WHO AM I REALLY? — LETTING GO OF ATHLETIC IDENTITY
For many athletes it starts off as a dream of playing professionally. Growing up and watching their favourite players inspires them to one day test their craft and live a life playing the game they love. Some stories end in success — but the majority of careers dwindle away and what is left is a deflated sense of self. This was the story of one particular athlete, who left the familiarity and safety of his hometown to pursue an opportunity abroad.
Things got off to a pretty good start when he first arrived at his new soccer club. He made the team after a few weeks, and even scored a goal in his first game. Fast forward a few months though and it was a different story. He didn’t feel accepted by his teammates, and spent the majority of his time alone in his apartment. He also wasn’t thriving with the particular brand of coaching style which led to decreased confidence, and poor performance after poor performance. At this point this athlete had not learned to develop appropriate mental skills to cope with the stressors of high-performance.
All these factors contributed to this athlete not getting any playing time and he even ended up being demoted from the first team to play with the younger reserve squad. It all came to an abrupt end after one particular game: He was taken off at halftime during a match and was called out by the coach for having a horrible performance.
He sat there in the locker room contemplating all that was wrong with him: “Am I really that bad?” he thought; “Was this all for nothing?”. As the team left to start the second half he just sat there devastated. He didn’t leave with the team — he packed up his gear and left to go home, questioning his very identity as an athlete.
This type of story is all too familiar for many athletes. But this tale particularly hits home for me because the story of the athlete above is my own! Being an athlete was always a huge part of my identity. It was how I described myself and couldn’t see any other alternative. This time in my life was difficult to get through.
We spend most of our lives developing a certain idea of ourselves. Our upbringing, family dynamics, and various experiences all play a part in crafting a particular narrative about who we are.
As we get older, we tend to answer that question with our professional occupation. This is ever-more present in athletes who often embody a sense of identity that is immensely tied to their sport — as I did with mine. This of course can lead to an increase in motivation and perseverance in accomplishing their goals. However, it does come at a cost; one that is often overlooked and can be detrimental to one’s self-worth and life meaning. Let’s explore this a little further.
The cost in question comes in the form of over-identification which can lead to a one-dimensional view of life and careers. This is particularly problematic when athletes are inevitably faced with transitioning out of their sport; whether it is voluntary or not. When transitioning out of sport, individuals can feel a loss of their athletic identity. The more strongly the individual identifies with being an athlete, the more they struggle to adapt to life out of sport. They may no longer feel certain in who they are, in their skills, or what makes them happy.
Involuntary transitions (ones that are unexpected) tend to hit harder than voluntary ones. In fact, approximately 20% of athletes experience the transition out of sport as a crisis (Stambulova, N. B. 2017). Crisis-transitions in athletes: Current emphasis on cognitive and contextual factors. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 62-66). This leads to a drastic reduction in mental health and can be difficult to deal with. Involuntary transitions can come in many forms including:
Being cut from a team
Not being good enough to transition into higher levels
Injury that leads to forced retirement
Conflicts with coach or management
Voluntary transitions on the other hand, tend to be a smoother process since the athlete can plan ahead (though this is not always the case, as we’ll discuss). Voluntary changes come in the form of:
Lack of intention or desire to pursue higher levels of sport
Loss of interest or another competing interest becomes a priority
In both cases however, the ambush on our identity can be distinctly felt and it is often overlooked. Unfortunately, there isn’t much being done to help athletes navigate this peculiar space of transition.
TRANSITIONING OUT OF SPORT
Athletes often tie their self worth to their accomplishments, improvements, and outcomes in sport, thus transitioning out of sport can make their sense of self worth feel compromised. Feelings of having nothing to offer, being inadequate, and feeling unsure of their value in life can negatively affect the individual’s mental health.
However, with some careful planning athletes can successfully transition out of one role and identity into another. Moreover, athletes who plan ahead are also more likely to reap benefits during their sport careers. A study following 632 National Rugby League players in Australia over three seasons found that athletes who actively prepared for their career transition were more likely to be selected for matches and enjoyed a longer playing career. (David Lavallee (2019) Engagement in Sport Career Transition Planning Enhances Performance, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 24:1, 1-8)
Other research also shows that retirement planning, voluntary termination, multiple personal identities, availability of social support, and active coping strategies facilitate an athletes’ ability to adapt to the post-career. It seems that athletes would be wise to prepare in advance for the end of their career. (for more on the research see:
Park, S., Lavallee, D., & Tod, D. 2012, The development of an athlete career transition programme: a case study. Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section Bulletin, 2012(13), 11-19.
