How to Not Be a Good Sport: Solutions to Challenges of Transitioning Out of an Athletic Career

By John Cyfko

ARTSSCI 3CU3: Alumni Experience Inquiry

There is a saying in sports that athletes die twice: once when they pass away and once when they retire. The inevitability of a relatively short career and early retirement, whether forced or unforced, creates a challenging situation for athletes at the end of their careers. As sports and pop culture tend to focus on current athletes or comeback stories (e.g., award-winning movie Cinderella Man and Roger Clemens’ multiple returns from retirement to play Major League Baseball), our society neglects the often-depressing reality of retirement from athletics. Consequently, athletes are not often prepared for, or even made aware of, the disruption that retirement can cause (Marthinus, 2007). In contrast with the often-touted benefits of a successful athletic career, there is a distinctive struggle of athletes to reconcile the part of their identity that is so deeply intertwined with sports with a non-athletic post-retirement life (Fortunato & Marchant, 1999). The most recent statistics on this matter, taken from a BBC (2018) “State of Sport” survey, reveal that a majority of athletes formerly belonging to the Rugby Players’ Association, the Professional Cricketers’ Association, and the Professional Footballers’ Association struggled with financial, mental, and/or emotional wellbeing after retirement, citing a loss of identity and purpose in their post-retirement life. These athletes have little guidance and support for their problems, and few seek help when they are struggling (BBC, 2018). This finding alludes to a feeling of helplessness or hopelessness, an ignorance of available resources and possible next steps, and a lack of self-knowledge held by these athletes. However, despite this hopelessness, athletes can and should be optimistic, as there are many examples of individuals who do adjust well after retirement (Grove, Lavalle, Gordon, & Harvey, 1998).

Unfortunately, given the small number of competitive athletes, research and public and private social support have not ordinarily been directed towards them at the stage of their life when they transition out of sports (Baillie & Danish, 1992; Marthinus, 2007). Nonetheless, research has found different factors, such as feelings of accomplishment, choice in retirement, level of athlete commitment, social support, finances, and non-athletic interests to be related in varying degrees to the distress resulting from retirement from sports (Wheeler, Malone, VanVlack, Nelson, and Steadward, 1996). Analyzing these dimensions can reveal paths for constructive action.

This essay will explore the related research, first by focusing on when and why athletic identity confers risk beyond identification with other professions. Relatedly, I will then discuss how athletes cope with the trauma of retirement and the role of society in increasing the likelihood of a traumatic experience. I will also consider the intersectional experiences of athletes playing parasports, as well as the implications for any athlete who strictly adheres to their sport. Subsequently, I will consider these issues within the framework of idealistic and pragmatic thinking on the part of the athletes. The impact of an athlete’s retirement on their social network will also be briefly discussed. Building off this research, I will suggest potential solutions to a traumatic retirement, which include constructing a positive personal narrative, having a supportive social network, and considering post-sports life early. Overall, this essay will seek to demonstrate how the common struggle of an athlete to reconcile a strong and exclusive athletic identity with the intrinsically short-term nature of their athletic career stems largely from an overreliance on idealistic thinking and consequently impacts their retirement. Crucially, I will also argue for and against several potential remedies to this problem.

In relation to typical retirements, Lavalle, Gordon, and Grove (1997) point to several reasons for the particular difficulties of retiring from an athletic career. While retirement from any occupation is often associated with lower self-efficacy, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, athletes are prone to experience these negative consequences more often and intensely. Part of this heightened risk is due to the high level of athletic identity in these individuals. Other occupations are not integrated into one’s identity as intensely as that of athletes, who often do not have a self-concept that extends beyond their athleticism (Lavalle, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). In essence, these researchers assert that retirement from sports can be a traumatic event that inherently exacerbates the pre-existing distress of a conflicted identity.

Exploring the role of athletic identity, defined in the sports psychology literature as “the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role,” is critical in understanding individual differences in the transition away from sports (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993, p. 237). Identity crises are often at the root of a difficult adjustment for retired athletes—if one’s athletic identity is both strong and exclusive, it is more likely that they will face extreme difficulties in the process of retirement (Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997; Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). Furthermore, problematic retirement is not normally due to financial or occupational adjustment, but rather social and emotional adjustment. This finding indicates a problem more innate than finding a job or having money, and rather one tied to identity, relationships, and a sense of self (Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997; Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997).

