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Heimler (2022) Exploring the Retirement Transitions of Professional Elite Male Rugby Players.pdf (1.85 MB)

Exploring the retirement transitions of professional elite male rugby players

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posted on 2022-07-04, 14:36 authored by Sabrina Heimler

Most research on athletic retirement to date has focused on developing models for or identifying specific causes or factors relevant to athletic retirement. However, such research provides only a limited understanding of athletes in their uniqueness, and of the meanings of their experiences and interactions with others and the environment (Lopez Frias and Edgar, 2016; Lopez Frias and Gimeno Monfort, 2016). This leaves a gap in research for providing a more rounded picture of athletes’ unique career journey experiences towards and beyond their retirement, in particular in a sport such as professional male rugby union with its strong power dynamics and deeply embedded sociocultural values (Chandler and Nauright, 1996; McKenna and Thomas, 2007). Accordingly, this research focused on the question: how do the lived experiences of professional elite male rugby union players during their careers shape their retirement transitions?

The research approach was aligned with a constructionist paradigm, while drawing on the perspectives of symbolic interactionism and hermeneutic phenomenology, to co-construct meaning as to how the participants’ lived experiences during their careers shaped their retirement transitions. The research involved in-depth interviews with 20 former elite male rugby union players who had played in the English Premiership. These interviews were inspired by and interpreted using the principles of hermeneutic phenomenology, in accordance with Gadamer’s (2002) hermeneutical notion of conversation and Ricoeur’s phenomenological hermeneutical interpretation theory (Ricoeur, 1976; Klemm, 1983; Lindseth and Norberg, 2004). The analysis involved reflections within a dialectical movement between the texts and a theoretical framework (Ricoeur, 1976; Sundin et al., 2001). This included the use of Goffman’s (1961; 1963) concepts of total institutions and stigma, supported by the contemporary symbolic interactionist concept of reinventive institutions (Scott, 2010; Scott, 2011), to give meaning to the participants’ texts in light of the research question.

The lived experiences of the participants showed that a mortification of selves took place during the players’ careers. This was caused by a process of continued and expanding personal, psychological and medical intrusion, along with peer pressure and surveillance. The processes and regimented practices used by the rugby institutions resembled those described in total institutions and reinventive institutions (Goffman, 1961; Scott, 2010; Scott, 2011). The effect of this environment was that players developed very strong athletic rugby identities, including a focus on playing rugby above everything else, embodying values of going into battle and sacrificing for the team, with limited or no engagement with support that could have helped them towards, during and beyond retirement. After retirement, the participants realised how much they were moulded by and reliant on the rugby institution’s structures. The removal of these structures worsened their feelings of being lost, lacking purpose and being socially isolated. The participants experienced stigmatisation due to rejection when trying to engage with the professional rugby world as if they were still active players. Their continued singular rugby identities rendered it difficult to engage with sources of support. This seemed to be further strengthened by the societal stigma of expecting the retired players not to show distress as this would not align with their “strong champion” identities (Cosh et al., 2015, p.43).

This research provides new insights into why elite male rugby union players may seemingly voluntarily continue with a career that can commodify them and can be harmful for their (long-term) health (Arvinen-Barrow et al., 2017; Murray et al., 2020). It expands the current understanding of the lived retirement experiences of elite male rugby union players within their relational and sociocultural contexts (McKenna and Thomas, 2007; Kanemasu and Molnar, 2014; Arvinen-Barrow et al., 2017) by showing how an institutionalising rugby career environment can have such a deep impact on a rugby player’s retirement transition – for example, by moulding a player during their career in such a way that they develop a singular rugby identity, which has the effect of limiting their adjustment to post-sport life and their engagement with support, as well as contributing to the stigmatic attributes they carry with them after retirement. The findings in this research suggests that to make a significant improvement to the uptake of support services before and after retirement would require changes to be made in sport institutions around the moulding of singular athletic identities during a sports career (Cosh, 2021). The research confirmed that the consideration of the relational and sociocultural contexts of athletic retirement transitions is an area ripe for further exploration (see Jones and Denison, 2017; Stamp et al., 2021), with potential to uncover new meanings in relation to athletes’ retirement experiences. Ultimately, this research may help inform debates around duty of care and ethics of care in sport in general and, in particular, in rugby union (Grey-Thompson, 2017; Fisher et al., 2019; Kohe and Purdy, 2020; Thornton, 2020; Gouttebarge et al., 2021).



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


Loughborough University

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© Sabrina Heimler

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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Christopher Cushion ; Joe Piggin ; Argyro Elisavet Manoli

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  • PhD

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  • Doctoral

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