Most athletes, even young athletes, take ownership of their personal identity role of “athlete”. Often when you ask an athlete to tell about him- or herself, the athlete will lead by saying something to the effect of “I play for _________ team.” In addition to the self-descriptors athletes use, they often regularly adorn themselves in team “gear” (i.e. t-shirts, letterman’s jackets, hats, etc.), furthering solidifying their status as “athlete.” This is what we call our social identity, or how others perceive us (Positive Transitions for Student Athletes).
Every person develops a personal (or self) identity, which is actually a quite healthy life process. When you describe yourself as a parent, employee of a company, and community organization member, you are actually revealing your personal identity to the world. Again, this is quite normal.
For athletes, though, there is a potentially dangerous identity status that can lead to future unforeseen problems. What I am talking about is when athletes go through an identity foreclosure status, where they prematurely and exclusively only see themselves as athletes. When a person forecloses their identity, problems can develop since all other life development and exploration is suspended in light of the one single identity role.
Identity foreclosure is not unique to sports, as people from other walks of life sometimes “foreclose” their identity at an early phase of their life. For example, take a person whose parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have always run the family farm. In this example it’s quite probable the person will begin seeing himself as only a farmer quite early in life (and foreclose on that identity rather than explore other career options). This premature foreclosure may not be such a big deal, as it is quite likely the family farm will be available to work on in the future.
Identity foreclosure can be a big problem for athletes, however. When it comes to playing professional sports, only a very select few athletes are skilled enough to reach that level. What this means is that most athletes who have prematurely foreclosed on being an “athlete” will need to eventually completely redesign and overhaul their athletic identity – something that is far easier to talk about than to actually do. With only about 5% of all high school athletes able to play at the college level, and less than 2% of all college athletes talented enough to play professional sports, it’s easy to see why premature identity foreclosure for athletes may lead to serious consequences.
If you are a parent (or coach) it is important to gauge how closely the kids you are around identify – and over-identify – with their identity as an athlete. When a youngster only sees himself as an athlete and overlooks all the other great parts about his personality and life experiences, he may be unknowingly setting himself up for an incredibly difficult eventual sport retirement. It is for this reason that we as adults make regular attempts to discuss and reinforcement all the facets of a kid’s personality – not just athletics. Be sure to recognize the other roles kids often experience, like student, club member, volunteer, musician, and artist. Holistic identity development will not limit athletic success, but it will instead enhance all facets of the human experience!