Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was a Swiss psychiatrist who developed a five-stage grief model based off her work with terminally ill patients, and while the model has its criticisms (i.e. do all people follow a sequential model of grieving?), her theory continues to be widely used today. One application of the Kubler-Ross death and dying model is with sport retirement, as many athletes experience the stages outlined by Kubler-Ross. But before delving into sport retirement, it is important to have an basic understanding of her original theory outlining human grieving.
The Kubler-Ross model is still widely accepted today, and outlines five stages humans often experience when grieving the loss of a loved one. While she originally assumed that all people experience all five stages in a linear fashion, her later writings expanded on this idea and prompted Kubler-Ross to note that not all people experience all five stages, nor do all people follow the stages sequentially. The original Kubler-Ross model is presented below:
- Denial – The sudden state of shock learning of the passing of a loved one and realizing how different life has become.
- Anger – Experiencing the feelings of “why me?” and “life is not fair!” while trying to make sense of everything.
- Bargaining – People in this stage often make a deal with God that they will change and/or become a better person in some way if only things would turn around in a positive way.
- Depression – In this stage people sometimes withdraw from life, feel numb, and lose the motivation to do much of anything.
- Acceptance – Reality is accepted and changes are made to accommodate a future without the loved one.
One unexpected, yet quite useful way to apply the Kubler-Ross model is to the inevitable sport retirement transition that every athlete experiences. With roughly 95% of all athletes forced into sport retirement by the end of high school (and 98.5% retired by the end of college), it is important that we learn as much as we can about the psychosocial variables that mediate a successful transition from sports so that we can better assist athletes, especially with respect to their mental health.
Applying the Kubler-Ross model to sport retirement
While it is true that some athletes welcome sport retirement, many others do not. Sport retirement can be abrupt (i.e. an unexpected injury), occur too soon (i.e. before sport goals have been met), and isolating (i.e. athletes often experience the transition on their own). Below are common feelings and characteristics that map onto the Kubler-Ross model when applied to sport retirement:
- Denial – Many athletes struggle to accept the fact that they have been deselected (or cut) from a team, and as a result deny the experience has occurred. In these examples it is not uncommon to witness athletes “hang on” by means of playing their sport at a lower competitive level, or pursuing other non-traditional sport participation routes in order to keep the dream alive.
- Anger – Being released from a team can stir up anger, especially when athletes feel “politics” or other unfair practices are at the heart of the decision.
- Bargaining – Some athletes lean on their spiritual side when making deals with God that if given another chance they will take their opportunity more seriously.
- Depression – When it becomes clear that sport retirement is inevitable many athletes experience depression, anxiety, and possibly substance abuse and other potentially reckless behaviors.
- Acceptance – Athletes who accept their circumstances following sport retirement often begin to revisit their previous athlete-personal by means of speaking to groups of people, doing autograph signings, coaching and broadcasting, and engaging in other behaviors to help the next generation learn from their personal sport experiences.
While it is true that athletes experience sport retirement differently, the Kubler-Ross model provides for a general understanding of stages that athletes commonly experience while moving on from sports. Sport participation can be a consuming experience and a dominant part of a person’s life, making it easy to understand why the sport retirement transition can be difficult to prepare for and eventually resolve. It is for these reasons that parents, coaches, and sport administrators apply the Kubler-Ross model where appropriate to help athletes normalize their emotions and begin developing future plans after sports have ended.