Nearly every sport you can imagine includes player numbers, and if you’re a famous professional athlete that number can sometimes be as recognizable as the athlete himself. For example, most sports fans immediately recognize #23 as the number Michael Jordan wore (and now LeBron James), and #99 in hockey will always be associated with Wayne Gretzky. In fact, many of you reading this right now have your own current or former number that literally grew in to a big part of your identity. So, what’s really in a number?
The athletic identity
Our human identity is comprised of our self-identity, as well as our social-identity. Our self-identity is how we see and describe ourselves, and our social-identity is how the world views us (which may or may not be how we see ourselves). For athletes, often both the self- and social-identity is developed around the role of “athlete,” and this identity can become the primary — and sometimes exclusive — lens in which the athlete is viewed.
Developing an athletic identity often happens passively and as a result of being a part of a team. As the years go on, the identity usually becomes stronger, and in some cases the athlete ends up seeing him- or herself as only an athlete. People around the athlete, including family, friends, and fans, can also get caught up recognizing athletes as only being a one dimensional athlete, and herein is where athletic identities sometimes become the only identity.
As athletes develop athletic identities, a major distinguishing feature of the transformation is the sports number the athlete wears on his or her back. The number, in essence, becomes the athlete’s second name, and we often see athletes display their number in various unique ways including rings, pendants, and even body tattoos. In fact, at the higher levels of sport some athletes even have their number written into their contracts, or pressure younger athletes to give up the number because of the league seniority. A sports number to an athlete, in essence, is like their personal modern-day Social Security number.
Pros & cons of sports number identities
When athletes essentially become their sports number, the most positive benefits generally center around greater confidence and comfort on the field — two variables closely linked to peak performance. The confidence an athlete gains from his or her number can also lead to confidence off the field, sometimes contributing to community volunteering, or even speaking to groups of young kids about making positive life choices. There are many ways in which an athlete can come into his or her own personality through the route of their sports number identity, especially off the field.
A sports number identity can also have a negative effect, and this primarily occurs when athletes foreclose on their personal identity and simply distill their worth down to being only an athlete. In fact, my own research has shown a direct, inverse relationship between a high level of exclusive athletic identity and low levels of career maturity and readiness (meaning the more an athlete only sees himself as “athlete,” the less likely he will be to eventually transition and retire from sports). Some former athletes still see themselves as athletes, and use their number as their primary means of self-identifying, even though they haven’t played competitive sports in years. This stagnation can limit future career opportunities, and also prevent former athletes from growing and developing a future identity more in line with who they are currently.
Implications for helpers
If you are a sports parent or coach, it’s important to recognize the importance many athletes place on their personal number. When athletes face sport retirement, you can help athletes by considering the following:
- Don’t laugh at the importance a number. If you laugh at an athlete who develops a large part of his or her identity through their sports number, you are essentially saying that they wasted their time taking sports that seriously.
- Use sports to build confidence. It’s important to recognize the efforts athletes put into their sport, and help them parlay that confidence to future non-sport jobs and opportunities.
- Use athletic transferable skills. Help athletes recognize the sport skills that made them successful, like motivation and resiliency, and show them how to parlay those skills toward life after sports.
The number on an athlete’s back is often much more than just a way to distinguish players from one another, but instead a unique type of identity only created and developed through sports. Even though a sports career ends for most athletes quite early in life, the identity they develop often carries on for a lifetime. Finally, there are important helping and therapeutic ideas to consider when helping athletes, including using their athletic identity to develop self-confidence beyond sports.
Interested in learning more? Check out our popular continuing education course for educators and helping professionals, Therapeutic Approaches for Counseling Student Athletes