Athletes’ career development has become a growing field of research in the past decades where the focus of the studies has been shifted from specific career transitions into a holistic, multi-level approach to the competitive as well as post-competitive careers of athletes (Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler, & Cote, 2009). While existing models of career development are effective in determining normative transitions that occur at different levels of athletes’ functioning throughout their athletic career, they contain however, less data about diversities which may exist in view of gender-specific characteristics (Wylleman, Alfermann, & Lavallee, 2004). Since research is particularly scarce on female athletes, the purpose of this doctoral study was to develop a better understanding of female athletes’ career development. The current doctoral study investigated female athletes’ specific transitions, demands and challenges that possibly exist in their athletic career development.
The first three studies of doctoral dissertation qualitatively examined female athletes’ specific demands and challenges which they perceive in their competitive and post-competitive athletic career. Separately in three different studies, 22 talented adolescent (Study 1), 32 elite level (Study 2), and 16 retired elite level (Study 3) Slovene male and female athletes participated in semi-structured interviews to discuss their currently perceived athletic career demands and challenges. Findings of these three studies revealed that while male and female athletes perceive several athletic career demands and challenges similarly, gender differences in these perceptions however occur. Female adolescent athletes reported experiencing negative influence of physical maturation on their athletic performance. In development and mastery stage, female athletes more often complained over the characteristics of athletic work they received, and frequently experienced exhaustion and tiredness. Interpersonal relationships appeared as very important for female athletes’ development; however these relationships were often described as dynamic and tensed (e.g., conflicts with teammates). In all three studies, female athletes often expressed being dissatisfied with their physical appearance and body weight. Also, some psychological difficulties (e.g., pre-competition anxiety, decreased self-confidence, decreased personal satisfaction after retirement) appeared as more prevalent among female athletes.
Since findings of first three studies implied also that male and female athletes approach somewhat differently to their dual career development, especially their academic career, Study 4 and 5 examined this into a greater detail. Study 4 investigated perceptions of dual career development among elite level individual and team sport athletes to detect possible gender as well as type of sport differences. 12 retired Slovene elite level swimmers and basketball players participated in semi-structured interviews to discuss transitions, demands and challenges that occurred throughout their dual career development. Findings of this study supported Holistic athletic career model (Wylleman,
Reints, & de Knop, 2013), in that both male and female athletes perceived different stages in their dual career development, which were connected to several transitions and subsequent challenges occurring not only in their athletic and academic/vocational career, but also at other levels of their development. Next, results revealed that Slovene male and female athletes perceive and approach to their dual career somewhat differently. In comparison with male athletes, female athletes achieved better grades in school, higher levels of education, and reported a strong determination to pursue their academic career together with athletic career. Although perceived as difficult as well as detrimental at times, dual career was connected to female athletes’ greater personal satisfaction and higher self-confidence.
Following the results of previous four studies, Study 5 quantitatively examined which competences talented and elite male and female athletes perceive as important set to possess in order to successfully deal with dual career challenges. Competences, which help the athletes to manage their thoughts and emotions, were perceived as most important for athletes’ dual career success, followed by life management competences (e.g., self-discipline, effective use of time). In comparison with male athletes, female athletes perceived the majority of dual career as more important for their dual career success. In possession of these competences, female athletes perceived possessing lower abilities to regulate emotions, effectively cope with stress, lower levels of self-belief and assertiveness.
Study 6 explored a female specific athletic career transition – transition into motherhood. Eight female elite athletes who were also mothers at the time of their competitive career participated in semi-structured interviews to discuss about their transitional process of becoming a mother athlete. Findings of this study revealed that becoming a mother represents an important transformative process for female athletes in which motherhood and elite sport have a reciprocal effect. Although this process was connected with several experienced difficulties, becoming a mother athlete represented a major multi-level positive change in athletic career development of female athletes.
The current doctoral dissertation broadened the knowledge base currently available on the career development of talented and elite level athletes with specific characteristics of female athletes. Research findings stressed the importance of taking a developmental and holistic approach when addressing female athletes, as well as considering their specific developmental characteristics. Finally, the current research has several applied recommendations for supporting female athletes’ development throughout their athletic competitive career as well as after it.