See the accompanying video interview "Understanding Athletic Identity - helping athletes become healthier, more confident, and more robust." with Dr. Jenn Lewis and Elite Athlete Luke Puskedra
Athletic identity is the degree to which an individual identifies with their role as an athlete (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). In our cases, it is how much being a runner is a part of our identity – how we see ourselves and how we describe ourselves to others.
A strong athletic identity is not something that is good or bad, but it can shape your experiences in both positive and negative ways. Learning to recognize the strength of your connection with your running identity can help you further learn to recognize in what way that identity can be helpful and in what ways it can be hurtful. What we really want to aim for is a mature athletic identity that is balanced by other support components in our life. Someone with a mature athletic identity: 1) Participates in their sport and readily identifies with the sport; 2) Accepts and is honest about their current abilities and performance capabilities – they do not hang on to the past and what they use to be or get stuck in what they think they should be; 3) Is not overly critical of their performance, sets attainable goals that are challenging but achievable; and 4) Balances their life by nurturing other identities.
How strong is your athletic identity?
You can probably tell for yourself if you have a strong athletic identity based on how much you talk about running, how much time you spend running or thinking about running, and how much of an impact it would have on you if you couldn’t run. In sports psychology research, they use a self-report questionnaire called the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale, which has been found to be pretty reliable. You can test your own athletic identity by taking the survey – answer the questions honestly and add up your score. A higher number (range 10-70) corresponds with a stronger athletic identity.
How can a strong athletic identity help me?
Having a strong athletic identity can help prevent athlete burnout. Athlete burnout includes both physical and emotional exhaustion and can lead to reduced interest in running, performance drops, and feelings of depression. A strong athletic identity fosters motivation and energy for running which can help you feel enjoyment and a sense of achievement in running, as well as, have better focus and more resources to overcome obstacles and challenges.
What can be harmful about a strong athletic identity?
Having a strong athletic identity means that you will likely have stronger reactions to achievements and challenges in running than someone who only identifies as a casual runner. That means if you tend to be a person who places higher standards on yourself, you’re at a significant higher risk to experience high levels of distress and self-criticism when faced with a failure to achieve those standards in your running. This can lead to a cycle of negative self-criticisms and unrealistic expectations that can leave the athlete emotionally drained and feeling powerless to meet the standards they believe they should be at. Athletes who fail to nurture other identities in their lives or who consider their identity as a runner to be the most important are more likely to fall into these cycles and are often vulnerable to emotional difficulties when faced with losses, failed PR’s, or injury.
Injury is another instance where a strong athletic identity may make an athlete more vulnerable to negative emotions. Injury can lead to a number of both internal and external losses for a runner with a strong athletic identity. Time that was usually spent on running can feel like a void that athletes struggle to fill. This can result in feeling a loss of self. Having other activities and identities to nurture during this time can help mitigate the negative experiences of athletes who have been sidelined with an injury. It’s normal, and very common, that an injured runner will experience some feelings of sadness or depression following an injury which is why an athlete should focus on mental, as well as, physical injury during those times.
Psychological flexibility can help reduce an athlete’s vulnerability to these negative effects.
Psychological flexibility is the ability to accept the present moment as it is and to be able to observe your thoughts in a detached manner. High psychological flexibility has been shown to moderate the relationship between athletic identity and athletic burnout by helping athletes recognize that their thoughts, urges, and emotions are separate from themselves and can be changed or pass with time. Athletes with higher flexibility are more likely to be able to accept events as they are, rather than resist or become defensive, which allows them to find and engage in positive coping mechanisms to overcome aversive experiences such as a loss or an injury. It can also motivate and energize athletes to seek out other activities that can maintain or reinforce their athletic identity, such as joining a team, working with youth programs, or becoming a coach.
A runner with lower psychological flexibility will have more difficulty adjusting to change or unexpected experiences. This can lead to increased emotional exhaustion and frustration over time. Athletes with lower flexibility are more likely to hang on to aversive experiences and have greater difficulties developing strategies to overcome obstacles or negative self-criticisms. Athletes may then spend more time dealing with their negative emotions and experiences rather than working on underlying problems or strategies to approach their goals.
Strategies for improving psychological flexibility
- Stimulate the mind everyday with new learning – Try to learn something new every day. It doesn’t need to be something complex, but challenge yourself to commit something new to memory each day rather it be practice on a new skill or learning a new piece of trivia.
- Mix things up. Do something differently. Changing our routines or habits requires our brain to recruit new pathways that may not have been as active. So, sit in a different chair at work, try using your left hand for something instead of your right, take a different route to work.
- Do different things. Similarly, to making changes to how you do things each day, making changes to what you do each day can activate and stimulate the brain in new ways. This might look like having a new dish at a restaurant, switching out tea for coffee, going for a bike ride instead of a run.
- Step out of your comfort zone. Doing things that are mildly stressful, such as things that might make us slightly uncomfortable or scared, requires our brain to learn and adapt in new ways. Psychologically, we gain confidence that we can handle things that we may have thought are difficult, embarrassing, scary etc. One of the reasons why new things can make us uncomfortable is that we either think we know what will happen and don’t like it or we have no idea what will happen and that scares us too. By doing the thing – pushing you to do a new thing or respond in a new way – we also gain the opportunity to see that our assumptions aren’t always or that we can handle the unknown. All of this works towards the mind’s flexibility to think about and respond to different perspectives, outcomes, or expectations.
Strategies to develop a mature, balanced athletic identity
In sum, a strong athletic identity is neither good or bad but it can affect our experiences in both positive and negative ways. Cultivating a mature, balanced athletic identity can result in increased motivation and enjoyment for running, as well as, a more resilient, satisfied athlete. Increasing your psychological flexibility is one of the best ways to mitigate some of the potential negative effects of a strong athletic identity. Here are a few other ways to develop and maintain a mature, balanced athletic identity. See more resources at the end of this article.
- Practice radical acceptance
- Build and maintain other identities in your life (i.e., parent, partner, artist, gardener, writer etc.)
- Join and feel connected to a team or a group of people
- Train with people of all different levels (helps boost psychological flexibility too!)
- Practice mindfulness
- Set consistent, attainable goals
Burns, Jasinski, Dunn, & Fletcher. (2012). Athlete identity and athlete satisfaction: The nonconformity of exclusivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(3), 280-284.
Chang, Wu, Kuo, & Chen. (2018). The role of athletic identity in the development of athlete burnout: The moderating role of psychological flexibility. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, (39), 45-51.
Martin, Fogarty, & Albion. (2014). Changes in athletic identity and life satisfaction of elite athletes as a function of retirement status. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 26(1), 96-110.
Martin & Horn. (2019). The role of athletic identity and passion in predicting burnout in adolescent female athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 27(4), 338-348.
Verkooijen, van Hove, & Dik. (2012). Athletic identity and well-being among young talented athletes who live at a Dutch elite sport center. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24(1), 106-113.
Mackenzie, D. Beyond Sport: Life Balance. http://www.csipacific.ca/wp-content/pdfs/pp/performance-point-0909-life-balance.pdf
Stankovich, C. (2011, June 1). The Importance of Understanding Athletic Identity. https://www.premiersportpsychology.com/sport-psychology/return-to-sport-post-injury/
Symes, R. (2010, May 24). Understanding Athletic Identity: “Who Am I?” http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/05/24/understanding-athletic-identity-who-am-i/
Google Drive Link to athletic identity questionnaire, athlete burnout questionnaire, and various exercises/worksheets for mindfulness and other skills:
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