I’ve talked about athletic identity in a number of my previous posts (also here and here), so I thought, now might be a good time to explore it in more detail. Athletic identity is something that is critical to discuss with all athletes early on in their careers and through retirement.
Athletic identity is “the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role” (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). This is something that starts to develop from the first moment an athlete begins to play a sport. And how that develops ultimately shapes how an athlete, thinks, feels and acts – on and off the field. Experiences that shape this? Initial successes and wins, accolades, encouragement, attention from peers and media, and rewards for effort or competition.
Athletes spend so much time training and playing their particular sport, that it becomes a significant part of who they are. By understanding athletic identity, we can all have a better understanding of the degree in which an individual really identifies as an athlete (versus a person). For example, there is a difference between saying "I am a baseball player" and “I play baseball.” While it’s subtle, the language we use can make an impact on how we think, act and feel.
An athlete with a high degree of athletic identity is a super-star in the eyes of most coaches because it means that the athlete tends to prioritize their athletic demands above other responsibilities in life (Winning at the College Level, NiiLampti & Tyrance, 2014). However, there can also be a downside to a having a high degree of athletic identity. While not well researched, information suggests that those with high athletic identity may be more likely to use performance enhancing drugs, and that it may be associated with overtraining. In addition, this strong association may also influence how an athlete responds to or reacts to external factors like injuries (NiiLampti & Tyrance, 2014). And these are just a few of the considerations for current athletes.
Additionally, all of this impacts the athlete even more at the time of retirement. With such a limited worldview and experiences outside of athletics, there are undoubtedly concerns when it comes to removing that element from an athlete’s life. Without an understanding of who they are without their sport, it can lead to difficulties. Questions about who they are, what their purpose is, where to go from here, where they belong and what’s a fit for them… all leads toward a period of uncertainty – and often difficulty. This uncertainty can then potentially lead to issues like depression, substance abuse, isolation, loneliness, anxiety and frustration.
As coaches and athlete development professionals, we all play an important role in creating a new awareness around this topic for every athlete we work with. Adolescence and emerging adulthood are critical time periods for a person’s development. It's also a time where many athletes are obsessively and sometimes exclusively devoted to their athletics, making it all that much more important to teach the importance of balance.
Coaches, as well as parents, play a key role in supporting athletes to learn about balance, prioritization and perspective – all elements that if fully realized can better aid the athlete throughout their current athletic career and through the transition into retirement.