Investigating the youth to senior transition in sport
: From theory to practice

  • Robert Morris

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis extended knowledge of the youth to senior transition in an elite sport context (football) through examining athletes’ and supporters’ (coaches, parents, sport physiologists, sport psychologists, physiotherapists, and a sport therapist) perceptions of the move. In the process, the thesis evaluated the effectiveness of Stambulova’s (2003) model in explaining sport based transitions. The use of a qualitative research design allowed the opportunity to explore participants’ perceptions of the youth to senior transition in sport from their own perspective (see Patton, 2002). By carrying out qualitative enquiry, Patton (2002) argues that researchers are able to understand and capture other people’s points of view without predetermining their thoughts and feelings or being constrained by the fixed focus of many quantitative research methods. To help achieve the overall aims, Study 1 identified coaches’ beliefs regarding the (a) demands, (b) resources, and (c) barriers that athletes experience and utilise as they move to senior sport. Participants (12 males), aged between 29 and 71 years from professional football clubs in the Scottish or English Premier League, were interviewed. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and thematically content analysed. Results indicated broad consistency with the demands, resources, and barriers highlighted in Stambulova’s (2003) model, including, for example, athletes’ motivation level, as determinants of transitional experiences. The study also suggested that those providing social support have differentiated roles to fulfil in the transition from youth to senior sport (e.g., parents provide emotional rather than technical support). Additionally, rather than the youth to senior change being a single major transition for some young players, series of transitions over their whole career were perceived to influence their response when moving up to the first team. Finally, coaches suggested that there is a need for dynamic balance between resources and barriers throughout the process for optimal outcomes, supporting Stambulova’s (2003) model of transition.
    To explore the broader social context in which athletes transition, Study 2 examined supporters’ (including parents, and sport science support staff) perceptions of the transition (a) demands, (b) resources, and (c) barriers athletes experience and utilise as they move from youth to senior sport. Supporters (12 males, 4 females), aged from 25 to 58 years, were interviewed. The supporters interviewed included parents (n = 6), sport physiologists (n = 2), sport psychologists (n = 4), physiotherapists (n = 3), and a sport therapist (n = 1). Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and thematically content analysed. The results parallel those in Study 1, and confirmed emerging suggestions in the literature that those providing support have specific roles to fulfil in the youth to senior transition and when they try to fulfil other roles, inappropriate exchanges take place that may have a negative effect on how successful athletes transition.
    Developing the concept of transition as an on-going process evidenced by Study 1, Study 3 examined players’ and coaches’ perspectives of the change longitudinally. Previous research had tended to employ a retrospective methodology. This study aimed to add to the knowledge on the youth to senior transition through reducing the limitations associated with such retrospective methodologies, by tracking athletes through the move. A total of 56 (40 player and 16 coach) interviews took place with 11 players (aged = 18 – 20 years; M = 18.9, SD ± 0.83) and 4 coaches (aged = 46 – 60 years, M = 52, SD ± 7.2) over a one year period before and after athletes were, or were not, offered a senior team contract. All participants were male. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and thematically analysed in two ways. First, athlete participants were grouped together based upon common themes they identified in the first interview. Each group of athletes was then tracked over the period of the study to identify if they highlighted any changes in demands, resources, and barriers, and their experiences as they moved to senior sport. These data were complimented by coaches’ perspectives of how well athletes appeared to be coping with the process of transition to senior sport. Second, common themes across the dataset were identified. Three groups that reacted differently to the transition were identified: avoidance, reactive coping, and proactive coping groups. Each group reacted in different ways to the transition (e.g., the avoidance group did not want support from others even though it was offered to them, the reactive coping group actively sought out support from others after transition, and the proactive coping group actively sought help when they felt they required it prior to, and throughout, the transition period). Eight themes were identified in a cross group analysis of all the data. For example, it was found the across all groups that the factors associated with transition may be constantly in flux, which may mean that there are periods where athletes are panicking about moving to senior sport and there are a number of elements associated with the move adjusting, followed by other periods where athletes are calm about the process and less aspects are unstable. This may have implications for the resources athletes require at different time points throughout transition.
    In order to begin to test the efficacy of conceptual models predicting athlete transition, Study 4 focused on two professional football clubs’ youth to senior transition programmes, and assessed if there was any evidence that the factors Stambulova (2003) identified may contribute to successful transition to senior sport. The specific aims of the study were to (a) explore the degree to which two clubs addressed demands, resources, and barriers associated with the youth to senior transition, (b) identify any initial evidence to support the hypothesis that factors listed in Stambulova’s (2003) model may be able to explain transition outcomes and guide intervention development, which could justify future experimental research, and (c) highlight any additional factors which may promote successful transition to the first team. Patton’s (2002) three steps for conducting a case study were followed in each club: (a) assembling the raw case data, (b) constructing a case record, and (c) writing a final case study narrative. In addition, a cross-case analysis was completed. Data collected included documents, relevant websites, semi-structured individual interviews, group monthly meetings, and email communications. Interview participants’ (n = 17) mean age was 34 (SD ± 12), with four respondents being coaches in the youth teams, two respondents being first team managers and coaches, two respondents being players who have recently transitioned to the first team, four respondents being players in the current youth set up, two sets of parents (two male and two female participants), and one respondent being a sport physiologist. Data were thematically analysed. The results revealed that many of the factors highlighted in Stambulova’s (2003) model were being interpreted and utilised differently across the organisations. For example, one organisation actively tried to help players deal with demands and barriers associated with the change, while the other organisation felt players who were able to manage the difficulties associated with transition on their own would be most successful in senior sport. Additionally, if Stambulova’s (2003) model has validity when explaining the youth to senior transition in football, it would be expected that there were dissimilar outcomes in two clubs that treat players differently. It appeared when combined as part of an overall youth to senior transition programme, the package highlighted in Stambulova’s (2003) model may have a positive influence on overall levels of player development and retention. Study 4 is theory testing, and this initial evidence supporting such differences in outcomes could justify a full experimental study, and may lead to improved design of career transitions programmes to better support athletes.
    The current PhD extends knowledge of the youth to senior transition in sport. The findings of the thesis contributed to an adapted version of Stambulova’s (2003) model of transition being proposed, to better explain the youth to senior transition in elite sport. Two factors which may contribute to transition experience, individual aspects and environment have been identified. The model has also been made more flexible to signify the dynamic and on-going change in demands, barriers, and resources athletes experience may influence how effectively they cope with transition. Finally, the outcome of the youth to senior transition athletes may experience as a result of their ability to cope has been adjusted. The adapted model highlights athletes may experience a successful transition, unsuccessful transition or exit transition. The results have implications for the training and education of athletes on the demands, resources, and barriers of transition, as such knowledge may help athletes successfully transition to senior sport. The findings may also have implications for the ways in which athletes may seek or use social support. For example, the findings may help coaches and practitioners put appropriate support mechanisms in place to help athletes prior to, or during transition, who could have resource deficiencies which may negatively influence their move to senior sport. Finally, the thesis contributed to the wider psychological literature on transitions and change by suggesting that society and social constructs may have an influence on how effectively people may manage transitional demands and barriers. The findings of the current thesis may allow those undergoing transitions to draw parallels between their experiences and those of the sample studied in the current work, which may mean they have a better understanding of the factors associated with moving to a new environment and how to manage the demands and barriers which may make it difficult.
    Date of Award01 Jul 2013
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Aberystwyth University
    SupervisorDavid Adrian Tod (Supervisor) & Emily Jane Oliver (Supervisor)

    Cite this