Change in athletic identity after retirement from elite sport: In search of potential predictors using multi-level analysis

  • Michael J. Schmid Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Switzerland
  • Achim Conzelmann Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Switzerland
  • Jürg Schmid Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Switzerland
Keywords: career transition, elite athletes, identity, retirement, self-concept



Elite athletes spend a great amount of time training and competing. Accordingly, their live is focused on and shaped by sport. As a result, many athletes develop a strong athletic identity, which may be defined as the extent to which athletes identify with their role as athletes (Brewer, 1993). While risk and opportunities associated with a strong athletic identity are clear, little is known about how athletic identity develops over the course of a sport career. Some studies suggest that athletic identity remains stable over time (e.g., Hadiyan & Cosh, 2019), while other studies attribute some plasticity to it (e.g., Brewer et al., 2010). The purpose of this study was to examine how the athletic identity develops beyond a career in elite sport. In addition, we searched for potential predictors of athletic identity during and after career.


A longitudinal survey of 290 athletes (32.8% women; 67.2% men) was conducted during (t1) and after their careers (t2; 12 years later). The German version of the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS D; Schmid & Seiler, 2003) was used to measure athletic identity. Besides, data were collected on demographic (gender, age) and sports-related variables (sporting success, career satisfaction, time of retirement, voluntariness of retirement, involvement in sport after retirement). Data were analyzed using multi-level regression models.


The analysis revealed that athletic identity decreased over time. However, there was considerable heterogeneity across athletes. In particular, the status as an athlete (i.e., professional vs. dual career), exclusivity of the role as an athlete, and time to retirement predicted athletic identity at t1. To explain the development of athletic identity, interaction terms between time and the different predictors were also modeled. Three significant effects were found: In particular, a slower decline in athletic identity was found for athletes who were (a) working in the field of sport after their athletic retirement, (b) involved in (recreational) competitive sport, and (c) satisfied with their sport career.


As expected, on average, the role as an athlete is reduced in an individual’s identity (and is probably replaced by other roles). However, sport may still be shaping athletes’ identity, notably their athletic career has been satisfying and if their occupation revolves around sports. Future research is needed to better understand how former athletes reshape their identity and what sources of meaning they tap into after athletic retirement to promote quality of life.


Brewer, B. W. (1993). Self-identity and specific vulnerability to depressed mood. Journal of Personality, 61(3), 343–364.

Brewer, B. W., Cornelius, A. E., Stephan, Y., & van Raalte, J. (2010). Self-protective changes in athletic identity following anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(1), 1–5.

Hadiyan, H., & Cosh, S. (2019). Level of physical and motor fitness post retirement and maintenance of athletic identity within active retired athletes. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 24(1), 84–95.

Schmid, J., & Seiler, R. (2003). Identität im Hochleistungssport: Überprüfung einer deutschsprachigen Adaptation der Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS-D) [Identity in high-performance sport: Psychometric investigations with a German Language adaptation of the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS-D)]. Diagnostica, 49(4), 176–183.

How to Cite
Schmid, M. J., Conzelmann, A., & Schmid, J. (2023). Change in athletic identity after retirement from elite sport: In search of potential predictors using multi-level analysis. Current Issues in Sport Science (CISS), 8(2), 013.