“I still have that athlete soul”: Storying identity and pain in retired athletes 


Sport culture narratives teach athletes that their identities should center around athletic performance, with pain being an accepted part of sport-related success. The transition out of sport can be challenging for athletes as they struggle to redefine their identities, which is further complicated for many former athletes experiencing persistent pain after their sporting careers. This study explored how persistent pain shapes and constrains how retired athletes negotiate their post-athletic career identities. Adopting a narrative constructionist lens, 2 life story interviews were each conducted with 8 retired athletes who have played high-performance sport and are currently experiencing persistent pain (pain lasting >3 months). Through a thematic narrative analysis, two themes were developed: pain as an opportunity for empathy, and the intuitive body connection. Experiencing pain is often described as isolating in sport, but in retirement many participants storied their experience of pain as enabling them to empathize and connect with others. Over half of the participants have decided to pursue a career in clinical care, citing their experience of pain as motivating their desire to help others. Participants also described how pain taught them to listen and develop an intuitive connection with their body – they no longer needed to push themselves to their body’s limits due to being retired from sport, but rather could listen to the needs of their body and adjust their exercise, social, and eating behaviours accordingly. These findings expand our understanding of how athletes make sense of their post-athletic career lives when living with pain.