A bit of background on identity…

If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is 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 (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values and beliefs that you are committed too? Are they just in sport or do they link to other areas too?

Most young athletes will find that they have some level of athletic Identity which is the degree to which an athlete identifies with the athlete role (Sinclair and Orlick, 1993).  As we look more closely at identity there is a concept called identity foreclosure, this is the commitment of one’s identity to one area without exploration of alternatives (Murphy, Petitpas and Brewer, 1996). This can mean that some young people have an ‘Exclusive’ athletic identity and derive their self-identity exclusively from the athlete role (Brewer, Van Raalte & Linder, 1993).

Identity and adolescence…

Adolescence is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood which extends mainly over the teen years. It has been Identified as a stage in life during which individuals form a true self-identity (Chickering, 1969; Erikson, 1968).

If we look more specifically at adolescence and identity, for those involved in high level participation in one sport this comes with a lot of sacrifice & dedication. This can lead to two potential challenges for these individuals:

  • prevents them from engaging in exploration of different roles and behaviors
  • Possibly leads to identity foreclosure

Athletic Identity Positives

There have been positives linked to athletes having a high or strong athletic identity:

  • 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).

Exclusive Athletic Identity potential risks

However, there are some potential risks to be aware of:

  • 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
  • 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.

How can we support young people in their identity development?

  • Encourage young people to consider who they are as a person and as an athlete
  • Helping young people gain 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.