CAREERS OF SWEDISH PROFESSIONAL HAND- BALL PLAYERS: FROM AN EMPIRICAL MODEL TO CAREER-LONG PSYCHOLOGICAL SUPPORT SERVICES - JOHAN EKENGREN - DIVA

 
Careers of Swedish Professional Hand-
ball Players: From an Empirical Model
to Career-Long Psychological Support
Services

Johan Ekengren

D O C T O R A L T H E S I S | Halmstad University Dissertations no. 75
Careers of Swedish Professional Handball Players: From an Empirical Model to Career-Long
Psychological Support Services
© Johan Ekengren
Halmstad University Dissertations no. 75
ISBN 978-91-88749-58-1 (printed)
ISBN 978-91-88749-59-8 (pdf)
Publisher: Halmstad University Press, 2020 | www.hh.se/hup
Printer: Media-Tryck, Lund

Cover photograph: Christoffer Borg Mattisson/Handbollslandslaget
Photograph back cover: Björn Melin
Abstract

Ekengren, Johan (2020). Careers of Swedish Professional Handball Players: From an Empirical Model
to Career-long Psychological Support Services. Halmstad University, Halmstad, Sweden.

   This PhD Project with a specialization in sport psychology is inspired by the cultural praxis of
athletes’ careers paradigm. This implies that the Project blends theory, research, and practice within
the context of Swedish handball, by investigating career pathways of professional players providing
empirically based, and context specific, implications. The overarching aim of the Project is twofold:
(a) to examine the career experiences of Swedish professional handball players and consolidate them
into the empirical career model of Swedish professional handball players (ECM-H), and (b) based on
the ECM-H, to develop, validate, and test an applied framework promoting career-long psychological
support services in Swedish handball (CPS-H).
   The first aim is covered by Study I and II, and the second aim is met in Study III and IV. The
dissertation is designed as a collection of four articles with one article per study. Study I focused on a
qualitative exploration of career experiences from 18 Swedish professional handball players including
major career stages and transitions in their athletic and non-athletic development. The players’
accounts were consolidated into the ECM-H describing the context-specific features and pathways
throughout the handball career. When developing the ECM-H, gender-specific issues appeared of
interest for further investigation. Gender issues were addressed in Study II by re-analyzing the data
from Study I. Two composite vignettes were created describing the career pathways of nine male and
nine female players. Study III initiated a move from research to practice. Based on the ECM-H,
applied sport psychology literature and experiences of the research team led by the first author, the
applied framework CPS-H was heuristically developed and validated in three focus groups with end
users; professional players, coaches, and sport psychology practitioners. The validated version of the
CPS-H is presented with general and career stage-specific recommendations for its implementation
among support providers (i.e., where, when, what, who, why, and how of psychological support
service). Study IV was designed as an instrumental case study for testing a part of the CPS-H
framework. More specifically, the mastery career stage. A career assistance program (CAP) named
Life as a professional handball player was developed for, implemented with, and evaluated by a
Swedish League team. The program included eight workshops dealing with various aspects of the
players’ athletic and non-athletic life (e.g., performance, training, lifestyle, recovery, future planning),
together with crisis-related issues (e.g., coping with uncertainty). These workshops were delivered by
the first author during 12 weeks of a competitive season. The mixed-methods evaluation revealed a
perceived improvement in players’ personal coping resources (e.g., increased awareness) and a
decrease in their fatigue and stress.
    This Project contributes to the athlete career sport psychology discourse and the emerging athlete
mental health discourse by presenting the ECM-H and CPS-H frameworks, and the CAP Life as a
professional handball player, grounded in the cultural context of Swedish handball. The frameworks
and CAP can serve as inspiration for future research and practice, informed by a cultural praxis. The
Project shows the usefulness of working as a scientist-practitioner and establishing theory-research-
practice-context links for the promotion of culturally informed implications, and supports the work of
facilitating a holistic understanding of athletes’ striving for healthy, successful, and long-lasting
careers in sport and life.

Keywords: Career assistance program, Career development, Career transitions, Cultural praxis,
Empirical career model, Handball.
Sammanfattning

Ekengren, Johan (2020). Careers of Swedish professional handball players: From an empirical model
to career-long psychological support services. Halmstad University.

