The transition elite athletes must experience once they leave the game can be viewed as an evolving, dynamic, and adaptive process in which they will go through several stages that incite them to make psychosocial adjustments in order to redefine a new sense of self. The core process of this transition can be compared to the idea of liminality, which illustrates the process of an identity shift and reformation. In our particular interest, we are referring to an identity shift from the athletic identity to the next role former athletes would take on after their sports career ends.


Liminality originated from the major work entitled “Les rites de passage” of the French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, first published in 1908 (1960). In the transition from one identity state to another (e.g., boy to man), he observed that, in all cultures, these rites of passage are divided into three phases: rites of separation (pre-liminal stage), transition rites (liminal stage), and incorporation rites (post-liminal stage). This universal sequence is used to depict meaningful ritualistic elements linked with the passage of any transitions from the old to the new position.


Typically, this ritualistic process is triggered by an event, which in this case, initial stages will be marked by a sense of loss of athletic identity that is accompanied with leaving the game. In this pre-liminal stage, a detachment from the former position must occur, as individuals transition away from their old sense of self. The separation phase would therefore require transitional athletes to come to terms with their athletic self and create an ex-role to be able to move on to a new identity. It can take many years for athletes to accept that they are no longer athletes. Crafting an ex-role can be challenging for some athletes who may be experiencing feelings similar to withdrawal symptoms. It is not uncommon for athletes to be physically, emotionally, chemically, and mentally addicted to the game, making it difficult for them to move on to another role.  


The liminal stage refers to an indeterminate state that is ambiguous for athletes, as they are in between letting go of the athletic identity and moving on to a new identity. Originating from the Latin term limen, which means a “threshold”, liminality refers to the transition period in which individuals are “no longer what they were, nor yet what they will” (Rowe, 2008, p.128). Drawing upon Van Gennep’s work, Turner (1967) extended the conceptualization of liminality in his essay entitled “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage”. He viewed the liminal period as an “interstructural situation” (Turner, 1967, p. 93), in which individuals are in betwixt and between conditions. The idea of “no man’s land” is echoed in Turner’ s (1967) description of individuals in this middle stage as being “neither one thing nor another” (p. 96). Individuals in that stage are usually referred to as “liminars”, which now explains our so-called "The Liminars Project".  


The post-liminal stage marks the consummation of the passage that is characterized by the establishment of a new sense of self and the return to a more stable state. This final stage will ultimately result in a reorientation state in which transitional athletes redefined a salient role in their life that leads to new beginnings. In their quest for a new self-identity, former athletes must find a way to reprioritize their interests and activities, and reorient their expectations to accommodate those changes, shifting their focus from athletic competencies and goals to new ones.


Athletes can experience liminality during their transition, equivalent to a phase of existential questioning and deep self-investigation. Liminality in the sport career transition refers to a period in which athletes feel “in-between” the athletic role and their next role in life. They may experience feelings of being suspended in-between those two worlds. Thus, the liminality experience, as reported by retired athletes during their transition to life after sport, can be linked to feelings of confusion, uncertainty and disorientation caused by a disruption to one’s sense of self, requiring a shift in identity. They may lose meaning and control in their lives due to the uncertainty of their future endeavors. They are not completely moved on from their former role as an elite competitive athlete and not yet found or fully assimilated their next salient role. Therefore, the loss of the athletic identity triggers a disruption to athletes’ sense of self that requires a shift in identity and leads them to go through transition rites, experiencing feelings of being in limbo or suspended in between the loss of athletic self and the absence of future directions.

©2018 by The University of Florida's The Liminars Project.