Actively participating in sports is considered “constructive use of a young person’s time;” a protective factor against a wide range of high-risk behaviors that also increases a child’s likelihood of thriving. Sports can be an extremely positive asset to a child’s physical and mental health development, so long as a healthy balance of self-identity is established. In the case of many student athletes, the way they see themselves and how they are perceived by others is predominately that of an “athlete.” These kids further solidify their athletic identity by regularly wearing team t-shirts, letter jackets or jerseys to school, hanging posters of sports figures on their walls and delight in talking about last week’s game or sports in general. When athletics are a part of an overall personal identity psychologists view this as healthy, normal behavior. It is when the athletic identity is an adolescent’s exclusive identity that potential mental health problems may arise. When kids only see themselves as athletes and overlook all the other important parts of their personality and life experiences, they may be unknowingly setting themselves up for difficult eventual sport retirement transitions.
Understanding the athletic identity
As students transition into junior high and high school, the athletic competition becomes increasingly more difficult. Many student athletes end up not making the cut, others voluntarily opt out, and for some, it is an injury that will take them out of the game for an extended period of time or permanently. Regardless of how, why or when one transitions into sport retirement, it can be devastating, especially for those who exclusively identify themselves as athletes. For these kids, they may suddenly lose all sense of self: “If I am no longer an athlete, who am I?”
The other potential problem involves student athletes with high levels of athletic identity who do go on to play in the upper grades. The more exclusive their athletic identity, the greater their risk for future challenges. These are the athletes willing to do whatever it takes to be on the team, to maintain their starting position and/or to be a top player – even if it involves unhealthy, unethical and even illegal means – like performance enhancing drugs. The use of such drugs to gain speed, strength and endurance, is on the rise among teens, with 11% of high school sophomores, juniors and seniors reporting having used synthetic human growth hormone without a prescription (up from just 5% the previous year). Athletes have also reported using recreational drugs in an attempt to relieve stress from the pressure they feel to perform (which may also be associated with high athletic identity).
Tips to help
As a parent, coach, or teacher, you may be in a position to gauge how closely kids identify or over-identify with their athletic status, and help them prepare them for the potential difficulties of eventual sport retirement.
- Share the Statistics: The conversation starts here. Young athletes (and their parents) with aspirations of a college scholarship or becoming a pro-athlete should be made aware that only 5% of all high school athletes go on to play at the college level, and from that small group, only about 2% will go on to play professionally.
- Be Proactive: Encourage student athletes to broaden their identities; to find another activity to channel their competitive spirit or seek out other new interests. One way to help is to talk about athletic transferable skills (i.e. goal setting and learning how to relax under pressure) so that they can see the value of sport participation beyond the playing field.
- Be Understanding: You may have kids you know going through sport retirement and noticed that something is off a bit. Be aware of how trying and difficult this transition can be on young athletes. The comradery and social support once provided by teammates may have come to an abrupt end, along with the kid’s athletic identity. These changes can create mild to intense feelings of fear, isolation and depression. Make it a point to offer support, listen, and let kids know you are there to support and help through challenging times.
While student athletes may be getting plenty of high-fives from peers for their athletic endeavors, it is critically important that their parents, teachers, and coaches praise, recognize and reinforce all the other positive aspects of who they are and what they accomplish off the field. Developing a well-balanced personal identity helps kids not only see themselves as more than just athletes, it also helps them experience confidence in school, social endeavors, and eventually their future careers.
Sources: Interview with Chris Stankovich Ph.D., “The Sports Doc,” January 2015. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: National Study: Teens Report Higher Use of Performance Enhancing Substances, 2014. Search Institute: 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents