A dialogical self approach to understanding identity as negotiated in retirement from elite sport
Every athlete will eventually retire from their career in elite sport. Despite its inevitability, following their encounter with this critical event, many athletes are left vulnerable to diversions from psychological well-being (Park et al., 2013). In their review, Cosh et al. (2021) report that somewhere between 18% to 39% of retired athletes experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depressive symptoms, after career termination. While the literature surrounding retirement from sport and well-being cites various factors contributing to the quality of adjustment, a large body of research has focused on the predictive factor of athletic identity, the extent of identification with the athlete role (Brewer et al., 1993) and the negative relationship it tends to have with psychological well-being during retirement (Douglas & Carless, 2009; Kuettel et al., 2017; Warriner & Lavallee, 2008). Although these findings have led to recommendations for a shift away from monologic performance-based narratives (Brewer & Petitpas, 2017; Park et al., 2013) the concept of a diversified identity in high performance sporting careers is relatively underexplored. Therefore, this project aims to expand on existing research demonstrating the possibility of alternative narratives (Douglas & Carless, 2006) and the notion that there is room within the presentation of identity for multiple voices to be represented and heard in negotiation or contradiction with one another (Peterson & Langellier, 2006; Ronkainen & Ryba 2020).
To conceptualize how athletes’ evolving self-concepts might be comprised of multiple identities, we introduce Dialogical Self Theory (DST; Hermans & Kempen, 1993) which has been previously applied to research surrounding identity and transitions, such as childhood development and cultural migration (Hermans & Gieser, 2012). According to the theory, one’s inner world is made up of several “I”-positions which are constantly positioned relative to each other (Konopka et al., 2018). These “I-positions” are by nature dynamic and can move depending on changes in time and situation (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010).
Pauha and Ronkainen (2021) applied DST to their recent examination of conflicting positions of an intersectional identity. Their interesting findings demonstrating an athlete in dialogue have inspired our current project which seeks to answer: How are identities negotiated in athletes’ stories during retirement from elite sport?
Semi-structured interviews informed by The Life Story Interview (Atkinson,1998), with ten recently retired elite athletes were conducted at one to three months after they officially announced their retirement to Swiss Olympic. Interviews were conducted in person and lasted on average 90 minutes. Preliminary results from the narrative analysis are discussed and provide insights of the various, non-performance related “I”-positions present amongst athletes. A case study is used to illustrate the implicit ways in which elite athletes may or may not engage in “identity work” while transitioning out of their careers, along with the practical implications of these findings.
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