    Aktuell doktorsavhandling med specialisering i idrottspsykologi har inspirerats av the cultural
praxis of athletes’ careers paradigm. Det innebär att avhandlingen blandar teori, forskning och praktik
utifrån ett kulturellt sammanhang, i detta fall, svensk handboll. Vidare beskrivs professionella
handbollsspelares karriärvägar med koppling till tillämpad idrottspsykologi. Projektets övergripande
syfte är tvåfaldigt: (a) att beskriva svenska professionella handbollsspelare karriärupplevelser och
sammanföra spelarnas berättelser till den empiriska karriärmodellen över svenska professionella
handbollsspelare (ECM-H), och (b) att med hjälp av ECM-H utveckla, validera och testa ett tillämpat
ramverk som främjar ett karriärlångt psykologiskt stödsystem inom svensk handboll (CPS-H). Det
första syftet omfattas av Studie I och II, och det andra av Studie III och IV. Avhandlingen består av
fyra artiklar, en per studie. Studie I har en kvalitativ ansats och fokuserar på att beskriva 18 svenska
professionella handbollsspelare karriärupplevelser, med fokus på avgörande händelser och övergångar
i spelarnas utveckling, i och utanför idrotten. Spelarnas berättelser sammanfogades till ECM-H som
beskrev kontextspecifika mönster och vägar i deras karriär. Vid utvecklingen av ECM-H framkom
tydliga könsskillnader mellan spelarnas karriärer, dessa var av intresse för fortsatta studier. I Studie II
genomfördes en ny analys och presentation av intervjuerna från Studie I. Den manliga och kvinnliga
karriären framställs utifrån två sammansatta porträtt (vinjetter) som beskriver karriärvägar för nio
manliga och nio kvinnliga spelare. I samband med Studie III skiftar avhandlingen fokus från teori till
praktik. Baserat på ECM-H, litteratur inom idrottspsykologi och författarens erfarenheter från
tillämpat arbete i idrottspsykologi, utvecklades en tillämpat ramverk. Ramverket validerades i tre olika
fokusgrupper som kan tänkas använda stödsystemet. Dessa bestod av professionella spelare, tränare
och idrottspsykologiska rådgivare. I den tredje artikeln presenteras den validerade versionen av CPS-H
med allmänna och specifika rekommendationer vid olika karriärsteg och dess implementering.
Frågorna som besvaras är kopplade till var, när, vad, vem, varför och hur det psykologiskt stödet kan
tillämpas. Studie IV utformades som en fallstudie. I denna testades den del av CPS-H, som
uppmärksammar det högsta karriärstadiet. Stödsystemet Life as a professional handball player
utvecklades för, implementerades med och utvärderades av ett svenskt elitserielag. Åtta workshops
med olika tema hämtade från spelarnas vardag (t.ex. prestation, träning, livsstil, återhämtning,
planering, hantering av oväntade förändringar i klubben/laget) och levererades under 12 veckors av en
tävlingssäsong. Utvärderingen visade att spelarna upplevde en ökning av sina personliga resurser
(karriärmedvetenhet) och en minskning av upplevd stress och trötthet.
    Aktuell avhandling bidrar till att stärka idrottspsykologisk karriärforskning och den framväxande
litteraturen kring idrottsutövares mentala hälsa genom att presentera ramverken ECM-H och CPS-H,
samt karriärstödsprogram Life as a professional handball player som är tänkt att inspirera till framtida
användning inom forskning och praktik. Avhandlingen har inspirerats av the cultural praxis paradigm
och arbetet som tillämpad forskare, bägge ses som användbara ramverk för att åstadkomma länkar
mellan teori-forskning-praktik och underlätta en helhetsförståelse av idrottarnas strävan efter
hälsosamma, framgångsrika och långvariga karriärer inom idrott och i livet.

Nyckelord: Empirisk karriärmodell, Handboll, Karriärutveckling, Karriärövergångar, Stödsystem.
List of Scientific Articles

This dissertation is based on the following studies, referred to in the text by their Roman numerals.

    I.   Ekengren, J., Stambulova, N., Johnson, U., & Carlsson, I-M. (2018). Exploring career
         experiences of Swedish professional handball players: Consolidating first-hand
         information into an empirical career model, International Journal of Sport and
         Exercise Psychology, 18(2), 156-175.
         https://doi.org/10.1080/1612197X.2018.1486872

    II. Ekengren, J., Stambulova, N., Johnson, U., Carlsson, I-M., & Ryba, T. V. (2020).
        Composite vignettes of Swedish male and female professional handball players’
        career paths, Sport in Society, 23(4), 595-612.
        https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2019.1599201

    III. Ekengren, J., Stambulova, N., & Johnson, U. (2020b). Toward the career-long
         psychological support services: Insights from Swedish handball. Journal of Sport
         Psychology in Action. https://doi.org/10.1080/21520704.2020.1826615

    IV. Ekengren, J., Stambulova, N., Johnson, U., Ivarsson, A., & Schinke, R. J. (in press).
        Career assistance to the team in crisis-transition: An intervention case study in
        Swedish elite handball. Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology.
Contents

Introduction .............................................................................................................................. 11
Definition of Key Terms .......................................................................................................... 13
    Career .................................................................................................................................. 13
    Athletic Career .................................................................................................................... 13
    Dual Career ......................................................................................................................... 14
    Career Transitions ............................................................................................................... 14
    Culture ................................................................................................................................. 14
    Cultural Sport Psychology and Cultural Praxis of Athletes’ Careers ................................. 15
    Health and Mental health .................................................................................................... 15
    Lifestyle ............................................................................................................................... 15
    Athlete Career Excellence ................................................................................................... 16
    Career Assistance Programs ................................................................................................ 16
PhD Project Background.......................................................................................................... 17
Theoretical Frameworks .......................................................................................................... 19
    Holistic Athletic Career Model ........................................................................................... 19
    The Athletic Career Transition Model ................................................................................ 21
    Holistic Ecological Approach ............................................................................................. 22
    The Dual Continua Model of Mental Health and Mental Illness ........................................ 22
    The Scientist-Practitioner Model ........................................................................................ 23
Research ................................................................................................................................... 25
    Career Development Research ............................................................................................ 25
    Career Transition Research ................................................................................................. 26
         Junior-to-Senior Transition ............................................................................................ 26
         Cultural Transition.......................................................................................................... 28
         Athletic Retirement ........................................................................................................ 28
    Elite Athlete Mental Health Research Related to Career Issues ......................................... 29
Practice ..................................................................................................................................... 31
    Career Assistance Programs ................................................................................................ 31
Career Assistance: Toward Career-Long Psychological Support Services ........................ 32
Context ..................................................................................................................................... 33
    Swedish Handball Context .................................................................................................. 33
Rationale for, aims, and structure of the PhD Project.............................................................. 35
    Overall and Specific Aims .................................................................................................. 35
         Positioning of Studies I-IV within the athlete career sport psychology discourse ......... 35
Participants, Ethical, and Methodological Considerations ...................................................... 37
The Empirical Studies .............................................................................................................. 42
General Discussion .................................................................................................................. 48
    Theoretical Contribution ..................................................................................................... 48
    Empirical Contribution ........................................................................................................ 49
    Applied Contribution........................................................................................................... 51
    Methodological Reflections, Ethical Reflections, and Limitations..................................... 52
    Practical Implications and Future Research ........................................................................ 55
    Conclusions and Personal Reflections ................................................................................ 59
Acknowledgements .................................................................................................................. 61
References ................................................................................................................................ 62
Appendices ............................................................................................................................... 71
Original Studies I-IV................................................................................................................ 82
Abbreviations