The most popular methods of coping with this athletic identity loss include denial, mental disengagement, behavioral disengagement, and venting of emotions. These strategies may be effective in dealing with stress in the short-term but interfere with more adaptive long-term strategies in their avoidance orientation (Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997). In support of this theory, a study by Yao, Laurencelle, and Trudeau (2018) suggests that while former athletes had higher athletic identity than non-athletes, they had poorer nutrition and physical activity habits, indicating the paralyzing effect of athletic identity on post-retirement life. Further evidence shows that a strong athletic identity not only leads to emotional and social difficulties, but can actually predict anxiety and depressive symptomatology, as well as increased body dissatisfaction shortly after retirement (Giannone, Haney, Kealy, & Ogrodniczuk, 2017; Stirling, Cruz, & Kerr, 2012). Whether these symptoms eventually reach a point at which they can be classified as a disorder is not yet known, but they reflect a dearth in the coping ability of former athletes with a changing identity.

In the terminology used in the literature on this topic, it is clear how intrinsic athleticism is to the identity of these individuals. The labelling of these individuals as “athletes,” a title that constructs a constricting identity, paves the way for the idea that many retired athletes themselves hold: their entire identity of being an athlete is now retired, former, and lost, with no replacement identity. Thus, the very naming of an individual as an “athlete,” which usually occurs very early on in one’s career, can become a major obstacle at that career’s end, as it builds one’s identity upon their participation in sport (Baillie & Danish, 1992). Furthermore, the greater the level of fame an individual receives, the more tied their public image and consequently their self-understanding is to athletics (Baillie & Danish, 1992). The reinforcing role of society on identity throughout an athlete’s career pushes them to base their self-esteem on athletic performance, as this is what brings an athlete prestige (McPherson, 1980). Once this self-esteem is fixated on athleticism, it is unlikely that the athlete will engage in exploring alternate identities or consider what will occur when they can no longer participate in sports (McPherson, 1980). Therefore, the causes of the often-distressing transition from sports may be rooted deeper and earlier in the development of identity than in other professions. Consequently, since being an athlete has such fundamental and socially reinforced ties to one’s identity, there may be increased risk for that identity to be devastated by retirement.

In line with this reasoning, empirical evidence indicates that, when an athlete retires from sports, the degree to which they face psychological difficulties and distress in retirement is highly related to their degree of athletic identity (Giannone et al., 2017). Giannone and colleagues (2017) theorized that this distress is due to a lack of experience occupying other roles in society. As an athlete, one is pressured by coaches, parents, and others to make sport a primary, and often only, priority. This expectation makes being an athlete not only integral to most professional sportspeople’s identities, but also potentially the sole component. This “constricted identity,” Giannone et al. (2017, p. 598) explain, is limited in its adaptability to transitions between life stages; the tension retirement creates within this identity leads to emotional distress. When one’s identity is exclusively and strongly intertwined with such a short-lived career, and one identifies almost solely as an athlete, there comes a breaking point where, when the career inevitably changes, so must the identity.

A study of individuals with disabilities by Wheeler et al. (1996) provides fascinating insight into the transition process at play in all athletes. Individuals with disabilities are often very marginalized by society. Thus, becoming an athlete in disabled sports provides a supportive community that combats the feeling of being marginalized. These athletes in disabled sports described “being and feeling normal” as a result of their athletic involvement (Wheeler et al., 1996, p. 394). Therefore, an athletic identity can be even more important to them in feeling accepted by society, and it is likely to be held strongly and perhaps exclusively. Unfortunately, the same negative influences of intense commitment to this athletic identity occur as are found in the general athletic population (Wheeler et al., 1996). On top of the regular influences, however, these individuals had the unique challenge of trying to avoid a “secondary disability” in the future, such as losing physical strength, gaining weight, or chronically injuring one’s body due to overuse (a commonality for individuals in wheelchair sports, which put considerable stress on one’s shoulders) (Wheeler et al., 1996, p. 396). Giving credence to this research, Danielle Brown, a former Paralympian archer said, “Having the plan [of playing sports] that has come crashing to a halt, you're devastated. You have no idea what you are or who you are, what you want to do, where you want to go” (BBC, 2018). Athletes playing disabled sports are thus influenced by their disability and the societal implications of having a disability in their conceptualisation of retirement. Nonetheless, they have fears and struggles similar to other athletes in a way that causes added stress and avoidant fears, demonstrating the universality of the dangers of holding a one-dimensional identity with too much strength and exclusivity.

