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For College Athletes, Long-Term Wellbeing Depends on Smooth Transition

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Apr 8th 2014

In the thick of March Madness, it's fitting to wonder what happens to all of these elite, Division I college athletes after they graduate. Do they continue to stay at the top of their game? Are they in better physical condition than peers who did not participate in competitive college sports? If they don't enter professional sports after graduation, how is their frame of mind after such a significant era of their lives has ended?

college football playerThese are the questions that Janet Simon - a doctoral candidate at Indiana University's Department of Kinesiology - asked in her recent study featured on YouTube. In the study, Simon measured both physical and mental indicators of quality of life among former Division I college athletes and compared them to former college students who were only recreationally active in sports.

She found some pretty interesting trends:

  • Former competitive college athletes had more major injuries and chronic injuries than former recreationally active college students.
  • Former collegiate athletes reported more daily physical limitations than former college students who were only recreationally active.
  • Former competitive athletes scored higher on scales of pain, depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbance than former college students who did not compete in college sports.

Are you surprised? It would seem that competitive college athletes would be poised for lifelong wellness after developing such a strong pattern of exercise throughout young adulthood. And yet, Simon found that former elite athletes are suffering from mental and physical maladies more often than their peers who only played recreational or intermural sports during their college years.

Simon has a good theory to explain her findings. She suggests that college athletes (and in her study, these were Division I athletes) are accustomed to playing at such a high level for so long that when they leave college, they don't want to keep fit by going for a jog or playing a pick-up game of basketball. They want to play their sport at the same level they always have. And if they can't do that, many would prefer to do nothing.

For many of these men and women, their role as a collegiate athlete was their identity. Once that role ended, their identity may have suffered, triggering mental health challenges such as depression and sleep problems. For this reason, Simon stresses the importance of educating collegiate athletes about the transition that will inevitably occur after graduation. In future research, I'd like to see strategies developed to help former competitive college athletes actively address this transition.


Indiana University (n.d.). Study: The long-term health of Division I athletes. YouTube:


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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