not be aware of, due to the intense time constraints they face. Encourage student-athletes to maintain a support team that includes family, friends, and others outside of athletics and who will be there when sport is no longer the center of their lives. 


Discuss with student-athletes class attendance and how they feel about school.  Encouraging exploration of identities other than sport helps set the stage for a smoother transition when the time comes.  Lally and Kerr (2005) found that as athletes progress through the college years, they do develop a student identity in addition to their athletic identity.  Aiding and nurturing this development can help promote more positive outcomes for student-athletes. 

Researchers have found that college athletes demonstrate “poor or immature” career planning and development (Lally &Kerr, 2005, p. 275). (Editor’s note: please confirm which item in the reference list you’re referring to in the p. 275 citation; is it Lally and Kerr? If so, it would be noted as (Lally and Kerr, 2005, p. 275) One former student-athlete I spoke with described watching former players from his college team who would routinely “hang around the locker room as if they had nothing better to do.”  It struck him as odd and caused him to focus on the student role throughout his college football career.  Upon completion of his bachelor’s degree, he entered law school and credits the intensity of law school with helping him with his transition out of sport.   

The athletes I interviewed about their lives after college repeatedly mentioned the importance of networking to their careers. Many basketball players I spoke with credited a coach with teaching them the importance of networking while in college.  He instructed his players to keep the business cards of people they met and to present a positive image, which could help them land jobs once their playing days were over.  These athletes were encouraged to leverage the high-profile experience they received in college to help them when college and/or their athletic career ended.  The athletes I interviewed also described traits they acquired through sports that serve them well in their work, such as focus, a drive to put forth their best effort at every task, and the ability to effectively work in a team environment.  Advisors can encourage student-athletes to adopt similar behavior and use the positive aspects of sport to transition into other life roles.  

Donna Menke
Assistant Professor
Special Education Counseling and Student Affairs
College of Education
Kansas State University
[email protected]


Adler, P., & Adler. P.A., (1985). From idealism to pragmatic attachment: The academic performance of college athletes. Sociology of Education, 58, 241-250.

Anderson, M.L., Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N.K., (2012) Counseling adults in transition: Linking Schlossberg’s theory with practice in a diverse world. 4th Ed. Springer: New York.

Benson, K.F. (2000). Constructing academic inadequacy: African American athletes’ stories of schooling. Journal of Higher Education, 71, 223-246.

Danish, S. H., Petipas, A.J., & Hale, B.D. (1993). Life development intervention for athletes: Life skills through sports.  The Counseling Psychologist, 21, 352-385.

Lally, P.S., & Kerr, G.A., (2005). The career planning, athletic identity and student role identity of intercollegiate student athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76(3), 275-285. 

Stankovich, C.E., Meeker, D.J., & Henderson, J.L., (2001). The positive transitions model for sport retirement. Journal of College Counseling 4, 81-84.

Stankovich, C.E., Meeker, D.J., & Henderson, J.L. (2001). The positive transitions model for sport retirement. Journal of College Counseling,4, 81-84.  

Webb, W.M., Nasco, S.A., Riley, S. & Headrick. B. (1998). Athlete identity and reactions to retirement from sports. Journal of Sport Behavior 21(3), 338-362.


Cite this article using APA style as: Menke, D. (2013, September). Student-athletes in transition: Applying the Schlossberg model. Academic Advising Today, 36(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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