ACD       Athlete career sport psychology discourse
CAP       Career assistance program
CPS-H     Career-long psychological support services in Swedish handball
ECM-H     Empirical career model of Swedish professional handball players
FEPSAC    European Federation of Sport Psychology;
          Fédération Européenne de Psychologie des Sports et des Activités Corporelles
HB        Handball
ISSP      The International Society of Sport Psychology
IOC       International Olympic Committee
JST       Junior-to-senior transition
PRO       Professional
RIG/NIU   National elite sports schools in upper secondary education
          RIG (National elite sports gymnasiums): The overarching aim is to provide the
          combination of elite sports with the pursuit of secondary education (a dual
          career), and that players reach an international career as a professional handball
          player. The requirements for social care are higher within RIG than within
          NIU, RIG-schools provide provision of accommodation and the boarding of
          pupils. The Swedish Handball Federation oversees one RIG-school with a total
          of 48 student-athletes.
          NIU (Nationally approved sports programs): The overarching aim is to provide
          a dual career development, and that players reach a national career as an elite
          handball player. The Swedish Handball Federation oversees 37 NIU-schools
          with approximately 1,150 student-athletes.
SPP       Sport psychology practitioner
WHO       World Health Organization
11

Introduction

    I would like to start this introductory chapter of my compilation thesis with a presentation of my
background. My educational background includes a master’s degree in sport psychology, with a thesis
focusing on the youth-to-senior transition in the Swedish national team in handball (Ekengren, 2002).
The paper was one of the first on career transitions in Sweden and then, as now, Professor Natalia
Stambulova was my supervisor. Maybe I should have perceived that the step to research was not that
great, but at that time Halmstad University lacked a PhD-education with a specialization in sport
psychology. So I decided to pursue a career in applied sport psychology. I completed the advanced
level course in applied sport psychology that gave competency to work as a sport psychology
practitioner (SPP), which I worked as while closely collaborating with the Swedish Handball
Federation and a few handball teams at the elite level. My efforts resulted in part-time employment at
the federation, which since 2011 has included work as the SPP of the men’s national team. Some years
into my applied work I received an undergraduate diploma in cognitive behavioral psychotherapy
from The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences (GIH), which further strengthened my skills. I
pursued my work that, among others, included the Olympic preparations leading into London 2012,
the preparation and on-site work at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics 2016, and the European
Championship in Sweden 2020. These were remarkable learning experiences for me. In hindsight best
described as emotional rollercoasters for both the team and me. I learned how to navigate unexplored
land in quite rough terrain (performance set-backs, conflicts, crisis) together with world-class elite
athletes striving towards a rich and meaningful life. At first I was convinced that the journey was
about winning medals, but then I realized that the core is about building relationships and develop
individuals both as athletes and as persons. I am grateful for experiencing the ups and downs on and
off court. The choice of sport was natural considering my upbringing that included playing and
coaching handball. I began coaching children in my late teens and continued over the years. After
receiving the highest Swedish coaching education, I worked as a coach (e.g., at a national elite sports
school, in the men’s league, and in the Swedish junior national team) in parallel with my SPP work. I
still coach on a large scale, in recent years as a nonprofit coach for my daughters’ separate teams and
in the Swedish Handball Federation player education. My background has been a resource when
completing the PhD Project.
    My vast experience throughout the years as a sports practitioner (player, coach, and SPP) included
a lot of bright moments. But I had also experienced too many examples of coaches’, club
representatives’, and parents’ rash and ill-considered decisions in the hunt for early or quick success
(victories in matches). This concern which I carried is also addressed by Barker et al. (2014) when
they discuss the importance of a sustainable approach in elite sports, with a focus on long-term gain
together with athletes’ welfare instead of the more common “wear and tear” approach. In repetitive
cases, I meet players of nearly all ages who suffered and terminated their handball career prematurely.
These players’ often took the involuntary and for them inevitable decision to terminate because they
did not cope with the culture in elite sports (e.g., win at all costs). Several of them experienced toxic
environments in which young players were at the risk of being seen as exchangeable, often from de-
selection and injuries. I perceived that the players’ were vulnerable due to various reasons, for
example, that coaches had a limited whole person perspective: in which the majority of coaches
thought they foremost coached a sport, when they primary coached a person. Further examples were
the results focus, lack of individual development plans, and vague long-term goals, together with
stakeholders’ limited coordination and communication. As a consequence, these players were at risk
and also experiencing mental illness and difficulties in the transition to post-sports life due to, for
example, a loss of identity and social support. I became aware of these players in multiple ways; in my
12

