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Understanding athletic identity

Who am I?

Answering this particular question is never an easy process, especially for individuals who all have innumerable roles that define them. But for a moment, let’s at least try and answer this question. Think about how you introduce yourself to a stranger.

Do you state your name and profession? As an athlete you may introduce yourself as “Hi, I’m xyz and I’m a part of the gymnastic team at the university or I’m a swimmer”. Whether this means that you’re a mother, father, sister, dancer, or even an athlete, the roles that you fulfil, embodies the way you interact with the world and how you at the end of the day portray yourself. Your introduction implies that you value your own identity as a sportsman and you want to be recognized by others.

By definition, athletic identity refers to the degree to which an individual identifies with his or her athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role.

Having pride in one’s identity as an athlete is understandable and also encouraged but with everything in this world, there are two sides of everything.



One might think that possessing a strong athletic identity is ideal for an elite athlete as it may come with advantages like commitment, focus, motivation and the necessary discipline in high level sport, however the truth to this is that possessing a strong athletic identity may result in what we call over-identification. Resulting in over-commitment to sports accompanied by dysfunctional practices. We can say that athletic identity is a social role or a professional self-image.


Developmental implications

It’s extremely important that young athletes of today understand the power of athletic identity. Young athletes can experience what we call in the field of psychology identity foreclosure, this happens when potential options are shut off even before a child can experience them. This phenomenon not only restricts the development of a multidimensional sense of self, which is able to protect us when we face any failure(s) but also results in a narrow self-concept. Consequently, when the athlete can’t participate in their respective sports for reasons like drop out or injury, they will experience a drop in their sense of self and self -esteem and they may also be at a risk of developing a vicious cycle of low self-esteem, negative expectations, anxiety, self-blame and even identity crisis.

Striking a balance

Overidentification leads to overtraining and also emotional consequences like losing enjoyment in other aspects of life. One may become so indulgent in sports that he or she may put sports as the main focus whilst ignoring relationships, academics, hobbies just in order to enhance their performance. As everything in life, athletic career will also come to an end and at times it may have an unforeseen end. With overidentification the transition into doing something else can turn out to be quite difficult.

At the end of the day, it all really comes down to self-awareness. Knowing who you are as an athlete, as a person and what will make you the happiest in the long run. Also realizing where your self-worth lies and not tying it to one thing. Dealing with athletic identity starts there and ends with cultivating every area of your life at some point despite how long you might play your sport.

What can you do?

So, going back to the original question, who am I? As an athlete you will know yourself pretty well on the track, court, field and in the pool, but who are you when you step out of the track or court? It’s extremely important that coaches and parents encourage athletes to get to know themselves as an individual and an athlete. When the athlete gains an understanding of who they are as an individual will enable them to acquire a wider sense of self, which will only help them in their lives.

Having a clearer understanding of who they are will allow athletes an enhanced ability to ‘switch on and get in the zone’ at the appropriate times and ‘switch off’ thereafter, which fits with the knowledge that successful athletes need to be in the here and now and have the ability to maintain concentration.

Athletes and coaches can remember to follow these four guidelines to strike a balance in their lives.

  • Identifying top five priorities: These priorities other than sports can range to relationships, academics, religion etc.

  • Drop unnecessary activities: “Achieving life balance means having equilibrium among all of the priorities of your life” (Mackenzie). Time spent on the top 5 priorities should be split equally.

  • Protect your private time: Carving out time in your day to attend to your own personal needs and wants is extremely important. You can choose to do anything you want.

  • Plan relaxation & fun: This goes hand in hand with protecting your private time. Doing something special for yourself such as vacation, spending time with significant other etc.

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