Home Field Advantage: Emphasizing Cultural Strengths in Student-Athletes

By Ryan Sides, Carley Peace, and Avery Knipfing

A college star basketball player sustains a career-ending injury.
A pitcher with a lifelong dream of playing for the Atlanta Braves is passed over in the draft.
An ambitious golfer changes colleges three times only to be told she has little chance of playing professionally.

These are common challenges faced by collegiate student-athletes in the United States, less than 2% of whom go on to play professionally (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018). The transition out of sport, especially when sudden or unexpected, can lead to disappointment, disorientation, and identity loss (Tyrance, Harris, & Post, 2013). In addition, student-athletes may find themselves ill-prepared to navigate the world of work due to barriers imposed by their athletic commitments. Athletes may have been pressured to select majors that align with their training schedule rather than their interests, making it difficult to find satisfying occupational alternatives (Demulier, Le Scanff, & Stephan, 2013; Navarro, 2015). Furthermore, extensive practice schedules limit the time available for extracurriculars and internships, thus restricting opportunities to gain work experience beyond sport (Huang, Chou, & Hung, 2016). Although student-athletes develop numerous transferable skills through sport, they may not know how to use these skills to further their career development (Van Raalte, Cornelius, Brewer, Petitpas, & Andrews, 2017).

Fortunately, student-athletes possess valuable cultural strengths that practitioners can leverage to help these individuals cultivate a meaningful professional identity and pursue rewarding occupational paths beyond the sports field. These strengths include a strong work ethic, goal orientation, teamwork skills, coachability, communication skills, perseverance in the face of failure, and an understanding of hierarchical roles (Burton, Hirshman, O’Reilly, Dolich, & Lawrence, 2018).

Strategies to Build on Cultural Strengths

CIP Theory

Practitioners can build on athletic cultural strengths by utilizing the Cognitive Information Processing theory (CIP; Sampson, Reardon, Peterson, & Lenz, 2004) which consists of four components: self-knowledge, options knowledge, decision-making skills (characterized as the CASVE Cycle), and the executive processing domain, see Figures 1 and 2.

Cip Pyramid

Figure 1. CIP Pyramid
Adapted from Sampson, J. P. (2008). Designing and implementing career programs: A handbook for effective practice. Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association. Used with permission.

Casve Cycle

Figure 2. CASVE Cycle
Adapted from Sampson, J. P. (2008). Designing and implementing career programs: A handbook for effective practice. Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association. Used with permission.


  • To increase self-knowledge, student-athletes need to be proficient in identifying transferable skills they developed through sport (Bjornsen & Dinkel, 2017; Van Raalte et al., 2017). To assist in this process, practitioners should be aware of the strengths that student-athletes acquired through being members of their athletic culture (Burton et al., 2018).
  • To increase options-knowledge, the value of the student-athletes’ community should be recognized to help broker core values to career decision-making. Practitioners could consider hosting networking nights in conjunction with athletic departments or establish mentorships between former and current student-athletes (Bjornsen & Dinkel, 2017). Practitioners could also provide examples of former student-athletes who successfully transferred their skills into careers (Harrison & Lawrence, 2003).
  • To improve decision-making skills, practitioners could integrate the CASVE cycle into Wooten’s (1994) Integrative Transition Model, as described in the next section.
  • To improve metacognitive skills, practitioners could use the Career Thoughts Inventory (CTI) and CTI Workbook for student-athletes struggling with negative career thoughts (Sampson, Peterson, Lenz, Reardon, & Saunders, 1998). However, student-athletes may have already developed strong metacognitive skills such as self-talk, control and monitoring of behaviors, and self-awareness. Instead, student-athletes may need to learn how to use those metacognitive skills for career decisions rather than when performing in sport.

Integrative Transition Model

Building on CIP theory, the Integrative Transition Model (Wooten, 1994) offers a framework to help practitioners anticipate and respond to student-athletes facing retirement from sport, as shown in Figure 3.

Sides Peace Knipfing Integrative Transition Model

Figure 3. Integrative Transition Model
Adapted from Sampson, J. P. (2008). Designing and implementing career programs: A handbook for effective practice. Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association. Used with permission.

To support clients through this transition, practitioners may consider using the career counseling techniques recommended by Wooten (1994) in conjunction with the following strengths-based tips:

  • Help clients reframe feelings of failure. Some student-athletes may believe they have failed if they do not play sports professionally. Left unaddressed, such thoughts can undermine clients’ confidence as well as their ability to engage in career exploration and decision-making, keeping them stuck in the third stage of transition. To avoid this pitfall, practitioners should help clients recognize the successes—big and small—experienced during their collegiate sports career. Practitioners can also guide clients in exploring what personal characteristics and behaviors enabled them to succeed in sport, prompting them to consider how they might employ these same strengths in the workplace.
  • Connect transferable skills to potential career paths. In stages three and four, clients may need assistance identifying the transferable skills they developed in sport and how these relate to occupational options. Practitioners may consider adapting the Transferable Skills Inventory activity (Support for Sport, 2016; Van Raalte et al., 2017). In addition, clients with strong athletic identities may benefit from exploring potential careers related to the sports industry, such as physical therapy, sports psychology, event planning, or analytics (Brandt, Harmsen, Walsh, Bonura, & Galli, 2016).
  • Explore core personal values. As clients move into stage five, they are tasked with evaluating and ranking occupational options. This requires individuals to carefully consider their personal and cultural values. Student-athletes may benefit from reflecting on the core values that motivated their athletic involvement and considering how these values might be similarly satisfied by future occupational and life roles. Such reflection not only facilitates decision-making but also helps clients integrate aspects of their athletic identity into a broader sense of vocation.
  • Honor diversity. Student-athletes from different sociocultural backgrounds may have developed different strengths. For example, African American student-athletes who face exploitation by athletic departments through systemic racism may develop a strong internal locus of control that enhances post-college career readiness (Cooper, 2016). Practitioners using this model should also incorporate a multicultural perspective while advocating for student-athletes who have difficulties overcoming environmental barriers.


Frameworks for Success

Both the CIP theory and Integrative Transition Model provide practitioners with a framework to help student-athletes overcome vocational challenges. By emphasizing athletic cultural strengths and preparing alternative plans, student-athletes will be better equipped to leverage their “home field advantage” in the workplace and beyond.



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Burton, R., Hirshman, J., O’Reilly, N., Dolich, A., & Lawrence, H. (2018). 20 Secrets to success for NCAA student-athletes who won’t go pro. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Cooper, J. N. (2016). Excellence beyond athletics: Best practices for enhancing black male student athletes' educational experiences and outcomes. Equity & Excellence in Education, 49, 267-283. doi:10.1080/10665684.2016.1194097

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Ryan SidesRyan Sides is a PhD candidate in the Florida State University (FSU) Combined Counseling Psychology and School Psychology Program. He is a career advisor at the FSU Career Center and an instructional specialist for a comprehensive career class. He is a former NCAA Division II soccer athlete and is now interested in researching career transitions of athletes. He can be reached at rsides@fsu.edu.




Carley Peace Carley Peace is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and School Psychology at Florida State University (FSU), where she works as a career advisor and instructor at the FSU Career Center. Her research interests include the intersection of mental health and career concerns, negative career thinking, and personality. She can be reached by email at cpeace@fsu.edu.




Avery KnipfingAvery Knipfing is a second-year student at Florida State University majoring in Exercise Physiology with a minor in Psychology. She is a research assistant and member of the Undergraduate Research program. Avery plans to attend dental school but has always enjoyed research and intends to continue studying sports psychology in the future.


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