One of these dangers is poor psychosocial maturity, which athletes attain by selectively optimising their sports skill set while neglecting other activities (Good, Brewer, Petitpas, Van Raalte, & Mahar, 1993). The demands required in competitive athletics and their restrictive, sheltered nature may actually preclude athletes from exploring alternate identities (Good et al., 1993). Furthermore, the material and symbolic rewards that sports provide for athletes can allow for a comfortable way of earning a living and contributing to society, which in turn allows athletes to not need to seek out other opportunities, making the loss of these rewards a considerable detriment to athletes during retirement (Good et al., 1993; Grove et al., 1998). In this light, it is no surprise that male varsity student-athletes in revenue-producing sports have the worst career decision-making skills, as they gain the most secure rewards from their sport (Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996).

This lack of maturity and specific concentration increases the susceptibility of athletes to identity foreclosure, a term that describes an idealistic adherence to one lifepath without first exploring the possibility of an alternative (Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996). This phenomenon, essential to understanding the tribulations of retirement from sports, is common amongst athletes, who rarely explore alternate career paths, leading to an exclusively athletically-oriented identity that makes it difficult to adjust to post-retirement living (Giannone et al., 2017). Identity foreclosure is specifically related to athletic identity, as high levels of both can reduce one’s ability to make career decisions (Good et al., 1993). Furthermore, the more an athlete is involved in their sport, and the stronger and more exclusive an individual’s athletic identity is, the more they tend to engage in identity foreclosure (Good et al., 1993).

Identity foreclosure and other idealistic thought patterns, wherein a path towards a professional career in sports is seen as automatic without the pragmatic exploration of alternate career paths, are related to a dependent decision-making style. This style describes an athlete who relies on those around them to make important decisions for them (Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996). By the very intensive and institutional nature of athletics, individuals are closed off from exploring opportunities and building support systems outside of sports. Thus, once they leave that social sphere, they are utterly alone; indeed, one retired athlete recalled that their contacts “assumed that [their] life had become much easier to cope with” during retirement and “couldn’t understand that it was a difficult transition to make” (Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996; Lavalle, Gordon, & Grove, 1997, p. 139). Clearly, a retired athlete who does not have anybody to rely on, who feels lost in opportunity, and who is reliant on others to make decisions for them due to the previously noted inhibited tendencies is incredibly prone to a distressing transition to post-retirement life (Good et al., 1993). Identity foreclosure and maladaptive idealism are thus products of being an athlete. Furthermore, in the association of these side-effects to inhibited and reliant career decision-making along with a lack of social support, they serve as a direct hindrance to post-retirement adjustments (Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996).

Moreover, the social support that remains with athletes, particularly their parents and partners, have their own struggles with identity and are also impacted by the retirement (Brown, Webb, Robinson, & Cotgreave, 2019). As parents and partners are often the most important social support athletes have, their lack of capacity and willingness to support due to their own internal troubles can exacerbate the devastation of retirement (Brown et al., 2019). These struggles may be a result of changes in relationships and daily routines, as is most likely for partners. However, it may also be due to the burden of helping the retiree through their struggles or a feeling of bereavement, with the latter being especially likely in the case of parents (Brown et al., 2019). Additionally, partners and parents often do not feel prepared to help the retired athlete, either due to their own identity crises and uncertainties or to simply not being able to relate to the feelings of the athlete. While the retiring athlete’s parents and partners were found to have an overall positive impact on the athlete’s transition, it is important to understand that a social support system that is often taken for granted is not always present during this major life transition (Brown et al., 2019).