role as a SPP when players came for treatment, when I educated in the Swedish Handball Federation
coach education and heard stories that circulated between coaches, and as a coach visiting and
observing different sporting environments. Being an insider, I understood the culture but I did not
welcome it, and it was hard to witness the dark side of handball. At the same time it wasn’t only about
those who suffered, I felt that I needed to promote mental health and target a broader part of the
population. The situation made me realize that Swedish handball should benefit from a clearer
developmental and holistic perspective in supporting players from the beginning and to the end of
careers, including identifying what to work on as a practitioner and when in different career stages.
Given my position, I felt it was a responsibility to take; to develop a support service throughout the
career, including a focus on athletes’ mental health.
    Athlete mental health is an emerging discourse in sport psychology. Recently, three consensus
statements that provide an evidence-based approach to the particular mental health issues found
among elite athlete have been published (Henriksen, Schinke, Moesch et al., 2020; Henriksen,
Schinke, McCann et al., 2020; Reardon et al., 2019). Three position statements by the Canadian
Centre for Mental Health and Sport (Van Slingerland et al., 2019), FEPSAC (Moesch et al., 2018),
and ISSP (Schinke et al., 2018) paid attention to and brought the discussions on athlete mental health
forward. The presented proposals and recommendations aim to understand and improve the mental
health of high performance athletes. The mental health discussion also became apparent from the
COVID-19 pandemic, which made athletes experienced crisis and ruined their career and life plans.
Athletes described their situation during the pandemic with increasing stress responses, including
decreased sleep and appetite, increased rumination, loneliness, and fear (Schinke et al., 2020;
Stambulova et al., 2020). For me, some of the descriptions, even if they described a crisis, were
comparable with everyday stories from players life as a professional athletes. These emphasize the
stressful life of elite athletes and the challenge that athletic careers today are: “so intense that athletes
are almost always in one or several simultaneous athletic and non-athletic transitions” (Schinke et al.,
2018, p. 632). Altogether, mental health is a core component of a culture of excellence, and also a
major resource for the whole athletic career and life career (Henriksen, Schinke, Moesch et al., 2020,
p. 553). I experienced a gap in Swedish handball because mental health was seldom discussed, neither
as a resource nor as an outcome among sports practitioners in Swedish clubs.
    My experiences on and off court motivated me to return to academia to conduct sport psychology
career research. Through my supervisor Professor Natalia Stambulova, I received a PhD education
grant from the Swedish Research Council for Sport Science, and joined Halmstad University’s PhD
program in 2015 My aim was to conduct the Project with an applied perspective, and in the end
improve the psychological support.
    In the recent decades, scholars in athlete career sport psychology discourse have researched and
advantageously described career development, career transition, and career assistance. I continued the
work in this Project. The overall aim is to examine career experiences of Swedish professional
handball players and to develop, validate, and test an applied framework that addresses athletic and
non-athletic needs in various career stages. The Project also includes the progression from theory to
practice within the discourse. The first two studies cover career experiences and the most common
pathways for professional handball players. This is done by an empirical career model and then by
composite vignettes of male and female players’ career pathways. The two latter studies focus on
applied work from developing and validating the career-long psychological support services in
Swedish handball (CPS-H). From that framework a career assistance program (CAP) is developed,
implemented, and evaluated with a Swedish elite team. The Project contributes with theoretical,
empirical, and applied findings to the field of career research. It has the potential to guide and inspire
players, coaches, and SPP. Sports can transform lives for better or worse. I truly hope the Project will
guide players and sport practitioners for the better, striving for healthy, successful and long-lasting
careers in sports and life.
13

Definition of Key Terms

   To enhance the understanding of this PhD Project (further the Project), I will define major key
terms that are used, these include: career, athletic career, dual career, career transitions, culture, sport
psychology and cultural praxis of athletes’ careers, health and mental health, lifestyle, athlete career
excellence, career assistance programs.

Career
    In a broader sense, the term covers a person’s lifelong development with an emphasis on learning
experiences and progression in life (i.e., a life career). Life career is defined as “an individual’s life-
long development and achievements in various activities and spheres of life that unfold in a particular
historical and sociocultural context” (Stambulova, 2014, p. 110). Based on this definition, each person
has just one career that is dynamic (i.e., implying continuity and change) and holistic (i.e., embracing
different spheres of life). In a narrower and more specific sense, a career is understood as someone’s
evolution in work/an occupation/activity that is meaningful for the person and important within related
sociocultural and historical contexts (e.g., working career, academic career, athletic career). Derived
from this definition, people have simultaneously and/or consequently several specific careers and try
to balance them in life, space, and time (e.g., dual career in sport and education or work). The specific
careers are typically multiyear and aimed at developing related competences, demonstrating
achievements, and earning rewards (Stambulova, 1994; Stambulova & Wylleman, 2014). External or
objective measures of specific careers are related to changes in occupational (for athletes in athletic)
status, social recognition, and monetary rewards, whereas internal or subjective career measures are
relevant to changes in competences and identity development (Stambulova, 2016). Both a life career
and each specific career can be described as having a number of stages and career transitions.

