Athlete identity has been an emerging topic lately in Finland, for example ex-figure skater Kiira Korpi wrote about how hard it was for her to hear that “ex” word everywhere after she was done with her professional career. Especially because she still continued figure skating but just didn’t compete anymore. But for people, she was now an “ex-figure skater”.
Another young figure skater, Emmi Peltonen, spoke about her strict regimen that she follows daily and said that it is hard not to get too attached to the athlete identity but she is not letting only sports define herself as a person.
So I read these and thought about this whole athlete or athletic identity phenomenon and how often we might hear all the good advice that we are “more than the numbers”, “don’t get too attached to your athlete identity”, “you are more valuable than your achievements” and so on. There is nothing wrong with these kinds of sentences, but..
I think those words lack some depth. For example when you don’t want to be nervous but you still might be, and others are telling you “Don’t be nervous” – helpful? Not really. Even though people mean well, stating the obvious isn’t just making things better. We have to know a little more.
So I searched blog posts and articles related to athlete identity and identity in sports and to be honest.. I didn’t like them 😀 I didn’t find them useful. Only one or two were giving tools or ways to go beyond the obvious “it’s dangerous to identify only as an athlete” message.
That meant that I put my head down, snapped my goggles on, and dove deeper into different scholarly articles (sources are at the end of this post) and put something together about this topic. I also made a questionnaire to find out how strongly you identify yourself with the athlete identity based on those articles. That quick and simple questionnaire can be found here.
Therefore, this post is a more in-depth dive into athlete identity; what it is, what are the components of our identity, a few questions to give you some idea of how attached you are to your athlete identity (or other identity, like work or parent identity). At the end, once we understand more about the identity components, then there are some tips on what we could do to make life after sports more meaningful a little faster for competitive and professional athletes. Ok, attach your oxygen bottles and dive with me!
1 Athlete identity – what is it?
Athlete identity is simply “the extent to which a person aligns with the role of athlete within their life”. The loss of this identity is at the core of an athlete’s emotional struggles, and this particular struggle usually comes from the uncertainty of “who am I without the role of sport in my life”.
About the loss though.. What do you think we are truly losing? Is it the identity – can we even lose an identity? Or is it always part of us? Which begs a question that what identity is?
The loss and struggle are sometimes related to the feeling of becoming average. Sports was a highlighter of our character and person, most likely something we were proud to say that we do and/or are. Without sports as a highlighter of our identity, we become “too similar to others”.
We feel more meaningless. We don’t feel as special anymore. Even though we are special and valuable, but the feeling isn’t necessarily the same as the logic. We might understand on a conscious level that we are special and valuable beyond the sport, but it can still be hard nevertheless to let go of that feeling.
So, no matter the level, the loss of sports can still be a struggle. The level of your sport doesn’t matter that much. The meaning and role of sport in your life and as a part of your identity matters.
Let’s start breaking it down.
1.1 Sport and sports world as co-creators of identity
Sports as a phenomenon involves different stakeholders that all toss their own spice and impact into the mix. And this mix is then something that also affects the identities we absorb from sports. This soup doesn’t lack flavor.
For example, the fans of the sport. The reasons why people consume sports are for example identification with the team or athlete, the search for drama, escape from their normal life and feelings of achievement.
So if we think about this.. People come to the sporting event, let’s say they expect to feel like they are also achieving something through the athlete’s success.
Then the athlete succeeds.
The fans or consumers of the sport are reinforcing that image of achievement with this athlete. Possibly tell it to her/him/them directly or non-directly (e.g. to the personnel who work with the athlete after the game) and reinforcing this feeling of achievement with the athlete, also within the athlete.
The athlete is an individual and is not aware of the personal motives that the viewers have but he/she/they knows that she/he/they is expected to succeed. In this case, achievement is an attribute the athlete might attach as part of her/his/their identity in sports. So the identity kind of is..
Reinforced by the fans
Amplified by the arena.
Provided by the sport event.
The attributes these add to the mix could also construct the identity. Especially, if the athlete represents a certain club for a long time, for example.
At the end, the fans, consumers of sport, coaches, opponents and other stakeholders are co-creating this phenomenon together about that sporting moment involved with the athlete.
As an athlete, you get to embody different notions of your identity in the sports arena. That is a big part of the identity you have. What notions of your identity can you express through sports? How aligned are those with the other “stakeholders”? Do you feel like you would have to leave all of that behind as well when sports are over because the community and connection has been so strongly connected with your identity?