The struggle of athletes to maintain their own careers while overcoming identity foreclosure and preparing for an alternate career path post-retirement mirrors a predicament often experienced in a liquid, uncertain postmodern culture. Zygmunt Bauman (2008), in The Art of Life, expands on an allegory conceived by Paul Ricoeur that artistically brings life to this duality. He describes modern career aspirations as reaching for one of the countless stars in a nebula. Bauman (2008) writes that no matter how bright the nebula might be, there is absolutely nothing protecting one against being forced or wanting to start anew. When put into this athletic context, despite how enticing a career in sports may appear, and how sufficiently it provides in the short-term, an athlete is extremely vulnerable to no longer enjoying or being able to enjoy sports, and thus needing to or wanting to begin a new, different career. Escaping certainty to follow a star, Bauman (2008) explains, brings its own array of risks. Similarly, after an athlete fixates on the star of professional sports, despite the certainty it may provide in the short term, they are often left with little in the way of skills outside of that field and knowledge of what to do with these skills when that athlete’s idealistic aspirations of playing professional sports become unattainable.

Interestingly, Grove, Lavallee, and Gordon (1997) provide research echoing this damaging effect of the nebula and lack of a pragmatic approach to an athletic career. They demonstrate that those with strong athletic identities, who thus adjust relatively poorly after retiring, have more anxiety towards life after retirement and tend not to plan their long-term career beforehand. Even with a retirement plan in place, Lavalle, Gordon, and Grove (1997) corroborate the finding that athletes, in particular, struggle with a loss of identity after retirement. One participant in their study, who planned their retirement two years prior to actually transitioning from sports, still described their retirement as “beginning all over again, with a new job, new lifestyle, and new circle of friends,” a challenge that made them feel “as though [they] lost [their] self-identity”; this reset clearly exemplifies a star that has burned out, forcing them to start anew (Lavalle, Gordon, and Grove, 1997, p. 139). The overwhelming nature of having to reinvent one’s identity to achieve a meaningful existence may be a major cause of post-retirement stress.

As of 2012, the average career length in the four major North American professional sports leagues were 3.5 years for the National Football League, 4.8 years for the National Basketball Association, 5.5 years for the National Hockey League, and 5.6 years for Major League Baseball, all of which are relatively short (Sandler, 2012). With this in mind, the balance between a dream of a long career in sports and the repercussions of failing to consider the short-term nature of many sports careers is a necessity for athletes; they must learn to plan their future with a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. When thinking ideally, it is often merely getting to “the big leagues” that is important to young athletes, which provides the motivation to compete at an elite level. However, if pragmatic thinking is not indulged to some extent, the athlete will not recognize that they have to switch life paths after their short-lived career is over. Consequently, as steps will not be taken to ensure a sense of continued identity and purpose, retirement may be devastating (Webb, Nasco, Riley, and Headrick, 1998). Indeed, Webb et al. (1998) discovered that the greater one’s athletic identity is, the vaguer their future became, providing evidence of athletes’ inhibition of pragmatic thought, and overindulgence of the ideal life that they may currently be living.

Pragmatic thinking may be most helpful during forced retirement, when the situation is far from ideal. More often than not, athletes are forced to retire, which makes them more vulnerable to the hardships of lacking a reasoned and probable plan, in addition to the associated torment of an uncertain identity (Lavalle, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). Undoubtedly, those who retire voluntarily are not immune to the distress of the transition; however, in a sample of Australian elite-amateur athletes, it was found that involuntary retirement and lack of personal control over reasons for retirement were related to the highest emotional and social adjustment (Kerr and Dacyshyn, 2000; Lavallee, Grove, & Gordon, 1997). More importantly, involuntary retirement in this group was associated with the greatest difficulty dealing with this emotional and social adjustment (Kerr and Dacyshyn, 2000). This study again points to a lack of ability to think pragmatically as a major predictor of post-retirement stress.