Athletic Career
    The athletic career is seen as an integrated part of a career. The term athletic career is defined from
different but complementing perspectives. First, it is seen as “a multiyear competitive sport
involvement voluntarily chosen by an athlete and aimed at achieving a personal individual peak in
athletic performance in one or several sport events” (Stambulova, 2014, p. 110). Athletic careers relate
to all levels of competitive sports, from local to international. Depending on the athlete’s status, the
career can be amateur or professional; international level amateur and professional careers are also
called elite careers (Alfermann & Stambulova, 2007; Stambulova et al., 2009). Second, an athletic
career is defined as “a succession of stages and transitions that includes an athlete’s initiation into and
continued participation in organized competitive sports and that is terminated with the athlete’s
(in)voluntary but definitive discontinuation of participation in organized competitive sport”
(Wylleman, Theeboom et al., 2004, p. 511). Third, the athletic career is seen as “a part of, and a
contribution to, an athlete’s life career” (Stambulova, 2014, p. 110) expanding the meaning of athletes’
experiences from doing sports for the sake of sports to doing sports for the sake of sports and life.
14

Dual Career
    Dual career is defined as “a career with major foci on sport and studies or work” (Stambulova &
Wylleman, 2015, p. 1). Dual career in sports encapsulates the requirement for “athletes to successfully
initiate, develop, and finalize an elite sporting career as part of a lifelong career, in combination with
the pursuit of education and/or work” (European Commission, 2012, p. 6).
    The Swedish Sports Confederation and the Swedish Handball Federation (further the handball
federation) have certified 38 national elite sports schools in upper secondary education. Student-
athletes within these schools are given the opportunity to practice handball both in educational settings
during daytime and in a handball club during evenings. The student-athletes have supportive
conditions at school (e.g., flexible schedules, experienced coaches, expert and teacher support) helping
them to develop as athletes, students, and individuals.

Career Transitions
    In counselling psychology, a transition is defined as “…an event or non-event [that] results in a
change in assumptions about oneself and the world, and thus requires a corresponding change in one’s
behavior and relationships” (Schlossberg, 1981, p. 5). In sport psychology, career transitions are seen
as turning phases in athletes’ development characterized by “a set of specific demands related to
practice, competitions, communication, and lifestyle that athletes have to cope with to continue
successfully in sports or to adjust to the post-career” (Alfermann & Stambulova, 2007, p. 713). The
latest taxonomy of career transitions (Stambulova et al., 2020) is based on their relative predictability
and consists of: normative, generally predictable for athletes, for example, the junior-to-senior
transition or athletic retirement; non-normative, less predictable, for example, injury or deselection,
and quasi-normative, predictable for certain groups of athletes, for example, cultural transition or dual
career transition to the university. Regardless of in which sphere of life the transition is initiated (e.g.,
sport, education, work, family), concomitant changes in other spheres of life are inevitable (Wylleman,
2019).

Culture
    Cultural and cross-cultural psychology are two main approaches in analyzing the influence of
culture upon human behavior and development. Both emphasize the importance of a culture as “a
dynamic system of customary rules and expectations shared by a group of people and incorporating
the beliefs, attitudes, norms, social practices, and organizations of that group” (Best & Foster, 2004, p.
51). Cultural psychology claims that cultural context creates meaning; thus, human behavior is context
specific and should be studied within culture, not comparatively between cultures. This view (also
called emic) advocates that culture is mostly inside people and influences how they think and behave.
Cross-cultural psychology compares human behavior and experiences in different cultures. This view
(also called etic) postulates that culture is outside people and plays the role of an environmental
context for their experiences (e.g., Stambulova et al., 2009).
    Cultural sport psychology scholars promote a focus on the differences and diversities in elite sports
contexts, often with the intention to better understand and embrace the complexity and fluidness
within elite sports (Blodgett et al., 2011; McGannon & Schinke, 2017; Smith & Sparkes, 2008).
McGannon and Smith (2015) pointed out the benefits of cultural awareness, “because culture shapes
how we think, feel, and behave; we cannot step outside culture, thus to ignore it would be to miss a
key matter that shapes people’s self-identities and lives” (p.79).
15

Cultural Sport Psychology and Cultural Praxis of Athletes’ Careers
   Cultural praxis of athletes’ careers is a relatively new paradigm in the athlete career sport
psychology discourse defined as blending theory, research, and practice with the sociocultural and
sporting contexts the athletes belong to, and from this integration developing context-driven career
research and assistance (Stambulova & Ryba, 2013; 2014). The cultural praxis of athletes’ careers is
also seen as a set of challenges for career researchers and practitioners, including: the holistic lifespan
and ecological perspectives, contextualization of career projects and researchers’ cultural awareness
and reflexivity, studying transnational and minority athletes, exploring individual career trajectories,
and developing participatory action research and multicultural consulting (see also Stambulova, 2020).

