Note from the editor: This piece from British Sport Psych Consultant Rebecca Symes is a very important post – for reasons that will become obvious as soon as you ask yourself the question: Who am I? …and begin to ponder the implications of that question on every aspect of your life. I have explored “Athletic Identity” in previous posts on Podium and shown links to over training syndrome, high risk of injury in collegiate athletes and even doping. However, this piece gives the reader the all-important underpinnings of how and why this topic and this question is so important to us all. Thanks Rebecca. Nicely done! – Stephen Walker, PhD
‘Who am I?’ might sound like a really obvious question because we surely all know who we are, right? Well maybe, but I’m hoping this article will really make you think about that very question.
As people we are made up of a number of different identities, which are essentially the roles that we hold. Think for a moment about the different roles that you fulfill in your own life, it could be that of a runner, a cyclist, a mother, a father, a coach, a brother, a wife, a teacher and so on. Be aware of the wording that you use, since we signify ownership through language. ‘I am a runner’ for example is different to ‘I enjoy running’ or ‘I am a footballer’ is different to ‘I enjoy playing football’. The latter is merely describing an activity that you do, whilst the former, ‘I am’, implies identity.
The different identities we hold have expectations and meanings attached, which come from both ourselves and from others. Societal expectations are a good example of this. In western cultures having a slim athletic figure is highly valued, whilst in other cultures other body shapes are more highly sought after. It is not only the expectations per se that’s important but how we interpret these expectations and the meaning we give to them. Our evaluation of how we measure up to these forms our self-esteem.
The Two Sides of Athletic Identity
There are two faces of identity, private identity and public identity. Private identity is concerned with how we see ourselves and is usually described as being unavailable for public scrutiny – it includes our attitudes, beliefs, feelings and emotions. Public identity on the other hand is concerned with how we think others see us, or indeed may judge us. Private and public identity are not opposite ends of the same scale, they are in fact closely aligned and this impacts our behaviour, since according to role-identity theory we are likely to base our actions on how we like to see ourselves and how we like to be seen by others.
Essentially we rank the different identities we hold in a hierarchy according to their relative salience. The identity with the greatest salience will play out most frequently. Often when we don’t understand another person’s behaviour it’s most likely because their choice of identity has a different salience to ours. Salience influences the effort we put into a task, the behaviours we display and ultimately our performance. It also influences our self-esteem with the higher the salience the greater the impact on self-esteem –for better or worse!
For most athletes, the highest rated salience will be that relating to their sport e.g. ‘I am a runner’; ‘I am a cyclist’; ‘I am a hockey player’. This is known as athletic identity, which is commonly defined as the degree to which a person identities with the role of an athlete. In this instance, private athletic identity refers to the extent to which the individual thinks and feels like an athlete whilst public athletic identity is the extent to which an individual is known and recognized by others as an athlete. It should be noted that it can often be difficult for coaches or other support staff (e.g. sport psychologist; physiotherapist, etc.) to access private athletic identity since athletes often manage the impressions they give off. Equally, athletes themselves might not be that self-aware.
The Up and the Down Side of Athletic Identity
Many people would argue that having a strong athletic identity is a necessary requirement of being an elite athlete and there are many researched advantages including commitment in training and a focus on sport related goals; possessing the motivation and discipline necessary for intense training and success in high level sport; positive effects on athletic performance and improved social relationships. However, having too strong an athletic identity may result in an over-commitment to the role of an athlete resulting in sometimes dangerous and dysfunctional practices – including over training. Over training is both a behavioural pattern and an emotional condition, which often leads to burnout and anxiety when not training – whether though injury, de-selection or rest periods, and in extreme cases….can contribute to the use of performance enhancing drugs (some research has shown that people with a strong athletic identity are more likely to engage in risk-taking activities).
Developmental Implications May Begin in Childhood and Last to Retirement
Essentially this strong commitment to the role of an athlete from an early age results in what’s known as identity foreclosure whereby potential options are closed off before being experimented with. This restricts the development of a multi-dimensional self, involving different identities, which protects the self in the event of failure in any one dimension. Therefore this narrow self-concept which many athletes possess and many coaches argue is essential, can result in social isolation, career immaturity, post-injury depression and difficulties adjusting to retirement from sport. These last two points are really important. If an athlete has an exclusive athletic identity then their entire sense of self and self-worth comes from being an athlete. Consequently when they can’t participate in their sport, either though injury or retirement, they experience a drop in self-esteem and are at risk from a vicious cycle developing (low self esteem, negative expectations, low effort and high anxiety, failure, self-blame, low self-esteem…) and can even experience an identity crisis especially upon retirement since they have lost the only thing they have ever known.
How Support Staff Can Help
So, going back to the original question of ‘who am I?’ most athletes will know themselves pretty well on the pitch, the track, in the pool etc but what about when they are out of that environment? It is absolutely vital that we, as support staff and coaches encourage our 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 and 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 an enhanced ability to ‘switch on and get in the zone’ at the appropriate times and ‘switch off’ thereafter, which fits with the knowledge that successful athletes need to be in the here and now and have the ability to maintain concentration.
The latest mental toughness research that is coming out is showing just that – athletes need to be able to switch off since being emotionally involved in their sport the whole time is not helpful, nor is it healthy. Therefore they have to understand who they are when they switch off. Having this knowledge and understanding can also help athletes to maintain motivation though a season packed with fixtures and competitions. Furthermore, this broader sense of identity will buffer again global losses in self-esteem when aspects of their sport are not going to plan, and this can in fact help them recover quicker, whether that’s due to injury or being out of form, since they have the coping resources available to help them and they avoid the vicious cycle of low self-esteem which is difficult to break.
Many athletes over the years have had ‘alter-egos’ that kick in with white-line-fever and this is essentially what I’m talking about, except it’s not about being someone else when doing your sport, and being someone else outside of that, it’s all the same person, just a matter of understanding and tapping into different dimensions of yourself. Ultimately, this can help to enhance performance and promote longer term psychological health, which I think we’d all agree is a winning combination.
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Rebecca is a Chartered Sport Psychologist running a successful consultancy Sporting Success. She works with a range of clients including Surrey County Cricket Club Academy, London Athletics Academy and international youth kickboxers. Rebecca is also involved with the England & Wales Cricket Board Elite Talent Identification Programme providing psychology support and has previously worked with individual competitors in international sailing and air pistol shooting. Rebecca also works as an associate for K2 Performance Systems in the corporate market.