Exploring Former NCAA Division I College Athletes’ Experiences With Post-Sport Physical Activity: A Qualitative Approach

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Researchers have found that former collegiate athletes (FCAs) exhibit unfavorable changes in physical and mental health later in life, which may be exacerbated by physical inactivity following retirement from college sport. Despite past sports training, FCAs are as active or less active than non-athlete alumni, with some not meeting the current Physical Activity (PA) Guidelines for Adults. Researchers suggest promoting PA in FCAs to prevent future health concerns (e.g., worsening body composition, physical function, depression). Prior to intervention development, a deeper understanding of FCAs’ experiences with PA post-sport and program characteristics they consider effective is warranted. Seventeen insufficiently active former National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I athletes participated in semi-structured interviews exploring their experiences with post-sport PA and perceptions of effective program characteristics. Using Consensual Qualitative Research Procedures, five domains were constructed. This manuscript overviews the first three of these domains, which pertain to participants’ experiences with post-sport PA: (a) transitional lifestyle shifts that affected PA behavior; (b) barriers affecting PA choices and behavior post-sport; and (c) enablers affecting PA choices and behavior post-sport. All FCAs discussed needing a break to physically and mentally recover following sports retirement. Participants identified similar barriers to being active (e.g., time constraints, resource availability) following this break to those reported by non-athletic populations. Furthermore, FCAs prioritized activities they enjoyed, were influenced by past sports participation, and made them “feel” healthy and included in a group. Translating cognitive-behavioral strategies utilized to enhance sports performance may be viable in promoting PA maintenance in this population post-sport-retirement. Lay summary: Seventeen former college athletes (FCAs) participated in semi-structured interviews exploring their experiences with physical activity (PA) post-sport and perceptions of PA promotional factors. Recognizing barriers, enablers, and transitional experiences regarding PA represents a critical step in developing effective PA interventions for FCAs. IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE Former Division I college athletes indicated their population is susceptible to similar PA barriers faced by non-athletic adult populations. Cognitive behavioral strategies demonstrated to be efficacious in other adult populations may benefit FCAs. Many cognitive behavioral strategies used to enhance sports performance for athletes in college are applicable to PA promotion outside of sport. Mental performance consultants (MPCs) who work with this population may consider transferring the use of these strategies to focus on PA promotion in athletes transitioning out of sport. Former Division I athletes indicated completing exercise over general PA to attain long-term health benefits, but lacked solid goals that could guide their behavior. Focusing on cognitive-behavioral strategies that maintain exercise behavior may be the most viable way to improve long-term health and activity levels. As such, multi-disciplinary teams involving MPCs and exercise professionals may be warranted.

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Journal of Applied Sport Psychology

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