Health and Mental health
    The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental,
and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 2020, p. 1). Mental
health is perceived as an integral and essential part of health, and the WHO emphasizes that there is no
health without mental health defined as “a state of well-being, in which an individual realizes his or
her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make
a contribution to his or her community” (WHO, 2018, March 30).
    In line with the above, athlete career researchers consider mental health as the foremost resource
for athletes’ career development and performance, whereas poor mental health is seen as a barrier for
athletic and personal development and performance (e.g., Henriksen, Schinke, Moesch et al., 2020;
Schinke et al., 2018). Henriksen, Schinke, Moesch and colleagues (2020) highlighted that “athletes
with good mental health stand a better chance of performing well, particularly over the long term, and
have a reduced risk of experiencing career-ending issues” (p. 556).
    A highlighted concern is that mental health statistics in sports could be under-reported due to the
athletic culture that emphasizes toughness and the minimization of perceived or communicated
weakness (Roberts et al., 2016; Uphill et al., 2016). Henriksen, Schinke, McCann and colleagues
(2020) emphasized the important role culture of a sport, team or club plays in maintaining or breaking
down stigma around mental health, and conclude in their consensus statement that the stigma around
mental health remains evident among high performance athletes and their environments. The core
trouble with stigma is that athletes with mental health problems could refuse to seek help and instead
trying to “be strong alone”, which can aggravate the condition. Carrying out the image of being strong
and successful may work as a barrier that prevents athletes from reporting and searching for help with
mental health problems (Glick & Horsfall, 2009; Roberts et al., 2016).

Lifestyle
   From the common sense view, lifestyle is the structure of an individual’s everyday life determined
by personal preferences and environmental influences. Dean et al., (1995) defined lifestyle as a
sociocultural phenomenon and argue that patterns of behavior interact with the situational context to
create a lifestyle that is a way of living, which is partly different/unique and partly similar with the
people around. The WHO defined lifestyles as “patterns of (behavioral) choices from the alternatives
that are available to people according to their socio-economic circumstances and the ease with which
they are able to choose certain ones over others” (WHO, 1986, p. 118). The WHO continues that
“behavioral practices are shaped by values and beliefs learned in cultural settings, and by opportunities
and constraints defined by specific social and economic situations” (p. 846). A healthy lifestyle
reduces risk of health problems, and is a valuable resource for recovery, coping with stress and
improving quality of life (WHO, 2003).
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Athlete Career Excellence
    Athletes’ mental health is not only seen as a major resource for career development but also as an
outcome of sports organizations and sports environments, because they can nourish or malnourish
athletes’ mental health (Henriksen, Schinke, Moesch et al., 2020; Stambulova et al., 2020). Increasing
overlaps between the athlete’s career and athlete mental health discourses in sport psychology led
career scholars to introduce a concept of athlete career excellence, which is defined as “an athlete’s
ability to sustain healthy, successful, and long-lasting career in sport and life.” (Stambulova et al.,
2020, p. 14) In this definition, healthy means high resourcefulness and adaptability (i.e., coping with
career demands while adding to the individual resources), successful means athletes’ striving for
achieving meaningful goals in sports and life while satisfying basic psychological needs and
maintaining health and well-being, and long-lasting means sustainability and longevity in sports and
life. Career excellence is not a destination to reach, but more a journey to, or process of, striving for it,
in which athletes might need support. “Helping athletes to strive for career excellence can be seen as a
target for career assistance” (Stambulova et al., 2020, p. 14).

Career Assistance Programs
    Career assistance programs (CAPs) are described as “integrated and comprehensive combinations
of workshops, seminars, educational modules, individual counselling, and/or a referral network
providing individualized and/or group-oriented multidisciplinary support services to athletes with
regard to their athletic participation, developmental and lifestyle issues, and educational and
vocational development” (Wylleman, Theeboom et al., 2004, p. 511). The CAPs typically adopt the
preventive/supportive perspective aimed at enhancing athletes’ awareness and readiness for
forthcoming or current transition demands and develop resources for effective coping. Some CAPs
also offer clinical psychological services helping athletes to deal with, for example, crisis situations,
psychosomatic illnesses, and depression. Torregrossa et al. (2020) provided a taxonomy of CAPs with
the intention of analyzing their singularities. The authors categorized the different CAPs in three
categories: Holistic CAPs for elite athletes, Sport specific CAPs for professional athletes, and Dual
CAPs for student-athletes.
    The long-term development program “Masia 360°” is an example of a CAP for professional
athletes, and is delivered in FC Barcelona. The project brings together over 600 athletes from the clubs
five professional sections; football, basketball, roller hockey, handball and futsal, plus coaches,
teachers and relatives. Under the motto: “creating people through sport”, is the aim to apply the clubs’
multidisciplinary knowledge and assist the clubs athletes, trainers, coaching staff, families and
stakeholders toward reasserting FC Barcelona’s position as a global trendsetter. (FC Barcelona, 2016,
October 26). The team of professionals in the program support with for example, career planning, dual
career support, psychological care, family and environment care, and professional retirement
guidance. The program is holistic and assist athletes from the point when they enter the club and
progress until retirement (FC Barcelona, 2016, October 26).
    Another example of a CAP for professional athletes is “Athlete365”, an IOC initiative created by
athletes, for athletes. Since 2018 has the initiative supported athletes throughout their journey in sport
on and off the field. The aim is to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and well-being
among elite athletes. The program is connected to IOCs dedication to improve the mental health of
elite athletes. In their ambition, strives IOC to reduce elite athletes suffering, improve their quality of
life, and serve as a role model for society at large (Reardon et al., 2019). The work has been
emphasized for example, by using the hashtag #mentallyfit, and publishing the paper “Mental health
in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement (2019)” (Reardon et al., 2019).
The consensus statement summarized specific mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes
based on diagnostic criteria in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5”.
Altogether, Athlete365 provides tools, services, and a global network to help athletes to express their
needs and tackle the challenges that come with competing at the elite level (International Olympic
Committee, 2020).
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PhD Project Background

