Adolescence into young adulthood is a period of questioning, including “who do I want to be?” and “who am I?” During this time, 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/or as a “friend” during this time. Some pursue sports, music, or other extracurricular activities, and some may start identifying with the role as a baseball player or violinist. Sport involvement can be incredibly formative and has the power to overtake one’s sense of who they are. Exclusively identifying as an athlete can be a common occurrence.
But what happens when sport dominates identity? Emphasis on team association can potentially outweigh focus on schoolwork or exploration of career route. The notion of playing professional sports can be alluring, but surprisingly enough, fewer than 2% of NCAA collegiate athletes ultimately achieve this level. Parents, friends, and significant others should encourage these young athletes to chase dreams and pursue passions, while also encouraging exploration outside of sport.
Developing an Identity
Growing up, kids seek achievement, connection, and personal control. Encouraging a variety of activities helps to develop physical, social, and life skills. During this time, youth athletes develop self-worth and sport can literally provide the arena. But putting all “your eggs in one basket” with sport means that identity (and self-esteem) hinges on one thing! Just as it is wise to have a diverse stock portfolio, it is wise for kids to have multiple arenas for developing and demonstrating competence. Developmentally, they are better served by forming a multidimensional identity.
Loss of Sport
Be it voluntarily or not, all athletes will lose time from their sports at some point in their lives. Sometimes athletes may choose to take some time off, to focus on their education or family, while others’ loss of sport might not be their own decision. For instance, injuries are unpredictable and often create a significant amount of distress for athletes. Those who have singular identities that revolve solely on their role as an athlete might struggle with their loss of sport more so than those who have a more diverse identity. Temporary loss of sport becomes that much easier to cope with if athletes are able to fulfill their values through other roles in which they identify (i.e. achievement through grades at school, or social-ness through spending time with friends who they might not see often because of the demands of their sport).
Physical activity can be lifelong, but organized sport involvement often fades away. A study done in partnership with the Harvard school of Public Health found that 73% of adults 30 years+ had played organized sports in their youth, whereas only 25% of these adults still played organized sports (NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, & Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2015). At a minimum, one may retire from more elite sport and transition into more informal competition. Developing a “sport only” identity can make it hard to cope with career transitions. Preemptively, athletes can develop an identity outside of sport (and reduce pressure in the process). Identity diversification can also contribute to career adaptability and financial stability if/when sport careers expectedly or unexpectedly end.
Knowing “who they are” outside of sport can help athletes to enjoy a well-rounded identity and smoother transitions.