“Who am I?” “Who do I want to be?” These are questions commonly asked by adolescents as they work to form their self-identity. Between pre-teen and young adulthood, life is riddled with decisions regarding paths and roles. Young people may find themselves identifying as a “kid”, “a student”, and a “friend” during this time. Some pursue sports, music, or other extracurricular activities, and some may start identifying with their pursuits even more specifically (e.g., “I am baseball player” or “I am a violinist”). Sport involvement can be incredibly formative, and can potentially dominate one’s identity.
But what happens when sport completely dominates identity? One’s team affiliation can outweigh focus on schoolwork or career ideas. The notion of one day playing professional sports can be alluring to young athletes, but only about 2% of athletes achieve this level. Parents, friends, and close others should encourage these young athletes to chase dreams and pursue passions, while also encouraging exploration outside of sport.
Developing an Identity
Growing up, adolescents seek to feel good about themselves via achievement, connection, and personal control. Encouraging a variety of activities helps to develop diverse physical, social, and life skills. Just as it is wise to have a diverse stock portfolio, it is wise for these young athletes to have multiple arenas for developing and demonstrating competence. If anything, one simple approach is encouraging adolescents to be multi-sport athletes to create a well-rounded sport identity that doesn’t overly emphasize a single role. And, of course, encouraging these teens to apply the skills they learn in sports to other areas of their lives can help with their role development outside of sport. It may also benefit young athletes to find social circles outside of sport. This strengthens their social support and further shapes their social identity. Developmentally, they are better served by forming a multidimensional identity during adolescence.
Loss of Sport
Sport involvement can be halted due by injury. This loss is typically temporary, however, athletes may still experience distress during their time away from sport. Having an identity that revolves solely around their sport role may make these feelings more intense. An athlete who sees themselves only as an athlete may question their identity and feel confused. Participating in multiple extra-curriculars along the way can lessen one’s sense of loss during time away from sport.
Physical activity can be lifelong, but organized sport involvement often fades away. While almost 75% of adults played organized sports in their youth, only 25% of the adult population, over the age of 30, continues their organized sport involvement into adulthood. Those who stick with it may transition from more elite sport into more informal competition. Developing a “sport only” identity during adolescence can make it hard to cope with later life transitions. Preemptively, athletes can develop an identity outside of sport (and reduce pressure in the process). Identity diversification can also contribute to long-term career adaptability and financial stability. Knowing “who they are” outside of sport can help young athletes enjoy a well-rounded identity and experience smoother transitions over the course of their lifetime.