top of page

The overlap between Identity and Sport

Every individual is made up of their own unique traits and qualities which contribute to their core as a human and defines them as unique beings in this world. Our identities are formed through our interaction with the world around us and other individuals. Once formed, our identities are able to shapeshift and mould as life progresses and new experiences are presented. In this present stage in your life, what makes up your identity?

At 14 my life got abruptly turned upside down. I broke my ankle which led to 6 months away from my beloved sport football. This was all well and good before my other ankle started to act up. It turns out I had seriously worn away the cartilage in my other ankle. This injury usually occurs from overtraining while growing. However, I believe it may have come about from forcefully hopping up and down the stairs in my home all day due to my initial ankle break. Whatever the reason, the outcome was an additional whopping 10 months off to allow for the growth plate to close. Even after the time off, the sports doctor said I would likely never play football again. This news was a shock to the system and many tears were shed in front of the uncomfortable-looking doctor as he reassured me that there were many negatives to playing sport at a high level anyway.

At this age, there was school, club, and rep-side football which took up a huge chunk of my time. This meant much of my social life stemmed from football and quite naturally much of my identity was wrapped up in football. It is fair to say the following months were very difficult and I was fiercely unhappy. On reflection, I made new friends and ended up developing a new identity outside of football. Today, I get to compete and play football pain-free despite the sports doctor’s claims. I have a great relationship with football and it most certainly contributes to my identity, but sits alongside many other factors. I always wonder if this would be the case if I wasn’t forced into stopping and having to adapt to a new life that did not involve football.

In the world of sports, athletes constitute a niche population whereby their sport often significantly defines them. This notion becomes more apparent the higher the level of competition the individual competes in as commitment rises. Athletic involvement is multifaceted as it contributes to one's social interactions, physicality, and expectations both personally and externally. As identity begins to form during adolescence, young athletes who are heavily involved in their sport will often build a sturdy identity encased exclusively as an athlete. This makes sense due to the athlete spending much of their time training to better their ability and interacting with others who are doing the same thing. Due to the formation of this solid identity, the young athlete may continue to carry this identity through to adulthood as they progress in their sport. This idea poses the question, is having such an impenetrable identity as an athlete beneficial? Or can athletes become too immersed in this identity resulting in the stagnation of other segments of their identity development?

There are numerous benefits to having a strong athletic identity. The research indicates athletes with a strong athletic identity tend to have a stronger sense of self-assurance and self-discipline. This is likely due to athletes having a firm sense of self due to their self-perception as an athlete being strongly established as well as their willingness to work towards improvement and goals. Athletic identity was also positively correlated with sports and physical activity participation among children. For example, in a study conducted on athletic identity in elementary and middle school students, it was found that children with higher athletic identity participated in more physical activity levels during the week as well as sports participation. Having physically active youth is a tremendous benefit in our society today as devices and technology deter young minds and playing football at the local park takes a back seat to the latest app installed.

Alongside the positive outcomes of having a high athletic identity, there is also potential for some difficult outcomes. According to studies, athletes who identified strongly with the athletic role displayed behaviours that were potentially dangerous in an attempt to try to keep that identity. For example, taking anabolic steroids, overtraining, playing through injury, or disordered eating. In addition to this, if an athlete’s identity is too wrapped up in their sport, any situation that prevents the individual from competing can significantly impact the player. Previous research indicates individuals with high athletic identity struggled more when retiring from their sport and experiencing an injury than individuals with lower athletic identity. This is likely due to the individuals with high athletic identity feeling lost and purposeless without the thing they have learned to define themselves predominantly through. These athletes may wonder what they are without their sport and worry about what else they are able to bring to the table in life. This especially rings true for younger athletes who are in the process of forming their identities.

Reflecting back to my 14 year old self, it is abundantly clear that much of my forming identity leaned on my role as a football player. I also wonder if the scarcity of female football players contributed to this strong identity. Outside of football, in settings such as my classes at school I was known as the football girl as I was usually the only girl who played. In retrospect, because my peers saw me through this lens and it was rare to see a girl play football, this only strengthened my football identity as it made me feel unique. Having this firm identity was great in many aspects. While others tried on various hats during adolescence, trying to discover what makes up their identity, I felt pretty comfortable in my role as a football player. It was only after I could not rely on this sport to define me where my 14-year-old character began to crumble.

From this experience, I am convinced other individuals who have serious involvement in one sport can develop an identity that is based too much on their involvement/success in that sport and not enough on other things. If you think you may identify too strongly with an athletic identity, I have provided some useful tools which may prevent an identity crisis when participation stops either voluntarily or involuntarily. The first involves viewing yourself as a multi-dimensional human. This means trying to see yourself as someone that is made up of a variety of different factors e.g. I am creative, good at problem-solving, enjoy the outdoors and play cricket, as opposed to seeing myself as solely a cricket player. Secondly, seek social support from people outside of your sport as well as in your sport, this means if injury or retirement occurs, you are able to broaden your horizons and form connections with people outside of your world of sport. This will make the transition much more bearable. Finally, assess your self-talk in regard to your participation in sports. If you think very much in “black or white” terms e.g. I am useless without my sport, it may pay to reframe this idea and realise many skills from sport are transferable to other facets of life. For example, great communication skills on the pitch could be transferred to a team in an organisation. It is important we instill in all athletes young and old that worth can be tied to many things. Identity should be crafted and expanded to become adaptable and resilient so that when sport inevitably ends, athletes do not deteriorate but instead thrive in other areas.

bottom of page