The journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus: “It’s like placing for another Olympics”

Recently, our research project about career transitions from elite gymnastics to professional circus was published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. I interviewed eight (inter)national level gymnasts who achieved a career as a circus artist. What can we learn from their experiences? Our analysis showed that the journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus is challenging. We identified three phases within this transition process:

  • During the realising phase, the gymnasts try to achieve a circus contract in order to become professional circus artists. The gymnasts participate in audition processes, intensive training programs, and often face several rejections. High levels of psychological resilience are required to be successful in obtaining a circus contract.
  • The adapting phase requires new circus artists to adjust to their new life. The former gymnasts will encounter various stressors during this phase. Some are similar to those commonly experienced in sport, for example the high physical demands of circus. Other stressors are specific to the circus environment, such as unique performance pressures, managing the risks involved with several circus disciplines, interdependency, and fitting into the circus culture. Due to these stressors, the new circus artist may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and may lose their self-confidence.
  • During the thriving phase the circus artist flourishes both in terms of performance as well as psychological wellbeing. Key to achieve this thriving phase were experiences of freedom, personal development, and social connections. Achieving the thriving phase was indicative of the artists’ career longevity as a circus artist.

49698538_10156293113424779_8692261857114718208_oWe can use this information to help prospective circus artists during their journeys from sport to the big-top. During the realising and adapting phases of the career transition, the ‘social support’ component of psychological resilience is expected to weaken because the new circus artists are away from their existing social support networks. Yet this form of support is very important during these phases. To support psychological resilience during these phases we recommend:

  • Formalised buddy systems in which new circus artists are matched with more experienced circus artists by their circus companies.
  • Practitioners in gymnastics are encouraged to remain in contact with retired gymnasts during the realising and adapting phases of their career transitions.

To facilitate thriving, we recommend circus companies to create and maintain an autonomy-supportive environment, in which circus artists may voice their opinions, feel listened to, and have opportunities to continuously develop their skills (be it circus skills, creative skills, or any other skills that could be applied to the circus context).


Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Realising, adapting, and thriving in career transitions from gymnastics to contemporary circus arts. The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 

Download the full-text publication for free here, or view it on the journal’s website.