More Than an Athlete: The Identity Battle Within Athletes

The spirit of sports gives each of us who participate an opportunity to be creative. Sports knows no sex, age, race or religion. Sports gives us all the ability to test ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally in a way no other aspect of life can. For many of us who struggle with ‘fitting in’ or our identity – sports gives us our first face of confidence. That first bit of confidence can be a gateway to many other great things!
Dan O’Brien

“More than an athlete” has become a mantra that highlights the identity of athletes outside of their respective sport. Athletes easily get defined by their athletic skill and not much else. As an athlete it is easy to get your worth from how well you perform and how much praise and adoration you receive. It usually starts at a young age when the athlete is just beginning their sport but realizing from their parent’s reactions what is expected of them. You see the player looking to the sidelines at their parent for feedback, walking with their head down to their family after a poor game, or riding the wave of a great game. Naturally athletes’ emotions are determined by how well they performed and the outcome of the game. The issue comes when they are never taught how to regulate those emotions and healthily work through them. The bigger the stage, the higher the expectations and pressures.

Athletes get evaluated/analyzed all the time. Scouts search for the top athletes for their teams, players attend tryouts, combines, and go through tests to prove their athleticism. Statistics are kept to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of each individual’s performance. This is the nature of sports and competition; the problem comes when athletes tie their worth to the stats sheet. Athletes slowly begin to tie their identity to their sport as they are constantly evaluated and holding the pressure of performing well so they can keep their position, playing time, and sometimes income to support themselves and their family. The more attention and praise an athlete receives for his or her status, the harder it will be when that attention and praise dies down because of a loss, declined performance, or someone more talented who comes along. The saying, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” can definitely be likened to this situation.

Who are you outside of your sport?

(Trigger warning: self-harm) Former UFC champion, Ronda Rousey shared with Ellen DeGeneres after her loss to Holly Holm in 2015, “What am I anymore if I’m not this? I was sitting there thinking about killing myself and in that exact second thinking that I am nothing, what do I do anymore? No one gives a sh** about me anymore.” She then looked up and saw her boyfriend at the time and thought to herself that she needs to stay alive to have his children.

Ronda Rousey was going into the fight as the favorite to win with an impressive record of being undefeated in her UFC career. She was the face of UFC on the female side and had quite the reputation of not only winning but doing so by KO. That reputation and record changed in a matter of 48 seconds.

Do you believe that you are still valuable without whatever brings you the most notoriety? If we love what we do, who we are tends to correlate with our talent/career. If you miss a game winning shot, lose a match, have a career ending injury, lose a ranking, etc. you still have value. If you retire and are no longer the center of attention in your sport, you still have value. Who you are remains even when the title leaves.

How to prevent your talent from becoming your entire identity:

  • Engage in other activities that help you live out your purpose
  • Surround yourself with people who love you for you and not your talent
  • Set goals/expectations in other areas of your life that you can look forward to
  • Get to know yourself, explore your values and what gives you meaning/fulfillment
  • View your title/career as a platform to live out your purpose

Praise and Criticism

Michael Jordan described feeling a sense of sadness after his first retirement due to not hearing the constant praise and cheering from the crowd at games. There is much praise and criticism that comes with any career where you are performing and competing. The praise can be so overwhelming that it is often likened to a high euphoric feeling and the criticism can also be so overwhelming that it leads to situational depression. How one internalizes praise and criticism plays a huge factor in how much it will affect them. In the world of sports there are highs and lows within seasons and games. Changing one’s perspective on a temporary disappointing situation and looking at the overall bigger picture can help regulate negative emotions. Challenging your thoughts and asking yourself the following questions can also be helpful:

  1. If I look at this situation positively, how is it different?
  2. Will this matter a year from now? How about 5 years?
  3. Is there substantial evidence for my thought?
  4. How would my best friend see this situation?

“You have to be able to center yourself, to let all of your emotions go.  Don’t ever forget that you play with your soul as well as your body.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

For athletes reading this, please know that it is not just a mantra, you truly are more than an athlete. For the fans and spectators, the hope is that you will begin to shift your perspective and view athletes as not just a vessel solely for entertainment purposes, but as humans first.



The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support via phone or chat for people in distress, resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Includes information on finding your local crisis center. Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Website: http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Arielle Miree, LPC, CTP

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