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.
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.
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.