Individuals who are forced to retire are also extremely likely to have a loss of identity, low perceived control, financial issues, and poor social support, due to the suddenness, shock, and bitterness of losing one’s athletic status so quickly (Fortunato & Marchant, 1999). Furthermore, the clubs that the athletes were playing with did not support their athletes adequately through retirement, leaving the former athletes with little external help (Fortunato & Marchant, 1999). Even when the retirement was forced by a career-ending injury, the athlete received less support than if they were expected to return to the club (Fortunato & Marchant, 1999). This neglect emphasises the commodification of athletes by their clubs and the lack of support given once the athletes were no longer of use. However, the tragedy that is forced retirement may only be relevant to athletes who have a strong and exclusive athletic identity. For example, only athletes invested in playing professional sports had decreased self-esteem and life satisfaction after a career-ending injury (Kleiber & Brock, 1992). If an athlete’s ideal life extends beyond sports and encompasses other meaningful activities, then their life beyond a forced retirement will still be ideal, without the need for much pragmatic thinking.

Webb et al. (1998) expand on this research, describing how pragmatism and idealism relate to the athletic identity component of transitioning from a career as discussed earlier in the article by Giannone et al. (2017). Injury is one of the most unexpected ways for a career to end, and thus individuals with career-ending injuries are often the most unprepared for the future, especially as athletes generally do not think pragmatically about the future during their career (Webb et al., 1998). Athletes who retire due to injury-related reasons are also initially prone to wishful or idealistic thinking, as career-ending injuries are often initially thought to be surmountable (Webb et al., 1998). However, this hope of playing again may not only hinder a pragmatic preparation for other career paths but may actually necessitate the strengthening of one’s athletic identity throughout a painful rehabilitation. This intensified identity becomes even more problematic if the injury is, in fact, career-ending. In light of the previous literature, it appears that when unplanned circumstances force one to deviate from a fixed identity, one has difficulty realigning to a different star in the nebula. By holding fast to the idealist mentality of identity foreclosure, and not engaging in any pragmatic thinking, one may, theoretically, have a limited ability to transition and seek help both within and outside of themselves.

However, not all retirees go through this intense hardship after retirement (Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997). What separates these athletes from those described above? As social beings, we confide in our social circle to relieve emotional and cognitive overload, which is especially helpful following a major loss, such as a death or loss of employment (Lavalle, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). Additionally, we construct and evaluate our identities in comparison to our companions and peers (Stets & Burke, 2000). Unfortunately, when athletes retire, an event that could be classified as a major loss, they often lose both their identity and the social support of their companions. This dual loss makes it difficult to exercise a potentially preferable method of coping, such as confiding, that is reliant on the help of others.

Consistent with this finding that retired athletes struggle with a decimated network of social support in which they can confide, Lavallee, Gordon, and Grove (1997) discovered that account-making and confiding of a traumatic experience are associated with a retirement free of major distress. Account-making is defined as “the process of making a story-like construction containing emotional expressions, trait inferences, descriptions, and related material regarding the self and the outside world,” which is then refined by confiding in others (Lavalle, Gordon, & Grove, 1997, p. 131; Grove et al., 1998). This activity especially helped individuals coping with athletic retirement when their confidant was helpful and empathetic (Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). To summarize, a supportive social network is crucial for a smooth adjustment from an athletic career, as it helps to ground the athlete in a constructive narrative that allows for pragmatic steps to be taken towards an ideal post-retirement living situation, working them through the process of denial and despair (Grove et al., 1998).

Furthermore, in terms of social support, having relationships with parents or partners that are built on trust, open communication, and working through problems collectively is optimal during a retired individual’s transition from sports (Brown et al., 2019). Having strong mentors or supportive coaches throughout one’s career can not only increase athletes’ abilities in sport but can also provide necessary guidance throughout retirement (Ungerleider, 1997). On the contrary, a poor relationship with one’s coach can make an athlete’s transition from sport more difficult (Fortunato & Marchant, 1999).

In line with the narrative emphasis of account-making, Cavallerio, Wadey, and Wagstaff (2017) suggest three narrative typologies that are expressed by retired athletes: entangled narratives, going-forward narratives, and making-sense narratives. Constructing a making-sense narrative is unique in its emergent quality: being open to the possibility of a future that is different from their athletic past, despite not having a firm understanding of what that future holds. This narrative is hopeful, productive, and focuses on the present. Going-forward narratives are held by former athletes who are now flourishing after transitioning from sports due to their ability to cultivate multiple identities and roles during their careers. While the two narratives described both lead to a smooth adjustment away from sports, it is important to avoid and combat the third typology, an entangled narrative, which occurs when an individual has a strong and exclusive athletic identity, and thus cannot move beyond that identity to develop a new one—these retired athletes simply long for their past career (Cavallerio, Wadey, & Wagstaff, 2017). How to transition from an entangled narrative to a making-sense or going-forward narrative is not yet known, but this shift should be the goal for struggling retirees.