    The ISSP published recently a comprehensive update of the position stand on career development
and transitions of athletes (Stambulova et al., 2020) where the authors’ describe the current structure
of the athlete career sport psychology discourse (ACD), including recent and emerging trends in career
development, career transition, and career assistance. The discourse has developed during the last five
decades and was summarized by Stambulova and Ryba in their review article (2014) and has been
complimented by work in sport psychology during the last decade. The ACD was defined as the
shared body of athlete career knowledge, containing basic assumptions, definitions, and values that
social groups in the culture share and which provide people with common grounds to understand each
other (Stambulova & Ryba, 2014). Knowledge and mutual understanding of the ACD can guide career
researchers and practitioners and nourish their cooperation. The emerging trends in career assistance
such as, athlete career excellence, career-long psychological support services, and mental health
discourse (Stambulova et al., 2020) are of special interest for the present Project and how the Project
links to the current structure of the ACD is described in Figure 5.
    As mentioned, the athlete career sport psychology discourse has evolved since the 1960s.
Stambulova et al. (2020) describes the current ACD as having three stages; initiation, development,
and establishment. In the initiation of the discourse, the focus was on athletic retirement from
competitive sports, and also on the rate of clinical and subclinical problems among athletes connected
to the termination. The findings from pioneer research by Mihovilovic (1968) described sport
retirement by former Yugoslavian elite football players being experienced as a painful event, marked
by conflicts and feelings of frustration. The findings showed that the players felt neglected and
abandoned after retiring, and held on to their active careers as long as possible and then attempted to
shift to coaching roles at various competition levels. The ACD’s initiation stage was influenced by
thanatology, the study of the dying process, and social gerontology, the study of the ageing process. In
these early years termination was seen as a singular event comparable to retirement from the work
force, or to the process of dying, the term social death was commonly used by researchers (Rosenberg,
1984). Further, researchers perceived athletic termination as a negative experience that for some
athletes included alcohol and substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, decreased self-confidence,
loss of identity (Stambulova et al., 2020; Wylleman et al., 2015; Mihovilovic, 1968). Altogether
symptoms require considerable adjustment and can result in clinical issues.
    The focus within the discourse shifted in the 1980s to include a transition perspective. Schlossberg
(1981) contributed to deliver a more positive view of (athletic) retirement. Schlossberg realized that
individuals differ in their ability to adapt to change and her work aimed to better understand and cope
with transitions and their challenges. One step was developing the human adaptation to the transition
model, with a description of major sets of factors that influence adaptation or failure to adapt to a
transition. Another step was to describe four major set of factors (4 S’s) that influence the individual’s
ability to cope during the transition process; (a) the situation, including how the person perceives the
transition, often depending on what is happening and in what context, (b) the self, to whom the
transition is happening, including what the individual brings to the transition, this variable addresses
the individual’s profile from for example gender, socioeconomic status, state of health, and
personality, (c) the support, including available help such as social support, (d) the strategies,
including how the person copes and for example seeks information or direct action strategies
(Anderson et al., 2011; Schlossberg, 2008). The described sets of variables might aid or encumber
depending on their interrelationship and how the individual assesses them. In later studies,
Schlossberg declared that “the process of leaving one set of roles, relationships, routines, and
assumptions and establishing new one takes time” (Schlossberg, 2011, p. 160). Further, in the
18

discourse’s development stage, Coakley (1983) started to use the term social rebirth instead of the
former social death, arguing that retirement was a part of a life course, and that disengagement from
athletics may serve positive functions as well as the earlier negative. In this era, the first CAPs were
developed with the aim to guide athletes to a smoother transition out of sports and to help retired
athletes adjust to a life after sports mainly by providing job opportunities (Petitpas et al., 1992).
    The researchers and practitioners within the ACD adjusted their focus in the 1990s development
stage, this included a lifespan perspective and studying a whole career from beginning to end. An
athletic career became viewed as a part of, and a contribution to, a life career (Stambulova &
Wylleman, 2014), and transitions as a process in contrast to the early view as a singular event. Athletic
retirement was still at the forefront in the literature but within-career transitions were emerging for
example, the junior-to-senior transition. In the same era, an interest arose to develop sport-specific
frameworks to use both in research and applied work. One example is Stambulova’s analytic
description model (1994); describing predictable stages of development that athletes need to transition
through. Each stage included difficulties that the athlete must identify and resolve. The so-called crisis
periods of the sports career were initially termed; (a) The beginning of sports specialization, (b) The
transition to special intensive training in the chosen sport, (c) The transition from mass popular sports
to high-achievement sports (d) The transition from junior sports to adult sports, (e) The transition from
amateur sports to professional sports, (f) The transition from the culmination to the end of the SC, (g)
The end of the sports career. Stambulova (1994) stated the need to create a continuous system of
psychological assistance to the athlete in these different sports career periods.
    From the new millennium, the ACD has gained widespread attention, and has substantially grown,
with a heightened focus on both athletic and non-athletic development; termed as a holistic approach.
Wylleman and colleagues (2013) developed the holistic athletic career model, which emphasize the
multidimensional view on athlete developments (see Figure 1). The authors highlighted that changes
in one development inevitably lead to changes in the other development layers. This holistic view
includes (a) conceptualizing an athlete as a whole person, meaning that the athlete does sports together
with other life matters such as studies, work, and family (Wylleman et al., 2013). And (b) including
the whole environment and its interacting micro and macro levels as well as athletic and non-athletic
domains (Henriksen, 2010; Henriksen & Stambulova, 2017). The holistic view was complemented by
the latest paradigm in the most recent shift; cultural praxis of athletes’ careers (Stambulova & Ryba,
2013), in which the researchers consider careers in context, and emphasize the importance of
culturally informed research and practice. Each study in the Project works from the holistic
perspective and also highlights a cultural awareness and reflexivity in line with the cultural praxis. The
challenge to be aware and reflexive in the project is met by bridging theory and practice, and blending
these concepts with the athletes’ sociocultural and sporting contexts. From this integration context-
driven career research and assistance are developed (Stambulova & Ryba, 2013; 2014). Stambulova
and Ryba highlighted the need for more contextualized and culturally competent career projects,
which blend theory/research, applied work, and lived culture into cultural praxis. Hence the present
project answers this call by including the holistic lifespan perspective and ecological perspectives, and
exploring individual career trajectories. The Project is completed with the development of a CAP that
will contribute to athlete career excellence (Stambulova et al., 2020). The logic of the literature review
below is inspired by definition of the cultural praxis of athletes’ careers with consideration of the
Project-relevant theories, research, practice, and context followed by description of the Project
rationale, aims and structure.
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Theoretical Frameworks

