Sport is what you do, it isn’t who you are. That is a key distinction which many athletes fail to make as they get engrossed in their athletic endeavors at a young age. Doing so creates an athletic identity within the individual which can take hold and provide great value while also preventing exploration of other potential avenues of interest. This form of identity has been defined as the extent to which individuals see themselves as athletes and seek recognition from others for their placement in that role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). Through their sport involvement, individuals are making personal and public declarations as to who they are and how they hope to be viewed by others.
In his work on identity and self-development, developmental psychologist James Marcia posited four identity statuses: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium and achievement (1991). These various statuses represent where an individual is in terms of a given identity based on whether or not a commitment to an identity has been made, and if some level of crisis has been experienced to essentially “test” that commitment. In regards to athletic identity, these statuses might look as follows:
adapted from James Marcia, 1991
What are the benefits to developing an athletic identity? First off, you are likely to have an internal commitment to engaging your athletic endeavors. You will train, practice, and compete to achieve goals in your sport. You will have developed a sense of who you are, even if that sense is somewhat misguided (more on this below). Another benefit from engaging your athletic endeavors is you are participating in an activity that contributes to your physical health and fitness. Further, athletes often gain great life lessons and implicit values that are baked into the fabric of competitive sports: teamwork, the value of hard work, humility, discipline and more. There is much to be gained via your athletic identity.
So, what’s the problem here? Why are we exploring this topic? Well, athletic identity without exploration of other interests and without experiencing some sort of adversity, can lead to various detriments:
1. Managing injury: athletes who suffer injuries and are unable to compete in their sport may undergo severe emotional challenges at this loss. These athletes may not know where to turn and can experience a sense of grief or helplessness at their misfortune.
2. Career Termination: whether it be to a career ending injury, an inability to move on to the next level, or simply the end of their time due to age, athletes often struggle with an inability to adjust to a life beyond sport because of a lack of other explored interests. These athletes may not have a defined skillset for the work force and may lack self-worth in their new reality. This can create feelings of confusion, emptiness and frustration.
3. Lack of perspective: this is perhaps the greatest challenge with an over identified athletic identity during the athlete’s career. Athlete’s often mistakenly conflate their sport participation and results with who they are as people. The results can be disastrous. Athletes who lack the ability to separate who they are with what they do place an inappropriate level of importance on how they perform. This can often be at the detriment of their personal relationships, their daily interactions, and their social lives. They can alienate themselves from the world around them. In doing so they not only harm the full picture of their lives but they also fail to perform their best because their personhood is tied to their athletic success. By tying their athletic success to how they view themselves as people they are adding undue weight and stress to their performance. Simply put, they are not “free to fail.” They are not free at all. They are trapped by this identity.
Athletes who have come through a crisis of some sort (a death in the family, a significant injury, an unexpected disruption in their athletic careers) are often those that are able to pause, take stock, and recommit themselves to their athletic identity with greater perspective as to what is truly important in life. It is at that point that they can recognize they are free to play a child’s game with the vigor and passion of someone that doesn’t define themselves by how they do on a field or court, but rather by who they are to their significant others, their friends, and their families.
Best of luck on your journey.
Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules' muscles or Achilles heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 24(2), 237–254.
Marcia, James. “Identity and Self-Development.” In Richard Lerner, Anne Peterson, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn eds., Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Vol. 1). New York: Garland, 1991.