What We Can Learn About Athletic Identity From Michael Phelps

Last week, renowned swim star Michael Phelps returned to competition after a six-months suspension from competition with USA SwimmingThe New York Times published this great article on his initial jump back into the water, in which Phelps is quoted about his career and where he’s at now on his new path in life.  

As a retired swimmer, I wonder what got him back in the water. Was it the love of the sport? Did he feel he had something more to prove or accomplish? Or was something just missing? Was swimming the only way to fill a void left by his retirement?

I don’t know the answer to that of course (unless Mr. Phelps would like to talk with me about it for one of my Q&A interviews), but I do have my own guesses on the subject. My theory echoes many of the points brought up by Karen Crouse in her article for The New York Times last October and wonder...Was there someone mentoring Phelps with his transition to retirement? Did he have the right tools in place to understand his new life without swimming? 

Many athletes feel a void when they retire from their sports and there are often MANY thoughts and emotions that surface once they start their new, retired lifestyles. Among them, is the question of “Who am I now without [fill in whatever sport has consumed their life for years]?” Others of which could include: 

  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack community, social relationships and support systems

It's no wonder some retired athletes display behavioral issues or substance abuse. After all, this retirement period is the very first time EVER most athletes haven’t been a part of a team or surrounded by teammates. To top that, it’s also the first time that very few people in their lives likely care what time they wake up, if they go to class or work, if they are eating healthy or stay up late going out to bars and parties. There is also a loss that can occur – the loss of a passion, lifestyle or identity – and typically without allowing a period for grieving. 

Experiencing any of this can be a shock to the system and if unexplored can bring up issues with athletic identity. 

"Athletic identity is the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). It is a type of self-schema or how an individual perceives themselves.” 

In essence, the athlete basically doesn’t know who they are as an individual outside of their athletic role. They are so tied to the person they become while practicing, competing, performing -- and all the recognition that goes with it -- that they can’t see beyond this. 

Athletic Identity is a BIG topic that is rarely addressed with athletes today. There are very few formal programs at any athletic level that even discuss the subject. What if this was a part of the work done by athletes at the end of their careers or at the very least after its conclusion?  Without education and development work in this area, athletes are thrown into a world that they are unprepared for and often they don’t even have the resources to try to figure it out. Because of this, they try to fill this void by turning to whatever they can grasp at. Sometimes it’s their career or working out, other times it’s food, drugs, alcohol, fans and notoriety, partying, video games – you name it. As Phelps hints in a few of his quotes, he has experienced some of this since his previous Olympic Games in 2012. 

What if we started looking more at athletes as individuals, not just athletes?

I think we can do a better job of helping each individual athlete through this transition by:

  1. Providing resources and opportunities for athletes to understand and work through athletic identity issues
  2. Being more creative and proactive about the ways we approach helping athletes be the absolute best they can be as individuals – which starts well before an athlete “retires” from their sport
  3. Connecting athletes with others going through the same experiences

Athletes need to recognize they matter -- aside from their sport. 

They need to know what they are good at and what they are interested in. They need to know it’s okay to try new things and to be imperfect or fail. They need to know who they can turn to for support and to create a new or enhanced community for themselves. Perhaps if Phelps was offered more personal development resources and opportunities, things would have turned out a bit differently for him – we’ll never really know.  

"I'm perfectly imperfect."  -- Michael Phelps

What I do believe is that once we start working with athletes more holistically and more proactively on personal development and athletic identity, we’ll start seeing happier, more successful and more satisfied individuals not only sports, but in life.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

Source: Image from: ...