Natalia Stambulova, Dorothee Alfermann, Traci Statler & Jean Côté (2009) ISSP Position stand: Career development and transitions of athletes, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7:4, 395-412, DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2009.9671916
Stambulova, N. B. (2016). Theoretical developments in career transition research: Contributions of European sport psychology. In M. Raab, P. Wylleman, R. Seiler, A. M. Elber, & A. Hatzigeorgiadis (Eds.), Sport and exercise psychology research: From theory to practice, (pp. 251–268). Elsevier Inc.)
Sport organizations can also do their part to provide more support to athletes in their retirement from professional sport. Staff should talk to athletes about athletic retirement in advance, when they are still actively playing. Some professional clubs are doing this, such as Crystal Palace F.C in the UK which employs a player care officer that ensures a smooth transition for young academy players. As Kiran Dingri (the player care officer) elaborates:
“It’s inevitable that boys will leave this Academy and transition away from the Academy, whether that be after one year, two years or five years. It might be after 400 games in the first-team, but at some point football will end. What are they going to be left with at the end of that … Are they going to be left with a personality and identity which is ready to excel at the next step? Or is it just what we’ve given them on the face of it, which is football? We’d hope to think we’ve given them a lot more here.” (https://www.cpfc.co.uk/news/features/crystal-palace-academy-player-care-officer-kiran-dingri-explains-support-for-youth-system-footballers/2022-01-14/ )
Ideally, athletes have the right external support that guides them in the right direction throughout their career, whether it is short or long. However, even with all the right social support an athletic identity can be difficult to dismantle. Ultimately it is up to the individual to help themselves. How can one successfully navigate not only a vocational transition, but a transition to a new sense of identity and meaning? Not the easiest question to tackle!
HOW TO DEVELOP A NEW IDENTITY
The development of a professional identity is often described as a process of “closing doors” – a progressive narrowing of potential identity options. Otilia Obadaru, a researcher from the University of Bath, suggests that foregoing a professional identity is often more akin to “a process of trying to keep a door open, then closing it a little, opening it again, and eventually closing it entirely, or, in some cases, keeping it perpetually open.” (Obodaru, O. (2017). Forgone, but not forgotten: Toward a theory of forgone professional identities. Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 523–553.)
With this analogy in mind athletes don’t necessarily need to completely transition to an entirely new identity. It can be more akin to a process or evolution. This is something I personally went through throughout my career outside of sport. Because I was still heavily attached to my athletic identity post-soccer career I wanted to find a way to maintain this identity in my worklife. Thus the idea of pursuing sport psychology presented itself. Later on in my career after the disruption of COVID I had to once again tackle and dismantle the idea of who I was. But this time I “evolved” it to include other interests, which now includes career coaching.
We are in no obligation to be the same person we were 5 minutes ago. Even from a strictly physiological sense, your body is completely different from who you were a few years ago — skin has been shed, and new nerve cells have replaced the old to essentially create an entirely different you. This process can also be applied to a psychological “shedding” of who we think we are, and where we want to go.
Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behaviour professor and author of Working identity: unconventional strategies for reinventing your career proposes that we in fact have many possible selves, rather than the conventional idea of one “true self”. Instead of asking “who am I”? Ibarra suggests that we should instead turn to more open-ended alternatives — “among the many possible selves that I might become, which is most intriguing to me now? Which is easiest to test?”
Ibarra outlines many ways individuals can navigate the strenuous and turbulent waters of career transitions. Here are a few of those strategies and how they apply to athletes:
Stop trying to find your one true self
Being an athlete is just one of the many different interests and personalities you have. Rather than seeing your athletic career ending as your very essence coming to a close, you can view it as an opportunity to explore various other “selves”. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about. View yourself as multi-dimensional; this will free you from the too strictly plotted, the too seamlessly coherent story.
Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go
Career changes involve a lot of difficulty, turmoil, confusion, and uncertainty. Ibarra suggests living the contradictions of identity foreclosure. It is ok to hold two different viewpoints at the same time (otherwise known as cognitive dissonance). Allow yourself some space and understand that change takes time — trying to short circuit the process often backfires and makes it last longer.
Act your way into a new way of thinking and being
We can’t think our way into a new way of being. We need to start by changing what we do — take action, try different paths, and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel, and want. Conventional strategies suggest doing self-assessments (although sometimes useful) and reflecting on what you think you should do. Instead, start by stepping out rather than in. This can mean finding a new group of peers, role models, or mentors. Taking an online course or volunteering is another way of acting your way into a new identity.
Using some of the other research previously mentioned — as well as few of my own ideas — here are a few other suggestions on how to navigate identity transition:
Seek social support
Athletes who experience a negative transition often cite the loss of a support system. Having the right people around you to help you through this time can make all the difference. Tell those around you what you are going through or seek out mental health support (see Game Plan Canada for further resources: https://www.mygameplan.ca/resources/health)
Craft a new narrative
Transitions can be tough for some athletes as the effect might be closely related to individuals’ searching for mental closure on a certain event or story, because people do not want to leave events or stories unfinished. The story-telling process might help individuals find a sense of closure on a chain of events and understand their stories as finished tasks, or ones that have evolved into something different (and no less significant). For example, an athlete that was forced into retirement by an unexpected injury can learn to tell a different story about their journey. Changing the narrative from an unfortunate victim to gaining a valuable life lesson. Perhaps they go on to use the experience as a way to help other athletes cope, or find another interesting career path that is related to what happened to them. For athletes that have planned retirements, some researchers suggest providing retirement ceremonies to retiring athletes to help them to achieve a sense of closure on their athletic lives and assist them to focus on their future lives instead of looking back at their athletic careers. Park, S., Lavallee, D., & Tod, D. (2012). The development of an athlete career transition programme: a case study. Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section Bulletin, 2012(13), 11-19.
Be aware of your self talk (cognitive distortions)
Black and white thinking occurs if athletes believe that they are ‘nothing’ without their sport or that their skills are ‘useless’ if they are no longer involved in sport. Perfectionistic thinking occurs if an athlete expects to be immediately successful at a career outside of sport. Filtering occurs if athletes become overly focused on the negative aspects of their transition and forget to include the positive aspects. Athletes often fail to give credit to the lessons and skills acquired through their sporting career. Athletes need to reframe the idea that their skills are only useful on the pitch, ice, or field. Many of the skills learned throughout their time in sport can be transferred into the “real-world”. The degree to which athletes consider alternative different role possibilities will be an indicator of successful transition out of sport. An example of a transferable skill is resilience. Hockey players learn resilience and demonstrate hard work on and off the ice, which they can use in a new career in business when they retire from sport to learn domain-specific skills such as successful negotiating and proper ways to manage employees. (see McKnight, K. M., Bernes, K. B., Gunn, T., Chorney, D., Orr, D. T., & Bardick, A. D. (2009). Life After Sport: Athletic Career Transition and Transferable Skills. Journal of Excellence, 13, 63-77.)
Find other sources of flow & engagement
Sport is a major source of flow for athletes. It is ripe with the right conditions including clear goals, immediate feedback, risk-taking, high challenge, amongst others. But sport is only one of the many places individuals can find flow. What other areas or activities do you find meaning and engagement in? Ask yourself: what kind of work do you find yourself coming back to, even when it gets difficult and you don't see results right away? You can start by keeping a “flow journal” where for the next few weeks you list all the activities you’ve done throughout the day and rate each from 1-10 in terms of how much energy it gave you, and how engaged you were while doing it. You might start to notice some patterns emerge. Another option is to look back at your playing career and reflect on what types of specific tasks or activities held your attention — did you like the challenges of mediating conflicts between teammates? Do you thrive as a leader and are good at communicating objectives? Or maybe you enjoyed consoling others when they had a bad performance.
Instead of seeing the end of your sport career as a catastrophic assault on your identity, you can begin to evolve and expand your identity into a flexible, adaptable, and resilient one. You are so much more than your sport, your job, or profession. I had to learn this the hard way.
PS. Reach out to Flow Performance for support in your career transitions. We offer a unique blend of mental performance training and career coaching.