Potential costs of an exclusive athletic identity1 Opinion
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Athletic identity is defined as the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). Athletes are usually rewarded for complete commitment to being an athlete and placing their sport as their highest priority. Unfortunately, there has been evidence that a strong and exclusive athletic identity is potentially harmful.
The relationship between the impact of injury and athletic identity has been shown to be one of the potential costs. A strong, exclusive identification with the athlete role is correlated to a depressive reaction to a real or hypothetical injury (Brewer, 1993). This means that athletes with a higher athletic identity are more vulnerable to depression after experiencing an injury than those with a weaker athletic identity. Athletic identity was also shown to be a positive predictor of both rehabilitation overadherence and premature return to sport in high school and collegiate athletes (Podlog, Gao, Kenlow, Kleinert, Granquist, Netwon, & Hannon, 2013). Podlog et al. (2013) concluded that individuals with a strong athletic identity may feel compelled to expedite their rehabilitation and return to sport as quickly as possible in order to resume the activity that defines them.
Another potential cost of having a strong athletic identity is the relationship to stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is defined as “being at risk of confirming as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (Steele & Aronson, 1995, p. 797) and has been offered as an explanation for some athlete’s underperformance in the academic setting (Feltz, Schneider, Hwang, & Skogsberg, 2013; Yopyk & Prentice, 2005). Yopyk and Prentice (2005) found that when primed with their athletic identity prior to a taking a difficult math test, athletes did significantly worse than those who were primed with their student identity. Feltz, Schneider, Hwang, & Skogsberg (2013) found a significant positive relationship between athletic identity and the “dumb jock” stereotype threat in the academic setting. They also found that the athlete’s perception of how their coach viewed their academic ability was significantly negatively correlated with athletic identity (Feltz, Schneider, Hwang, & Skogsberg, 2013). This means that athletes who strongly identify with the athlete role, perceive greater stereotype threat in the classroom and also perceive their coach to have lower regard for their academic ability.
The relationship between athletic identity and sport retirement is another potential cost and an area of concern. Research shows that not all athletes handle the transition in the same way and indicate that those with a strong and exclusive athletic identity may be worse off and suffer more difficulty with retirement (Webb et al., 1998). An inverse relationship between athletic identity and career maturity has been demonstrated to exist with intercollegiate student-athletes (Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996). Therefore, it has been suggested that individuals with a strong and exclusive athletic identity spend less career planning before their retirement and in turn they may have less strong decision-making skills and be may be less prepared for postsport careers (Baillie & Danish, 1992; Pearson & Petitpas, 1990). Warriner and Lavallee (2008) found that when gymnasts who had exclusively adhered to the athlete role during their adolescence retired from their sport they suffered extreme distress, loss and confusion of identity, felt suddenly alone and unsupported, and struggled to adjust to the lack of structure and direction without sport in their lives.
These concerning correlations are important to keep in mind. Yes, athletes should be committed to their sport; but not at the sacrifice of other pieces of their identity. It is potentially damaging to see oneself as one-dimensional: athlete only. All individuals are complex and unique. Athletes should be encouraged to explore and come to understand other roles they hold and other values, needs, and beliefs that they identify with.