Dealing with loss of identity in youth sports – management of the of a career-ending sport injury


Lyng KD1, Dalsgaard SH2, Johansen SK1, Rathleff MS134, Rossing NN2,

1. Center for General Practice at Aalborg University, 2. Sport Sciences, Department of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University, 3. Department of Health Science and Technology, 4.Faculty of Medicine, Aalborg UniversityDepartment of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, Aalborg University Hospital.


Kristian Damgaard Lyng
Affiliation address: Fyrkildevej 7, 9220 Aalborg Øst
Telephone: +45 30669439


Career-ending sport injury (CESI) forcing an unexpected transition out of sport, can have severe consequences for adolescents’ lives. Adolescence is a crucial phase where the present and future identity is shaped by the environment and experiences. In this paper, we will introduce the reader to a former football player who had a career-ending hip injury at an early age and how the unwanted transition developed into anxiety, depression, and a feeling of loss of identity. Based on sports psychology research, we will present some practical considerations to manage the psychosocial difficulties associated with early retirement caused by CESI.

Physical activity and sports participation have been linked to increased wellbeing and health (1,2), better academic achievements (3) and occupational status in later life (4). However, physical activity and competitive sports also increase the risk of injuries and pain, which can lead to a premature end of a sports career for athletes. The transition out of a sports career is a significant process for an athlete, and involuntary events like sports injuries negatively impact this process (5). CESI does not only affect physical health, but it also has negative psychosocial impacts, which can lead to loss of identity, loneliness, depression, and anxiety (5). Therefore, athletes who experience CESI often need social and emotional support in addition to the clinical support for their injury (5). As healthcare practitioners, we often manage injuries in confidential one-to-one sessions using a holistic health perspective (6). In this short paper we aim to bridge the gap between sports psychology and rehabilitation. This will be done in order to provide practical psychosocial guidance for practitioners who works with adolescents who are, or have been, forced to stop playing their sport because of a CESI.

What is an “identity”?

Several attempts have been made in order to define the concept of identity. In this paper our understanding of identity was inspired by Bruner and colleagues’ work on how youth sports constitutes arenas for social-identity development (7) and defined as; That part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his/her knowledge of his/her membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership. It is essential to point out that dealing with CESI in adolescents is a team effort and might require support from multiple professions including physiotherapists, medical doctors, psychologists and other stakeholders such as family and friends. In such cross-disciplinary teams, it is important that each profession is aware of their capabilities, limitations and understand the capabilities of the other team members. Such knowledge can aid choosing the right help, at the right time. Importantly, we have to very sensitively address every transition from participating player to injured player because it can be a very stressful, likely, unprepared process that is complex and multidimensional (8). The multi-dimensionality and complexity of CESI is not adequately explained by current psychosocial literature for rehabilitation after sports injury (9). Nevertheless, the existing literature highlights three primary resources, coping skills, social support, and pre-retirement planning that each influence the athlete’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Throughout this paper, we will elaborate on these resources in the context of a semi-structured interview with Maria (pseudonym) and the experiences and challenges she faced during her time after she ended her active sports career (Box 1).

Box 1: Case

Maria, 19 years old. She used to play football at an elite level in Denmark until she turned 18. After suffering a hip-injury, she had several unsuccessful experiences with physiotherapy and medications. After a 3-month period away from football, with no improvement in pain, she decided to end her football-career. Immediately after her CESI she felt a gap in her life and started to develop stress, anxiety and depression which eventually led to her high school drop-out. During this process, Maria felt that she was alone with the processing of the emotional impact in relation to her CESI and the development of a new self-identity. Maria states she has learned a lot about herself and how to cope with stressful situation, although in retrospect, she believes that better management of her emotions from her surroundings would have eased the transition away from the sport and helped her reshape her identity.

Providing social support in consultations
After the CESI from football, Maria felt a sense of restlessness and a loss of identity where she found herself in a void. From the interview, Maria highlighted the positive effects that seeing a psychologist had on her mental health. Seeking and gaining psychosocial support is an essential coping strategy for a successful career transition, especially during CESI (5). Sharing emotions and entrusting somebody is an essential coping mechanism for stress relief, and it can help young athletes to reconcile with their transition (10). Providing this kind of social support are not restricted to be performed in a consultation room but it could be performed in any setting where it is possible to create an intimate environment. Type of environment is secondary, but it is important that we create a trusting therapeutic alliance in order to ask into psychosocial aspects of the adolescents’ situation. Furthermore, the physiotherapist must consider that patients’ challenges may be multifaceted, with patients struggling with learning to manage their injury, in concert with finding a foothold in a reality outside their familiar social arenas. Using work as a metaphor, Corbin & Strauss (11) describes the overlap between identity and self-management. By highlighting self-management as three lines of work: Illness-, everyday- life and autobiographical work, the patient’s efforts towards sense-making and coming to terms with the conditions is isolated as an autonomous process. Thus, understanding and helping patients to overcome illness- and life challenges can free up energy and allow them to commence working towards reconstructing their lives (11).To facilitate this process, the field of psychotherapy highlights the importance of interpersonal skills such as empathy and warmth which can contribute to positive outcomes (12). In the case of Maria, it is therefore, important that we dare to ask and listen with compassion how she feels and facilitate a non-judgemental space for them to express themselves. Hence, by supporting the athletes in expressing their thoughts, emotions and stress, we can contribute to the processing of grief so athletes may accept the situation, which can be a hampering barrier of the transition out of the sport and move on in their life.

Moving on
CESI acts as a way of moving on to the next stage in an athlete’s life. However, when it is unpredicted, unplanned or unwanted, this can be overwhelming and lead to a feeling of losing control over their lives (8). In Maria’s case, the void after her CESI and the lack of support associated with this, was overwhelming and made it difficult for Maria to move on.
Especially, in these cases, we have to be careful and sensitive to the situation by not neglecting the athlete’s feelings and let this process proceed on their behave. We understand identity as socially constructed and we must be aware of the person’s identity as dynamic and subject to ongoing negation via interactions with others e.g. friends, peers, parents, clinicians and engaging in shared activities (13). Therefore, it is essential that the social support can alleviate planning for the future, which is essential for adjusting to the life after a CESI and develop a new identity inside (e.g. as a supporting coach) or outside of the sport by meaningful interacting with known groups in new ways or gaining new social groups (8).
This allows us to be curious about the athlete’s other interests in life and seek out new life opportunities, sports or non-sports related. In essence, this process might happen later in the process with great caution because career-ending injuries often happen unexpectedly, which makes their plan of life and future hopes and dreams fall to pieces. If so, we acknowledge and empathize with their situation. In doing so, we can try to support by resonating their strength and values and how it can favour them in the future.

Supporting an adolescent after a career ending sport injury is a complex task. It involves a delicate balance between focusing on the injury versus supporting the adolescent to transition into a new “world” where they are no longer primarily defined by being an athlete. The take-home message is that social support is an essential part of processing and transitioning after a CESI. The degree of social support can vary over time but is built on the foundation of a trusting therapeutic alliance. This includes compassion and supporting the adolescent to reconcile with their situation. When the athlete is ready to move on, they should be offered support and encouraged to plan the next stage of their life. Planning for the future is essential for moving on in life and may aid developing a new meaningful identity and social circles. This process is crucial to ensure their well-being and to adjust to their new identity and life. The adjustment is a complex process and the course of transition is highly individual. However, the team surrounding the adolescent athlete have an important task making sure that all focus is not only on the physical injury, but also on the psychosocial aspects of transitioning from sport.


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