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Why Athlete Identity is an Issue

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By Myanna Webster |

Athlete identity is the extent to which a person aligns with the role of athlete within their life. For some, their Athlete Identity may be just another piece of their many roles, such as student, sibling, artist, etc. For others, the athlete role is much larger and can be the predominant identity. Athlete Identity can become such an emphasis that everything begins to revolve around that role. Other aspects no longer compliment or balance the Athlete Identity but become secondary, they morph to serve the Athlete Identity, or barely exists at all. While we know there are many great qualities that athletics teaches, this disproportional identity as an athlete can have detrimental effects on mental health, personal relationships, growth and functioning.

We are all made up of many, ever-changing roles that we identify with. When these roles become out of balance, it can create stress, feelings of failure, not feeling worthy, or as if we have nothing to contribute. When the Athlete Identity is no longer in balance and becomes the main identity, everything begins to be seen through the lens of that identity. A person does well in school because Coach requires it to participate. Or a person skates by in school because they do not create the time or have the energy because it all goes to athletics. Athlete Identity begins to permeate and take over other roles. The athlete becomes the only identity.

Well-meaning others unknowingly build up this Athlete Identity while tearing other identities down, fostering an environment for Athlete Identity to grow larger and larger. A teacher speaks only to a student about their game, never talking to them about class. A parent only talks to others about their child’s athletic accomplishments, or a person is always introduced as, “Eric, the college basketball player”. Each of these actions by others continues to reinforce the Athlete Identity as the most valuable.

The Athlete Identity becomes all a person is and all they believe they have to contribute to their family, friends, and the world. This can create huge struggles for someone, especially when their athletic career is over. Whether an athletic career ends in high school or the pros, due to an injury or not making it to the next level, when Athlete Identity is the only identity and it gets ripped away, people are often left to wonder, “Who am I?” “What can I possibly contribute or do now?” and “I provide nothing anymore.”. This understandably leads to many mental health issues and difficulties for that person as they have to find some value in themself beyond athletics and some way to matter and contribute again.

In order to combat this identity crisis, it is important to be aware of how Athlete Identity operates and how it can be unknowingly strengthened by others in everyday activity. Knowing that you have are more than an athlete and have value beyond athletics ensures mental well-being for athletes both while they are playing and once their career ends.

Myanna Webster is a former college athlete and coach who has a passion for athlete mental health. She is currently a counselor, working with athletes from a strength-based, solution-oriented approach to help them feel better, be better equipped to overcome obstacles and difficulties in the future, and achieve long term well being and success.

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