Athletic identity is the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993).  It is a type of self-schema or how an individual perceives themselves. By participating in a sport, an individual is making a social statement about who they are and how they want others think of them. An athletic identity is developed through acquisition of skills, confidence, and social interaction during sport. It plays a part in a cognitive and social role. As a cognitive structure, athletic identity provides a framework for interpreting information, determines how an athlete copes with career-threatening situations, and inspires behaviour consistent with the athlete role.  Athletic identity also has a social role in that it may be determined by the perceptions close to the athlete (family, friends, coach).  As a self-concept, athletic identity can define the way in which an individual evaluates their competence or worth. The amount of worth and competence an individual places on self-concept may influence their self-esteem, affect and motivation (Brewer et al., 1993). It is important for athletes and coaches alike to be aware of the benefits and potential risks of those with a strong athletic identity.

Benefits

  • Salient Self-Identity: Having a strong athletic identity often leads to a strong sense of self and sureness of who you are.
  • Self-Confidence: 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.
  • Health and Fitness: 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 (Brewer et al., 1993). Fox and Corbin (1986) found the perceived importance of physical abilities to strongly predict involvement in physical activity.
  • Enhances Performance: Some research has indicated that a strong athletic identity can result in a positive effect on performance, but this is still a debated topic and more research needs to be conducted before any concrete conclusions are drawn.

Potential Risks

Brewer et al., (1993) suggested that strong athletic identity may force an athlete to neglect other aspects of life in order to fill the athlete role. However, several researchers since have found this not to be the case. Horton and Mack (2000) found no evidence that runners with a strong athletic identity neglect other aspects of their life (family, romantic partner, etc.) to fulfill the athlete role. However, there are other negative psychological consequences that might occur as a result of a strong athletic identity. 

  • Emotional Difficulties Dealing with Injury: 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 of time. They tend to lose confidence and may experience feelings of helplessness.
  • Difficulty Adjusting After End of Athletic Career: Retirement is also something that cannot be escaped by any athlete, and it can be difficult to adjust to a life without their sport because they lack other sources of self-worth. This is especially true in sports like gymnastics where girls peak at such a young age (16-20). Kerr & Dacyshyn (2000) found that female gymnasts transitioning out of the sport experience feelings of disorientation, void, and frustration.
  • Alternate Career or Educational Options Not 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.

Athletic identity is an important dimension of self-concept in most individuals, not only athletes. It is present in most people to some degree, which may help explain the successful maintenance of regular exercise over time, or the failure to initiate an exercise regime or be physically active at all. It is important for athletes, coaches, and practitioners to be aware of those with particularly strong athletic identities as it does have the capability of producing negative psychological effects, in particular affecting an athlete’s self-worth. However, athletic identity does seem to generally be a positive self-concept, and is present in most elite athletes.