Athletic Identity

Who are you?

The crowd cheers as the announcer roars your name. Confidence radiates from within you and your passion for the game is evident. Your legs burn as you push through the last few seconds of your competition. You are focused. You are resilient. You are strong. You are an athlete. During this moment, do you play your sport or is this part of who you are? 

Athletic identity refers to the extent to which people in sports identify with and accept their athletic role (Brewer, et al., 1993). Although athletic identities are an important factor of one’s self-concept, it can also pose risks. Some athletes see their sport as a game they play, while some see their sport as who they are (Lodato, 2017). There is a difference. Athletes pursue excellence and make sacrifices for their game, strive for distinction, accept risks and play through pain, refuse to accept limitations (Huges & Coakley, 1991). They keep a sense of purpose, passion, and perspective while they chase their goals (Orlick, 2016); while some step on a court, field, or track and play a game.

Having an athletic identity can be healthy, but overconforming to the norms of a team or sport can become problematic (Hughes & Coakley, 1991). One unhealthy issue for many athletes is that at times their entire sense of self revolves around their role as an athlete (Williams & Krane, 2015). Athletic identity is also unhealthy when an athlete’s sense of self-worth rides on performance outcomes or when their self-concept does not go beyond the boundaries of their sport. Athletes with healthy athletic identities strive to enhance their performance and reach their athletic goals, yet they also find satisfaction and value from activities outside of sports (Williams & Krane, 2015). Finding a balance is key.

Self-determination theory (SDT) considers three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Williams & Krane, 2015). Feeling ownership over one’s behavior, experiencing mastery or being effective in one’s activity, and feeling connected and a sense of belonging with others can either support or undermine one’s motives. Discovering a position that supports one’s motives can lead to a healthy athletic identity, while overconforming can be dangerous.

Orlick (2016) uses the word “docide” to explain that people “do” what they decide to do (pp. 4). Athletes who desire to perform to their true potential have to “docide” to persist, remain positive, and have fully connected focus. By doing these things, a performer will find there are sacrifices that must be made along the way. Whether it be missing family gatherings, laying aside other goals, or soaking up lazy days on the couch, pursuing excellence does not come without sacrifice.

Sport ethic dictates that an athlete is going to make sacrifices for the game because it is part of who they are and as a commitment to the team (Lodato, 2017). Adhering to sport ethic can be beneficial to an athlete reaching his or her goals; however, when sacrifices become out of hand is when overconformity to the sport ethic can become dangerous. Neglecting family, laying integrity to the side, or becoming dependent on performance outcomes to support one’s self concept are a few examples of unhealthy athletic identity. 

The pursuit of excellence is a process that entails self-discovering, pushing past personal limits and behaving based on discoveries that guide a person to their best focus and performance. Athletes can make decisions about their attitude, their focus, their assessment and changes to behavior while pursuing excellence, but when they lose life balance, over-adhere to their athletic identity, or their focus becomes set on outcomes rather than the pursuit they are at a risk for frustration and difficulty when the game ends. 

Mental skills training (MST) refers to the systematic and consistent practice of mental skills in order to enhance performance, increase enjoyment, or achieve greater satisfaction in sport and physical activity (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Mental skills such as regulating arousal levels, increasing confidence, maintaining motivation and concentration, practicing and implementing routines, sustaining productive self-talk, and many other skills, also contribute to an athlete’s game when systematically practiced. MST not only contributes to an athlete’s game, but teaching athletes how to effectively monitor and manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while they work toward their goals can be applied to aspirations both on and off the court and in turn lead to a healthy athletic identity. 

As hard as it may be to believe that the game will end, it will; and when it does, having had a healthy athletic identity will fare well in an athlete’s ability to adjust to career transition and set their attention on other pursuits of excellence such as being an employee, connecting with family, or pursuing goals outside the realm of sports. It is striving for distinction and pursuing excellence, not outcomes, that are central to a healthy athletic identity (Huges & Coakley, 1991).


Don’t let your worst enemy live between your own two ears.”

-Laird Hamilton