Negotiating Athlete Identity in Career Transitions
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Negotiating Athlete Identity in Career Transitions

In a society increasingly marked by migration, cultural and economic globalization, diaspora, and interconnectivity, an athlete’s subjectivity is not bound to traditional categories of nation, race and ethnicity, to name a few, but beeing constantly redefined through the liquidity of mobile identity. In this workshop, through the fragmentary sketches of athletes’ lived experiences, we will construct a textual bricolage of athlete’s subjectivity. Approaching career(s) as the context in which athlete development occurs, we argue that the sociocultural constitution of athletic career affords access to certain contextually contained skills and connections while restricting, even denying, the development of others. We are interested in the ways in which athletes constitute themselves within various milieus, making their everyday practices meaningful to them. From a psychological perspective, we focus on transition (within and outside of sports) to make sense of how the experience of transition by virtue of shifting meanings can be understood as a ‘discursive “site of articulation”' upon and through which subjectivities and identities are shaped and constructed’ (Gray, 2003).


E. Diakaki, S. Chroni, T. V. Ryba, I. Laliotou, & M. Goudas: Cyclists’ migration tales: Preliminary reflections in identity re-constructions

The present study aims to provide an insight in the psychosocial facets of sport migration. Semi-structured, in depth interviews were conducted with five professional cyclists from Greece. The objective was to explore the parameters that may influence the attainment of the expected level of performance and its impact in the formation of identities among sport labour immigrants. The existing literature has examined the sport labour migration phenomenon; exploring motives for migration, labour rights, impact of the phenomenon in host and donor countries, the formation of sport immigrants’ identities and integration procedures. However, a research gap exists relating to factors affecting the athletes’ integration, the attainment of the desired level of performance, as well as identity re-constructions. We aim to address some of these «knowledge gaps» by providing an insight in athletes’ life stories. Using a constructivist approach we took the opportunity to study the “what’s and how’s” in migrating cyclists interpretations of their seasonal work experience in foreign countries (Sparkes, 2002; Smith & Sparkes, 2009a; 2009b). The inquiry process evolved and revolves around Sparkes’ (1996) quiz, of how can we communicate in written the subjectivity of the lived experience so that the reader can feel identified/related and live (with) the facts and situations described. According to Bruner (1994, p. 52) the role of narrative in structuring our life concept and our role as agents in life, is of great significance. Pointing out the crucial role of culture, he claims that “cultures are powerful systems for specifying possible ways of knowing, striving, feeling, and acting with respect to ourselves and others”. Self narratives are a basis of identity (Neisser, 1994). This concept altogether with the fact that migration as an experience has an impact on athletes’ identity and culture (Maguire & Stead, 1996) are the stepping-stones for inquiry in this study. Looking at our participants’ formation of identity within the new culture, a tendency becomes apparent; accordingly, some of these athletes focus on their athletic identity leading to identity foreclosure. As one of the athletes said “The most disastrous thing for me was that I left myself to be confined by the sense of failure. The fact that I wasn’t training--as I did back in my country--in steep up hills and if I was in a race with long up hills I couldn’t perform my best, or being able to win, or even to help my team”.

J. S. Olesen: Performance through transformation of identity in road cycling

This paper examines how reaching the elite level in sports implies gradual transformation of the identity of the athlete. This perspective regards performance as effects of a network in which athletes are able to perform through their linkage to a wide range of heterogeneous actors. Performance is traditionally studied in three different ways: as the realisation of an individual talent, as a result of many years of dedicated training and as a product of a good learning environment. Using the concept of translation, I will argue that performance must be understood as an exchange between the athlete and a macro actor, whereby the athlete himself appears as a micro-network that can be adjusted, optimised and manipulated. The development of a talent to elite level can be conceived as a series of imbalances and alignments between the external and the internal network. On the basis of sports biographies, I explore how an athlete in professional road cycling alters his identity from amateur through auxiliary rider to protected rider in order to raise his level of performance.

M. K. Christensen and J. K. Sørensen: Balancing the Demands of Education and Training – A Qualitative Study on Young Male Football Talents’ Dual Careers.

Today’s young semi-professional football players are expected to continue their education while honing their talents as footballers. This means they must balance the contradictory demands that come from coming from the fields of education and of elite sport. At the same time elite sportspeople in the top international sports are being placed under increasing pressure as a result of the performance optimization approaches that are now a fundamental part of competing at the national elite level, and which have resulted in a significant rise in the time such sporting assets spend on sport. Yet, attempting a professional career in football involves great mental and physical strains that profoundly affect the future lives of the young talents.

The study presented in this paper explores how 15- to 19-year-old Danish football talents subjectively experience and describe the way they balance their relations with two central forces in their everyday lives that are often fraught with conflict. On the one hand there are interests, ambitions and demands in the field of elite sport, and on the other the choices and requirements necessary for maintaining an association with the field of education.

