Learn the Psychology Behind the Athletic Identity – 5 Tips You Need to Know
Developing an athletic identity is an interesting sport psychology process by which an athlete, over time, begins to increasingly see him- or herself as “athlete,” and in some cases exclusively an athlete. Compared to non-athletes (who might equally divide their identity among various roles including student, employee, family member, volunteer, or parent), athletes often over-identify with being an athlete. Having an athletic identity as part of an overall identity structure is normal (and healthy), but when it becomes the exclusive identity it can become problematic — especially during sport retirement.
Five more key facts on the athletic identity include:
- Self-identity. Athletes often self-ascribe the identity of “athlete,” and over time and because of positive reinforcement for athletic accomplishments it can eventually become the dominating identity (and even the exclusive identity). While having a self-identity wrapped in athletics may not be a bad thing, it can limit psychological growth and opportunities in other, non-sport experiences.
- Social-identity. Our social identity is how the world views us. In some examples the social identity will mirror the self-identity, a phenomena often seen in athletics where fans and onlookers only see the athlete as having value as an athlete. Often, the social-identity develops innocently, as in examples where friends, teachers, and even parents begin to start conversations almost always around athletic achievements (i.e. “how many points did you score last night?”). As you might imagine, when the self- and social-identity are both developed as “athlete,” more often than not an exclusive athletic identity develops.
- Development over time. Identities develop over time, and often through repeated life experiences, reinforcement of those experiences, and often in conjunction with future life opportunities. Athletes who see their self-worth as “athlete” only get to that point over time, not from playing a sport once or twice. As the athlete experiences success and more opportunities emerge, the athletic identity often grows in a proportional rate.
- Inverse relationship with career maturity. Career maturity is the degree in which an individual makes age-appropriate future career decisions. When we are young we make immature career decisions because we do not know much about career opportunities, nor do we have much knowledge about our own interests, strengths, and weaknesses. For example, we might expect a 5 year old to say he wants to one day become an astronaut, but hearing a 22 year old majoring in physical education say he wants to be an astronaut would not at all line up with what he has trained to do in life. Studies have shown that athletes with a high degree of athletic identity are less ready to make age-appropriate, non-sport career decisions because they have devoted all their time and energy to sports.
- Athletic Transferable Skills. While having an exclusive athletic identity might lead to future life stress, one big, positive takeaway that often comes with this development is the accumulation of invaluable athletic transferable skills. Setting and achieving goals, working well with teammates, learning how to schedule and multitask, and developing resiliency skills to handle stress and failure are just a few examples of skills learned through sports that can be applied to all areas of life.
Understanding the impact and ramifications of an athletic identity can be very helpful when parenting or coaching athletes, especially when it comes time to prepare for sport retirement. For more information on this subject or to pick up a copy of Positive Transitions for Student Athletes please click here.