    The Project is informed by cultural praxis of athletes’ careers (Stambulova & Ryba, 2013) and the
foundation of the current structure of the ACD (Stambulova et al., 2020), including the defined major
conceptualizations: (a) viewing the athlete as a whole person that has other interests in life such as
studies and family and in addition to that are engaged in sports (Wylleman et al., 2013); (b) athletes’
development and relevant environment as holistic (Wylleman, 2019; Henriksen, 2010), athletic
development is influenced by athletic and non-athletic domains in multiple ways (c) athletic career as
part of, and contributing to, the life career (Stambulova & Wylleman, 2014). This means that there is a
possibility to adapt a broader view on sports, not participating exclusively for the sake of sports, and
instead participate in sports for the sake of sports and life; (d) career transitions as turning phases in
career development that require effective coping, and depending on the coping are capable of
changing an individual’s career trajectory (Stambulova & Samuel, 2020).
    In executing the Project, I found the most useful two major theoretical frameworks in career
development and career transitions, such as the holistic athletic career model (Wylleman, 2019; see
Figure 1) and the athletic career transition model (Stambulova, 2003; 2009, see Figure 2). These
frameworks were complemented by the holistic ecological approach that directed my attention to
environments surrounding the Project’s participants (Henriksen & Stambulova, 2017). The dual
continua model of mental health and mental illness (Keyes, 2014, see Figure 3) was another additional
framework that facilitated my understanding of the relationships between mental health and mental
illness on a conceptual level. The scientist-practitioner model (Shapiro, 2002) was important to guide
my transition from theory and research to practice. The theoretical frameworks used in the Project is
presented below.

Holistic Athletic Career Model
    The holistic athletic career model (Wylleman, 2019) representing transitions and stages faced by
athletes provides a comprehensive description of athletes’ normative (predictable) turning points in a
career, considering the developmental challenges throughout the career, and how these transitions are
related and may influence each other from a holistic lifespan perspective. From this whole person and
whole career approach four major athletic career stages are described at the top of the model:
initiation, development, mastery, and discontinuation. The sport level is accompanied with five
additional layers in the athlete’s development: (a) The psychological level recognizes the person’s
development from childhood to middle adulthood. (b) The psychosocial level includes relationships
significant for athletes at different stages. (c) The academic and vocational level displays trajectories
athletes may take either in education such as the shift from primary to higher education, or in
preparation toward employment. (d) The financial level that illustrates the varying degrees of financial
support and the common stakeholders involved during a career. (e) The legal level marks the transition
when an athlete by age enters into adulthood that brings for example, legal rights and responsibilities
in the society.
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Figure 1

The Holistic Athletic Career Model (Wylleman, 2019).

Note. A wavered line indicates that the age when the transition occurs is an approximation.

    The holistic athletic career model highlights the complexity in athletic career development because
different stages and levels affect each other and might require parallel attention by the individual
(Wylleman et al., 2013). For example, an elite athlete’s transition from upper secondary school to
higher education may interplay with increased expectations from family in the academic domain,
increased training intensity at the sport level, and significant changes related to psychological and
psychosocial domains. The model contributes to a better overview and understanding of the multilevel
transitional demands on athletes and resources available for them (Wylleman et al., 2013), and should
be helpful for coaches, SPP, players, and significant others (Wylleman et al., 2015). At the same time
the model is not able to provide sport practitioners with examples from athletes’ stories or to
contextualize the content to the current context. Wylleman’s model was applied in Study I and worked
as a lens when constructing the Projects view of the participants’ accounts with regard to existing
culture and sport context. The Project took inspiration from the model and then made the description
of career experiences richer and more nuanced. Following Stambulova’s and Ryba’s (2014) ideas that
contextualized models will help SPP to support athletes in more beneficial ways, for example, in
career guidance, performance enhancement, and in promoting well-being.
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