Different sports also represent different individuals, communities, races, ethnicities, ideals, “personality traits”. How big of a part those factors are of your identity is an intriguing question… Right?? 🙂
1.2 Athletic identity and gender roles in sports
Gender has been a big topic in sports for ages. Sports was only for men in the beginning and very many of the sports still represent these kinds of more masculine values. Females often then feel the need to show these values more in order to fit into the picture. To be successful. The masculine values are still considered to be successful, for example toughness, strength, fighting through pain/being a hero. (More about why the illusion that those would also predict success in sports here…)
We also have so-called more feminine sports that refer to the sports that were considered as appropriate for women in the ancient times, like gymnastics. Aesthetic sports, beautiful movements, lightness and gracefulness instead of big muscles, blood and tears.
So for males, those sports represent a world where males often need to adapt to those factors and express more female features. And yes, we can argue about what are male or female values or features but that is not the point of this post so let’s skip that, please. There has been a division in the history and we still carry the remains of that in our current environment. The lines are blurring but they still exist.
1.3 The impacts of culture and nationality on sports identity
National team is another topic that I love to think about in relation to athlete identity. Think with me!
So it’s an honor to represent your country. And don’t skip this part even though you are not on the national team now, think about this from the perspective of the nationality you are representing. 🙂
How you see the flag on your chest makes a difference to some. Do you see the flag as weighing you down, is it bringing you pressure to perform? Do you see “national” as something so exciting, something you feel proud of? The flag is still is a flag. When the flag is printed to your shirt and your last name is printed behind that shirt – it´s amazing. But we all attach different meaning to that flag. That’s why it becomes a symbol for us. The meaning of that flag on the shirt is big for many.
When you are a national team athlete, you also then represent the country. I and we from Finland represented the characteristics of Finland pretty well if I think about it. We were small, hardworking, persistent, never giving up, we tried to be smarter and get tactically and technically great in some well-considered areas instead of getting stronger in everything and crush with manpower and quantity. We were also honest and polite. Something that some countries might not find important at all, we defined it as part of our team identity. Honesty is very deep in the Finnish culture.
See the connections here? Your athlete identity can be and is a mix of so many external influences. We are also representing the historical events of our countries and cultures, sometimes without knowing it. Or maybe sometimes we know them but want to represent a different kind of image. Then you are identifying with some opposing values and features.
1.4 Your personal journey as an athlete
So what about you and your own experiences? As you can guess, very important!
How was your “trip” to becoming an athlete? What kinds of struggles were you facing? How did you solve them? Did that become your trademark? Are you expressing beautiful technical skills? Are you the smartest one what comes to tactics? Are you the natural talent who seems to pick up things fast? Are you a survivor? Are you a fighter? So many options. What are you known for? If you don’t know, ask your friends, opponents, teammates, coaches.
What about your history? Did you have to fight for everything you got? Or do people have the conception that things were easy for you, you had a great upbringing, maybe a wealthy family? And you need to prove that you also are as hardworking as anyone else?
— Our background. One big component of our athlete identity as well.
1.5 How attached are you to your athletic identity?
How much do you think you represent all those things mentioned above about your sport? For example, if you are a golfer – the words that I would toss around for that sport could for example be individual sport, focused athlete, mental strength, money, sophisticated. Ultimate fighting, MMA, as another example could represent toughness, pain, rawness, aggression.
How much do you resonate with the representations of your sport? Do you see yourself representing those values naturally? Or do you have to fake and push to get them to the surface?
These questions are helping you to consider how aligned you are with the image of the sport. If there is a strong misalignment, I would guess that this part of your athlete identity isn’t that strongly attached to your value as a human being.
If you are the opposite and live and breath your sport, it might be hard to leave sports behind for the reason that this sport has been such a great platform for you to be yourself.
Either way, you might have a hard time letting go of the sport because of the meanings you attach to it. And those meanings are often also intertwined with your athletic identity.
Let’s talk about the components of the identity so we know what to explore:)
2 The components of (athlete) identity
There are three components that have been recognized in the research as components of identity. The first one is distinctiveness which means seeing the self as unique and distinct from others. This explains why it feels like we are “so average when sports is over” because sports was a big part of that distinctiveness of our identity. I will probably always see myself as an athlete in some ways.
Second component of identity is coherence which means perceiving the self as similar across domains. So, you don’t need to separate your athlete self from your “normal self”, they are nicely living together and holding hands. You are not too separate on the court than how you normally behave. You can be a “highlighted” version of yourself and your behavior can be more extreme than what it is on your home couch for example but nevertheless, you are expressing the same you.
Third component is continuity where you perceive the self as the same person over time. This is the trickier one for athletic identity because eventually, the competitive or professional sports come to an end. Also, the longer you have identified yourself strongly as an athlete, the harder it is to see your identity and self without sports.
One of the studies was also arguing that identity is something that people cannot be trusted to describe with accuracy. Identity is more understood as situated within the social realm, so the way we talk and text as “products” of our cultures and therefore, we cannot be treated as reliable informants of our identities and what our identity would lead us to think, feel and do.
