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Who Are You? – Identity and Well-being in Sport

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Many athletes identify themselves with the sport that they compete in as they invest so much time and energy in to that one area of their lives. Is this sounding familiar for you or someone you know? ‘John the swimmer’ / ‘Jill the gymnast’ / ‘Craig the footballer’ / ‘Alice the runner’

If we look at the more general concept of self-identity it is defined as a: ‘clearly delineated self-definition… comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed.’ If we venture into the world of sport then the concept of athletic identity is more relevant as it is: ‘the degree to which an athlete identifies with the athlete role.’ 

For a younger or less experienced athlete they may go through a phase of Identity foreclosure – commitment of one’s identity to the sport role without exploration of alternatives, which precludes the achievement of true identity. This can lead an individual to experience an ‘exclusive’ athletic identity where the individual derives his/her self-identity exclusively from the athlete role.

It is important for athletes, coaches, parents and teachers alike to be aware of the benefits and potential risks of a strong athletic identity.

Athletic identity positives

  • Having a strong athletic identity often leads to a strong sense of self and sureness of who you are.
  • Increased self-confidence, self-discipline, and more positive social interactions have all been observed in those with high athletic identity compared to those with a low athletic identity.
  • Individuals who highly value the athletic component of the self are more likely to engage in exercise behaviour than those who place less value on the athletic component of self-identity.

Athletic Identity Potential Risks

  • Injuries are an inevitable part of sport. Athletes with a robust athletic identity often find it difficult to cope with an injury, especially if it results in them being side-lined for a prolonged period. They tend to lose confidence and may experience feelings of helplessness.
  • Retirement is also something that cannot be escaped by any athlete, and it can be difficult to adjust
  • Alternate career or educational options aren’t considered. This can be a problem for young athletes who do not make it to a professional status or for those who experience career-ending injuries.

How can we help athletes?

Encourage athletes to consider who they are as a person as well as an athlete. Gaining a clear understanding of who they are ‘off the pitch’ will enable them to widen their sense of self, gain clarity over their other strengths protect them from longer term psychological difficulties.

And for those thinking that this may take their focus away from their sport I would argue it’s quite the opposite. Having a clearer understanding of who they are will allow athletes, to ‘switch on and get in the zone’ at the appropriate times and ‘switch off’ thereafter. This fits with the knowledge that successful athletes need to be in the here and now and have the ability to maintain concentration.

Sport is taking more responsibility for the Mental Health and Wellbeing of it’s athletes and coaches but there is still more to do to raise awareness of the challenges that can arise in these environments. Ensuring Identity is kept as broad as possible at a younger age can be beneficial through the lifespan of a person involved in the world of sport.

Rebecca Chidley is a British Psychological Society (BPS) Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

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