Hello! My name is Samantha Cooper. I have recently completed my Master’s of Science at the University of Western States in Sport and Performance Psychology. I completed my undergraduate studies at Fairfield University, Majoring in Biology and Minoring in Physics and French. I currently play professional basketball overseas and have lived and played in 7 different countries over the past 6 years. My experiences overseas have cemented my interest in sport psychology and have guided me in my professional practice. I believe that optimal performance can be achieved when an athlete focuses on their physical, mental and emotional well-being. While the physical component of sport is often tended to, the mental and emotional components are often lacking in resources and attention. Athletic identity has been a topic near and dear to my heart throughout my college and professional basketball career and is something I have always wanted to discuss and clarify for elite athletes as it can be a very impactful concept.

What is identity? 

Identity refers to how one perceives themselves, and thus athletic identity refers to the way one thinks/feels and behaves in relation to their sport participation. Athletic identities can be beneficial and impactful to athletes by giving them a sense of self and an idea of how they fit into the world. Often, elite athletes will introduce themselves as such; an elite athlete. For example, think of the first characteristics you would attribute to yourself. How many of them were athletic-ability related? Often times, professional athletes will first refer to themselves using characteristics and qualities of a professional athlete; “I’m Sam and I’m a professional basketball player”. While this may be true, it does not shed light on who one truly is. Identity is a multidimensional construct; who are you outside of your sport? Can you explain yourself as a person without using the term “athlete”? 

John Amaechi, psychologist and former NBA player articulated in a 2018 Keynote presentation the importance of not over-adhering to the athlete identity: “If you ARE what you DO, if your occupation is your definition, once your stop playing you stop BEING something. You become a different person” (AASP, 2018, 25:50). 

Best represented by the term “You are more than an athlete”, while it is perfectly fine to identify as an athlete and to devote countless hours to crafting your skill and chasing your dream, it is important not to foreclose other protective or self-satisfying identities. 

How does mainstream culture affect identity?

The sport ethic is a set of norms that are embraced by general culture and are reflective of what it means to be an athlete (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). Hence, the sport ethic is involved in determining one’s self-identity since it reflects a set of cultural norms that are to be adopted in order to be a successful athlete. Some of these culturally-adopted norms to becoming a “great athlete” are to make various sacrifices for one’s sport: such as missing family obligations, deferring relationships or at times playing through pain and injury (Lodato, 2022).

Certainly, a strong adherence to the term “athlete” and a passion for the sport are often required for athletes to achieve high levels of athletic success, such as playing at the professional level. However, over-adherence to an athletic identity and the sport ethic can also label one as an athlete and extinguish other characteristics or personal identities. A strong internalization of sport participation can serve as a risk factor and may increase the risks of psychiatric distress, developing depression, suffering serious injury, using performance-enhancing drugs, damaging rather than deferring relationships and experiencing burnout (Gustafsson et al., 2018; Giannone, et al., 2017; Lodato, 2022).

Athletes most at risk, however, are those that equate performance with self-esteem and their identity (Gustafsson et al., 2018). When we think about our worth in terms of our identity + our performance, we are heavily influenced by factors that may be out of our control. Sports are a rollercoaster: athletes will have good and bad days, as any other human being will. Good games make us feel invincible, full of energy and brimming with love for the game. However, bad games make us feel worthless, unsure of the longevity of our job, confused as to our self-identity and purpose in life and often induce various negative emotions. That is not to say that a strong athletic identity and adhering to the sport ethic is always negative. A healthy embracement of the sport ethic due to conscious choices on the athlete’s part can lead to a harmonious life-sport balance. So, how can athletes do so? 

Understanding Self-Determination Theory

As Coach Kelsey Gustafson previous articulated in the Experts Experting Blog Post “Can’t Feed Your Face With Family This Holiday Season?”, Self-Determination Theory is a core theory for understanding human behavior and performance. This theory posits that motivation and behavioral regulations are a result of supporting three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness (Silva et al., 2014). Furthermore, performance breakdowns can often be attributed to a lack of need-supportiveness in one or multiple of the aforementioned basic psychological needs; a reason to which youth sport involvement has drastically declined, with 70% of youth athletes dropping out of sport by age 13 (Wekesser et al., 2021). Promoting an athlete’s autonomy, competence and relatedness can have a massive protective effect on their self-imposed, internalized athlete identity and adherence to the sport ethic.

Keys to creating a healthy and balanced athletic identity:

1.     Promoting Self-Determination Theory’s Basic Needs

Athletes:

-Athletes can feel autonomous by feeling self-directed, setting their own goals, making their own conscious choices, pursuing their own training and having personal control over their sport goals, journeys and careers.

-Athletes can feel competent and effective in their sport setting and life by defining what competence in their sport and life is to them. What is “greatness”? Who are their role models? Doing so further promotes the athlete’s autonomy. 

-Athletes can feel related and feel as though they belong to their own community (both athletically and socially) when they feel understood, cared for and cared about. What does this individual enjoy most about their sport? What are they interested in off the court?

Coaches:

-Coaches can help athletes feel autonomous, competent and related by promoting a TARGET motivational climate as suggested by Hartley & Clarke, 2019 where:

Task: focus on task-mastery of skill rather than outcome (promoting competence)

Authority: giving athletes autonomy in choosing drills/areas to improve (promoting autonomy)

Recognition: encouraging peer-peer support (promoting relatedness)

Grouping: not grouping by ability (promoting relatedness and competence)

Evaluation: suggesting athletes engage in self-evaluation of improvement (promoting competence and autonomy) and also working with the athlete to determine their sport goals and progress in a collective manner on an equal hierarchical playing field between coach and player

Timing: not being fixated on time, understanding goals should be re-evaluated temporally as well as technically (promoting competence)

2.   Identity  Performance

Separating one’s athletic identity from their performance is key to promoting a healthy athletic identity and encouraging the positive experiences and emotions of elite athletics to prevail. Your identity and worth are NOT dependent on your performance. You are NOT a reflection of the stat sheet. Think about who you are off of the court and who you strive to be.

3.     Focus on Task Mastery

Focus on setting and achieving your own personally-set goals as well as your team’s goals (if applicable). Focus on setting task mastery (internal) goals instead of outcome goals (which are reflective of ego, based on achievement/failure).

4.     Never Stop Finding Yourself

Don’t be afraid to try out other interests, passions, etc. As John Amaechi suggests, do not label yourself pre-maturely. Engage in other passions, network with people that interest you, never stop being a life-long learnerand being committed to finding your authentic self.

Which leads me back to my original question – who are YOU, really?

2 Responses

  1. Fantastic article. You are spot-on. This article is also good for coaches to read for how they how they identify themselves while coaching and after they stop coaching.

    Great information.

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