A Player’s Number and Athletic Identity
In sports, unlike most other life endeavors, participants are often more readily known and recognized because of their number as much as they are their name. In basketball, #23 will always be Michael Jordan’s number, and in hockey #99 belongs to “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky. Baseball fans know that Derek Jeter is #2 (another number the Yankees will undoubtedly retire once Jeter calls it a career), and there are dozens more numbers that we have come to associate with famous sports figures over the years. Unlike non-athletes (the majority of society) who go to work each day without wearing a numbered jersey, athletes are unique in that they often become one with their number, which contributes to their unique “athletic identity.” (Sport Success 360)
Even though few athletes will become successful enough in their athletic careers to have their number retired one day, most do become closely associated with their number, sometimes as early as pee-wee youth sports. Similar to how the professional athlete becomes his or her number, amateur athletes involved in youth and interscholastic sports often begin their association with their number quite early in life, which in turn becomes their major identity in many cases. This in itself is not a good or bad thing, but it does present an interesting view and better understanding of the life of an athlete (even amateur athletes), and how much of who they are is tied to their athletic persona and player number.
The Implications of Athletic Identity
- For many kids having a sports number and developing an athletic identity is a great thing, as it gives them (and the world) a lens to view them through — “she’s #20 on the soccer team.”
- Kids often take pride and develop self-confidence in their role and status on a team, allowing them to appreciate the privilege of being a part of a team.
- When kids are proud of their team and number, they are often more committed and motivated to continue pursuing team and individual goals.
- When an athletic identity and sports number becomes the exclusive identity of a child, it could be too limiting and actually stunt the growth of the child’s overall identity. While being an athlete is great, most kids also have other parts of their identity that are important to embrace and nurture — including academic, artistic, musical, and social interests. In other words, “#20 on the soccer team” might also want to be known for her abilities in the classroom, as well as her above-average talent in playing a musical instrument.
- Scientific studies have shown that the more exclusive an athletic identity, the less likely an athlete will be prepared for his or her inevitable sport retirement transition. This inverse relationship makes sense when you think about it — the more exclusive (and often rigid) we are with our identity, the less prepared we are to move ahead in life without it (and have to develop an entirely new identity).
The sports number and athletic identity are very unique to sports, and as such bring a host of related issues for us to learn about. While we want all athletes to take pride in their sports number, we also want to make sure that they don’t over-invest in this single identity at the expense of developing holistically as people.
Do your part and learn as much as you can about your kids or the kids you coach and the implications of their sports identities – for more help on this topic, check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes or Sport Success 360 today!