Midlife health crisis of former competitive athletes: dissecting their experiences via qualitative study

BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2024 May 9;10(2):e001956. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2024-001956. eCollection 2024.


Sports participation confers many health benefits yet greatly increases injury risk. Long-term health outcomes in former athletes and transition to life after competitive sports are understudied. Ending a sport may pose physical and psychosocial challenges. The purpose was to determine the lived experiences of former competitive athletes and how their sports participation impacted their long-term health and well-being. Former college varsity athletes participated in semistructured interviews focusing on their experiences, including past and current health, the impact of injuries, activity, exercise, diet and transition to life after competitive sport. Thematic analysis was completed using a collaborative, iterative process. Thirty-one (16 female, 15 male) former college athletes aged 51.3±7.4 years were interviewed. Six themes emerged: (1) lifelong athlete identity; (2) structure, support and challenges of the college athlete experience; (3) a big transition to life beyond competitive sport; (4) impact of competitive sport on long-term health; (5) facilitators and barriers to long-term health after sport and (6) transferable life skills. Continuing sports eased the transition for many but often delayed their postathlete void. Challenges included managing pain and prior injury (eg, If I didn't have my knee injury, I would definitely be more active), reducing energy needs and intake (eg, When I was an athlete, I could eat anything; and unfortunately, that's carried into my regular life), lack of accountability, changed identity and lost resources and social support. Participants suggested a programme, toolkit, mentoring or exit course to facilitate the transition. While former athletes benefit from transferrable life skills and often continue sports and exercise, they face unique challenges such as managing pain and prior injury, staying active, reducing energy intake and changing identity. Future research should develop and evaluate a toolkit, programme and other resources to facilitate life after ending competitive sports under 'normal' conditions (eg, retirement) and after a career-ending injury.

Keywords: Aging; Athlete; Qualitative Research; Sports medicine.