Our personal identity consists of the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self. Breaking down identity further, we find that we have both a self- and social-identity that combine to create an overall personal identity. Specifically, this means that we define our identity (self-identity), but the world around us also defines how they view us (social-identity). For kids who play sports, the personal self- and social-identities they develop through sports often has a great impact on their childhood, as well as how they develop well into adulthood.
Defining self- and social-identity
For many kids involved in youth sports, the primary self-identity they develop centers around athletics (i.e. “I am a soccer player”). This is not unhealthy, unusual, or dangerous, but it does give insight to the lens in which the child primarily sees him- or herself — and in some cases the only self-identity the child develops. The social-identity, on the other hand, is how the world around the child views him or her (i.e. as athlete, student, or musician) — interestingly, the social-identity may or may not match how the child sees him- or herself (self-identity). For example, your son may self-ascribe his status as “soccer player,” but his family and friends may describe him less in terms of soccer, and more around the fact that he is really good at math and science.
Psychologically speaking, where things can get potentially dangerous occurs when kids develop what we call an exclusive athletic identity, meaning both their self- and social-identities are defined as “athlete,” essentially overlooking and/or minimizing the value of all aspects of the child’s identity — beyond sports. Why is this a potential problem you might ask? That’s a great question, and understanding the uniqueness of sport retirement helps us better appreciate the importance of a well-rounded identity.
Unlike just about every other life experience/job, the role of “athlete” ends relatively early in life. By high school a good number of kids have either been cut, pushed out of sports by injury, or voluntarily quit — and for those who do play in high school about 95% of those student athletes will end their careers before they graduate. Think about that for a moment — 95% of all kids will either voluntarily or involuntarily retire from sports before the age of 18. Now remember the exclusive athletic identity? As you might already see, having a single identity around something that will end before the child finishes high school can leave kids vulnerable for mental health issues, forcing them to revisit the question: Who am I?
Sport retirement is inevitable, and it happens for the vast majority of kids before they are 18. When kids only see their value as “athlete,” and the world around them sees them in a similar light, you can quickly see how hard and fast the fall can be for kids to quickly be left to figure out who they are now that sports are over.
Being an athlete is a big deal for most kids, but it is important that parents and coaches help kids broaden their identity beyond that of “athlete” if that description excludes all the other important parts of the child’s personal identity. Talking about the realities around sport retirement, and reinforcing other aspects of the child’s identity (i.e. being a great student, or having a talent for art) are examples of proactive things adults can do to help kids feel that their value includes sports, but is not limited to sports.