That is also due to the fact that once we are deeply involved and intertwined with our cultures or social realms, we consider the matters inside that bubble where we live as truths. Our mind is not capable of expanding beyond something it doesn’t know and being an objective describer of our identity becomes impossible.
Therefore, these kinds of subjective positions, who we are and our ways of being, are so bound to culture and will dominate at certain times. And then we make other identities as a result of our choices and actions.
That is why solving this athlete identity issue is really hard! It needs to go beyond the learned norms and expand the understanding of oneself as a human being and individual.
Luckily, I would say that athletic identity is not the only identity many of us have. It can definitely be one important and major part but I believe many of us can recognize our identity without the prefix “athlete”. It just needs some time to sit down, explore, think, and drop the athletic identity labels for a minute.
3 How to “solve” the overpowering athlete identity?
Two little packed sentences first that I think could be helpful…
Functionality of the body > appearance and numbers
Human value > performance
= Athlete whose value is not bound to sports
Expressing those in whatever format that works for you would be beneficial. I know it is pretty simple but following those guidelines, the athlete would not have as big stress about their body once sports is done and has more understanding of their value beyond performance. After sports, you still have a body. You still have your human value.
Explore everything that you are. Write it down. How would you describe yourself if you can’t use words that describe what you do but only what you are? You can use both questions “who am I” and “what am I”.. I and many others struggle(d) with the latter much more 🙂
The course that I have created during this fall is also a great source of diving deeper into who you are and what skills and strengths you possess in sports so you realize your own excellence in a broader form. See what helped you to achieve the level you did. It has been you. And you continue being you also after sports. Finding more about you is therefore pretty important and empowering! 🙂 More information about the course can be found here.
Create a vision for the future. You can also start looking into post-transition options early, not in a way that it will take away from sports but just imagining what you would do if you had the chance.. Just to keep the other world and options alive in you as well.
Creating a vision during sports can also work so that sports is one way for you to begin to express that vision. So, when sports is over, your ways and means transform, but the vision still keeps guiding you. (Psst! We also set a vision in the course .. 🙂 )
You can also come up with some new ways to be involved in the sport if that’s what you want to do. I loved being a coach and still see another perspective of the sport I love so much. Was it hard at first? Yes. I walked into the gym without kneepads, so weird! I couldn’t test all the great stuff I loved to do. The first matches on the bench were the hardest. I would have done pretty much anything to be able to jump back on the court. Lucky for CU my ankle didn’t let me jump haha and we avoided that catastrophic scene..
If you still love the sport and exercise, finding some other leagues or fun clubs or competition or just hobbies related to your sport works great for some as well.
Overall, anything that feels like it could possibly be your thing… Go for it. Try it out. And thinking about those other things you enjoy doing is beneficial during your career as well. Because after sports, when we would really want to find something and we hunt for that next passion project, it might not come up. Let it come up naturally without the desperate need of finding something right now.
4 Summary – curse or cure?
Well that was a lot. But athlete identity isn’t a blessing or curse in itself. We attach all these mental images and values to it and to ourselves and they define how we approach it. Does athlete identity become valuable or a burden? Identity is a big, deep concept and different for everyone. It is shaped by your experiences, culture, the sport and so on. Practicing self-awareness you get to see yourself a little more clearly and then recognizing the different parts, also how important athlete identity is for us. Then we can start processing the different components of it and awaken how cool we really are also outside of sports.
Towards awakening! 😉
Thank you for reading ❤️
Ps. There is a box underneath the sources and an opportunity to join my “email gang” where I share content and stories that are shorter than these blog posts but longer than Instagram updates.. Would love for you to join us!
Sources and further reading:
Joseph A. Maguire (2011) Sport, identity politics, gender and globalization, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 994-1009, DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2011.603554
Wiggins, D. K. (ed.)(2006). Out of the shadows. Chap. 19: “Ghetto Cinderellas”: Venus and Serena Williams and the discourse of racism, p. 353-371, 423-428. University of Arkansas Press. ISBN: 1557288267
Becht (2018) . A Review and Integration of Three Key Components of Identity Development: Distinctiveness, Coherence, and Continuity
Costa, S., Santi, G., di Fronso, S., Montesano, C., Di Gruttola, F., Ciofi, E. G., Morgilli, L., & Bertollo, M. (2020). Athletes and adversities: athletic identity and emotional regulation in time of COVID-19. Sport Sciences for Health, 16(4), 609–618. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11332-020-00677-9
Menke, D. J., & Germany, M.-L. (2019). Reconstructing Athletic Identity: College Athletes and Sport Retirement. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 24(1), 17–30. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2018.1522475
Cosh, S., Crabb, S., & LeCouteur, A. (2013). Elite athletes and retirement: Identity, choice, and agency. Australian Journal of Psychology, 65(2), 89–97. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1742-9536.2012.00060.x
Joseph A. Maguire (2011) Globalization, sport and national identities, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 978-993, DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2011.603553