Data for the study are gathered using a narrative and qualitative approach, including four focus group interviews with 25 footballers aged 15–19, followed by individual interviews with eight of the footballers. The analysis of data uses field-oriented social psychology and a systemic understanding of the individual as a social being who orients itself in its actions in relation to the surrounding world, as its theoretical base.

The elite football culture has an almost magnetic attraction for the young footballers in the study. Even if the espoused value of a good set of academic qualifications does not entirely measure up to this, the insistence from the outside world on the importance of completing one’s education is manifest and associated with significant personal concerns, lower examinations results, stress, drop-out and mental breakdown. In so far as school makes no positive difference to their career opportunities as footballers, school and other potential regions in the players’ life space have nowhere near the same socializing significance as the basic underlying assumption in the football culture: 100 percent dedication. In this way talented footballers can be said to conduct an early closure of identity during their youth, which can have consequences for their experience of crisis in the process of creating their identity.

N. J. Ronkainen and T. V. Ryba: Negotiating Athlete Identity in Career Termination

A significant body of sports research has been accumulated on career transitions and, especially in the Western discourse, on athletic retirement. The researchers appear to be in agreement that the prevalence of athletic identity over other social identities and roles has a significant effect on the quality of the retirement process from sports, suggesting that athletes with a strong athletic identity experience more psychological difficulties during retirement (Stambulova 2012). Strong athletic identity, which is a great resource for the active athlete, may become the Achilles heel in career crisis and retirement (Sparkes 1998).

Recently, especially narrative researchers have become more interested in the nuances of sport-related identity construction. Although the performance narrative is suggested to be a dominant one in Western sport culture, also alternative narratives of sport, for example as an adventure and a journey, exist in the margins (Carless and Douglas 2009). These non-performance narrative threads might enable athletes to construct sport-related identities that are negotiated, reconstructed but yet partly sustained also in the transition to post-career life.

In our recent research with Finnish runners (Ronkainen and Ryba, forthcoming), we found stories of former athletes who constructed running as a central life project also in post-career years. These ex-athletes had sustained a strong runner identity and continued running on extensive amounts, also competing occasionally in local events. Within sport psychology discourse, these transitions would be suspected to be unsuccessful, and the former athletes were aware of the addiction discourse and the lack of understanding to their passion for running from their significant others. However, they demonstrated satisfaction in pursuing their ‘own thing’, and reconstructed running as part of their being, not as a career. These findings challenge the linear definitions of athletic careers and challenge us to further examine the sport-related identity construction and how the meaning of sports is negotiated in transitions and in retirement.

T. V. Ryba: On Cultural Transitions, R(a)uptered Embodiment and the Emptiness of Self

Most reports examining European mobility in higher education focus on practical barriers to mobility, such as language, finance, labour market and recognition of qualifications. Less attention is given to understanding how social and cultural discourses trickle down into lived experiences of the mobile subject. As a way to build upon psychological insights about how identities are influenced through life experiences, this paper focuses on transnational experiences of student-athletes, whose careers have been developed in various sociocultural fields. I’m particularly interested in understanding the process of ‘subjectification of space and time’ (Benson, 2001) activated in cultural transitions.

My project is conceptually grounded in the cultural psychology of self whereby human psyche is viewed as culturally constituted and historically variable. Relatively recent studies in cultural psychology point to the dialogical nature of the self as the main mechanism for human adaptation (see Valsiner, 2004). Since it is not the mere physical act of geographical re-location that is critical to understanding the psychological underpinnings of transition, I analyze the dynamic interplay of experience and making sense of experience to locate the contradictions and gaps of meaning between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ psychological worlds. The points of rupture I believe are the moments when subjectivity emerges to consciousness, opening a conceptual window for understanding fluidity of the self as an adaptive mechanism.

Data for the study were collected in a Finnish university, by a variety of means. The immediate experience of being-in-transition was documented in ‘onsite’ reflective journals and supplemented by in-depth individual interviews. The retrospective accounts included a focus group interview and written statements. Self-reflexive analysis further added to understanding the adaptive processes. The hermeneutic circle was utilized when analyzing data elucidating the impermanence of self as contradictory, and socially and culturally (re)produced.


Tatiana V. Ryba, Associate Professor, Department of Sport Science, Aarhus University.


Panel 1

Chair: Tatiana V. Ryba, PhD, Aarhus University

Discussant: Steen Brock, PhD, Aarhus University

Presenters: Mette Krogh Christensen, PhD, University of Southern Denmark

Noora Ronkainen, PhD student, Aarhus University

Tatiana V. Ryba, PhD, Aarhus University

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Revised 2012.01.14