Furthermore, the sooner individuals can change their athletic identity to one that has ties beyond sports, the quicker they can successfully adjust to a life without sport (Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). An identity that is balanced and has ties beyond that of being an athlete may also allow an individual to be relatively immune to the distress caused by retirement from sports (Giannone et al., 2017). To combat identity foreclosure and prevent a collapse of identity at retirement, athletes should actually redefine their identities to encompass areas beyond sport long before their career ends (Lally, 2007). In fact, holding a dual career is preferable for a smooth retirement process, although this may be unrealistic in many elite sports (Torregrosa, Ramis, Pallarés, Azócar, & Selva, 2015). If one does only hold sport as a career, it is still important for them to have a clear view of their retirement, in order to think pragmatically about what steps must be taken to facilitate the transition (Torregrosa et al., 2015). Having other interests to channel one’s energy into after a career in sports is perhaps the most important and valuable coping strategy for athletes in all sports, disabled and non-disabled (Wheeler et al., 1996). Martin, Fogarty, and Albion (2014) found that as an athlete began to consider retirement, they showed a decrease in athletic identity, and if they actually retired on their own accord, they reported increased life satisfaction.

Torregrosa, Boixadós, Valiente, and Cruz (2004) assert that retirement should be increasingly considered as one’s sporting career progresses, as this act reduces the negative consequences of uncertainty about the future. If an effort is made to prepare for retirement early in an athlete’s career, the transition will be easier, as it is more likely that pragmatic steps will be taken to construct a reasonable and realistic post-retirement plan (Ungerleider, 1997). In a similar way, if retirement is conceptualised by athletes as a process rather than a moment, and if they have steps planned to facilitate their transition, it is more manageable for them (Torregrosa et al., 2004). Thus, having autonomy over one’s career and identity, planning one’s retirement as a process of manageable steps, and being able to change one’s identity before or during retirement may be important steps towards a smooth retirement from sport (Martin, Fogarty, & Albion, 2014).

Another intuitive suggestion may be that simply continuing with life in sports as a coach, manager, or any other non-player capacity would eradicate the need for a change in identity, pragmatic thinking, and the distress these may cause. Proponents of this strategy may believe that it would act as a beneficial transition period that would keep the athlete’s social support system within their sport relatively intact. However, Lavallee, Gordon, and Grove (1997) suggest that this transition prolongs the inevitable distressing retirement that will occur when they eventually retire from their non-player athletic occupation. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that individuals who stay involved in their sport through coaching may have higher levels of body dissatisfaction and unhealthy weight control behaviours (Stirling, Cruz, & Kerr, 2012). These negative effects may result in part from the harmful body standards of sports culture, as well as the reinforcement of these standards by being around athletes (Stirling, Cruz, & Kerr, 2012). As many athletes do remain in non-player positions within their sport, it is important to make retired athletes aware of the evidence suggesting that this is a maladaptive strategy.

Evidently, there are myriad causes of difficult transitions from careers in sports. The regular and regimented schedules make it difficult for athletes to think pragmatically for themselves, and without the social support network they are used to, many become very distressed. The status and rewards of being an athlete, which were once attainable ideals, are no longer present. Living beyond the label of being a “former athlete” and finding a new identity as a “current something” seems impossible to many who lived happily in an ideal life of identity foreclosure. However, the pattern of impairing athletic retirements can be reversed through the development of more involved and supported post-career support systems for athletes. Athletes can be hopeful if we enable and push them to explore other career options, both pragmatically and ideally, while in sport. The challenges of retirement can be overcome if we help athletes to construct positive narratives and if they can confide in others to aid in this account making. By effectively applying these solutions, athletes will become well-equipped to retire and can begin a new career and lifestyle with excitement.


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