Understanding Athletic Identity: 'Who am I?'

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

by Rebecca Symes, CPsychol

‘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.

Rebecca Symes, CPsychol  –  BASES Accreditated  –  HPC Registered  –   contact: [email protected]  –  www.sporting-success.com


Brewer, B.W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or Achilles’ heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 24, 237–254.

Coen, S.P. & Ogles, B.M. (1993). Psychological characteristics of the obligatory runner. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 15, 338-354

Danish, S. J., Petitpas, A. J., & Hale, B. D. (1993). Life development interventions for athletes: Life skills through sport. The Counseling Psychologist, 21, 352–385

Grove. J.R., Lavallee. D., Gordon, S. (1997). Coping with retirement from sport: The influence of athletic identity. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 9, 191-203

Miller, K. E. (2009). Sport-related identities and the “toxic jock”. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 32, 69-91

Murphy, G.M., Petitpas, A.J., & Brewer, B.W. (1996). Identity foreclosure, athletic identity, and career maturity in intercollegiate athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 239-246

Nasco, S.A. & Webb. W.M. (2006). Towards an expanded measure of athletic identity: The inclusion of public and private dimensions. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 28, 434-453

Stephan, Y. & Brewer, B.W. (2007). Perceived determinants of identification with the athlete role among elite competitors. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 67-79

Stryker, S., & Burke, P. J. (2000). The past, present, and future of an identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63, 284-297


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.

Rebecca Symes

CPsychol BASES Accredited HPC Registered

18 thoughts on “Understanding Athletic Identity: 'Who am I?'

  • June 11, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Now imagine what happens to identity when an athlete suffers a serious or career ending injury.

    • June 12, 2010 at 11:40 am

      Thanks Robert – it is truly a tough situation and one that I’d like to see more sports medicine professionals, coaches and trainers be attuned to. Hence, this kind of write-up. We’re working on getting a contribution from a specialist who works with career transitions for athletes. In the best cases, their agents have put in motion a succession plan from get-go….but then again agents are all over the place in terms of the service they provide. Also, there are huge differences between agents who serve athletes in the NFL or NBA vs. professional track and field athletes. In every case though, succession planning should be a part of the support they offer.

      • October 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm

        If and/when you get more information on this, I would be very interested. I am a masters student in Sport/Ex Psychology, and my focus right now is on AI and injury (specifically in endurance athletes). I would love to learn more!

        • October 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm

          Hi Summer,
          I recently recorded an interview with Kristy Moore, MA who did her masters thesis on this topic. She would be pleased to share some of her findings with you or you may stay-tuned for her Podcast. I’ve been having some difficulty with the Quicktime plugin so hopefully I’ll get that fixed and we can post it pretty soon. If you email me [email protected], I’ll forward your request on to her. Thanks for the feedback.
          Stephen Walker

    • November 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      l think ,AIMS is vital in lifesport.i am jounier for master science .i do researech about AIMS.i stuided alot of articles about AIMS that had wrriten by Mr Brewer.my articles are aaccepted in Asia Congress and International congress of physical education.i have done karte for 15 years.Honestly,becase i did excersice professionally,athletic identity is tangible for me.i think,it is essention factor for an athlete.i like to do more research in Phd level in this majore.i detemine my program for Phd level.could you please helpe me?thank you.Mauomeh HADIYAN

      • November 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm

        Dear Masumeh,
        Rebecca Symes is in the UK, but this work on athletic identity is key in any quality graduate program in applied sport psychology. Some programs like West Virginia University are geared in coaching education, others have strengths worth mentioning as well. What particular areas of this field are you interested in working in?

  • June 13, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Hi Robert. Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree with you more. Career Transition is an area I feel very passionately about with regards to both preparaing athletes and helping athletes on their journey. As a practitioner it is something I am very aware of, hence writing this article to raise awareness. Through helping athletes understand their identity whilst still competiting it can help to prepare them for their career transition, whether natural or enforced though injury/deselection. As practitioners we need to work closely with clubs and National Governing Bodies to ensure we do everything we can to assist athletes though career transitions, because as we are only too aware, if not managed correctly there can be serious consequences. As a psychologist my services aren’t only avalailable to athletes while they are competing but also for assisting with transitions and beyond.

  • August 11, 2010 at 8:18 am


    I am a part time PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University undertaking research into not only Athletic Identity but Identity in a more mainstream psychological sense in youth team football (soccer) players at a range of professional football clubs.

    Its early stages but I am looking to Identity formation, creation, forecloseure, organizational culture, domestic circumstance etc from start to finish of a 2 year youth team contract at the ages of 16-18 yrs old.

    It is an area I am also passionate about!

    • August 11, 2010 at 9:32 am

      Thanks Tom – this is a very important research area since so many athletes and coaches have trouble with this work/life balance and there are so many ways in which athletes can hurt themselves when losing a proper sense of self in sport. It is a key issue often times in my consulting work (overtraining, depression post-injury, sole definition of self, more prone to injury, etc.) Please keep us informed of both your process in researching this, but I sincerely hope you will enlighten our readers with your results as they come in. Sincerely,
      Stephen Walker, PhD, NCC, CC-AASP, USOC Registry

  • September 21, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Hi Tom,

    Yes I would be very much interested in hearing about what you find out as well. Keep me posted! Rebecca

  • November 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Back in 2010, was it acceptable to list sources but not have in text citations? And who proofread this? What was supposed to be “through” was often “though”. Come on. This is all too common in sports sciences.

    • December 11, 2012 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks for commenting Ryan. Seems a little harsh, though (not through). This is not a refereed publication. Authors contribute pieces that are advancing the knowledge base of athletes, coaches, parents and the like. If this was a piece for the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, would you have read it? How many coaches you think would have read it? What about athletes who might have identity issues that are prompting the maladaptive behaviors addressed in this piece? The references are there because they are references for future research, and I expect some of our readers made note of them and went to the original sources. By the way, we’re looking for volunteers who might have time on their hands and would like to proofread submissions. Are you up for it?

      Oh, and one more question? Did you get anything of VALUE from this author’s studied attempt to provide an educated point of view on a matter that impacts a great many athletes? This kind of negativity isn’t helpful…but then maybe you’re just having a bad day. Give us something that will help us get better. Please and thank you,
      Stephen Walker, PhD

  • March 3, 2017 at 2:43 am

    I don’t know if this feed is still active, but it’s spot on. I graduated about 10 years ago and even though I had a career and everything seemed great i wasn’t happy. After doing my own research and self reflection I realized it was because I didn’t know who I was. Luckily I had been keeping a journal since middle school and had things from when I was younger that I was able to look back on and find some patterns. Things I constantly talked about, experiences I had that made me happy that weren’t sports related. I honestly think athletes are not treated like people enough. They really do want to be asked about themselves and talk about emotions without it seeming like they are weak. They want to talk about the confusing stuff, especially the young ones. Even if they don’t want to talk to a person I think it’s helpful to keep a journal so you can always look back and remember who you are off the court.

    • September 30, 2017 at 10:03 pm

      Thanks Shannon. I really appreciate your input. This is so true.
      Stephen Walker


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