What is an athletic identity and how it develops?

Sports in general start at a very young age, maybe it starts as a hobby and you just want to have fun, or maybe you love the sport and you’re passionate about it to think of it in a different way.

Parents often enourage their children to get involved in any type of activities in order to encourage them to be active, meet some new friends, be involved in a team, grow their personalities, and so on. Some of those kids will either be talented and get serious about the sport and want to pursue a career, or, after a certain age they drop out either for psychological reasons, either finding different interests.

Motivation can be defined in cognitive and behavioral terms. Motivational orientations refer to youths’ reasons for participating in sport (e.g., intrinsic, extrinsic), whereas motivational behaviors refer to participation characteristics such as effort and persistence. Both cognitive and behavioral motivation are important for understanding youths’ involvement in sport and for exploring predictors (e.g., social, environmental) and consequences (e.g., skill, health) of participation.

Strong athletic identity can be a positive asset in fostering motivation and sport commitment;
however, a combination of strong and exclusive athletic identity has been shown to leave athletes vulnerable to psychological distress if they encounter poor performance, severe injury or athletic retirement. Furthermore, student athletes with strong athletic identity have been reported to have lower career maturity than their nonathlete peers, indicating that they might encounter additional challenges when making career choices and transitioning to the job market. Therefore, supporting the development of multifaceted identities to safeguard adaptability and wellbeing has been lifted as a central concern for those working with athletes, including sport psychologists, coaches, career counsellors and lifestyle advisors.
Although identity development is a lifelong process, adolescence is considered the prime time of
exploration of and commitment to identities and activities that come with them. Identity formation during late adolescence consists of integrative issues: to balance and control one’s needs and wishes in relation to others’ and to find a place for oneself in the
future’.

Let us take gymnastics and retirement as an example, to talk more about athletic identity and its psychological meaning.
Given the young age at which gymnasts begin and end their sport careers,
particular attention was afforded to the role of identity and the physical self in the process of
adaptation. Retirement from gymnastics engendered adjustment difficulties and the challenge of athletic retirement was intensified because the gymnasts had heavily invested in sport during adolescence, a period demarcated for the pursuit of an identity. Furthermore, their retirement coincided with a time when adolescents typically undergo profound changes physiologically.

Adaptation to transition is determined by the interaction of three sets of factors:
characteristics of the individual (such as age and state of health), perceptions of the transition
(including source and onset), and characteristics of the pre- and post-transition environments
(including institutional support). The individual and the transition itself determine the relative
salience of these variables. Within this framework, self-identity is particularly relevant because the impact of a transition is moderated by its effect on the individual’s assumptions about the self.

A potential explanation for the negative consequences of a strong and exclusive athletic
identity emerges from developmental theory. Adolescence has been identified as a stage in
life during which individuals form a true self-identity.
Self-identity refers to a “clearly delineated self-definition … comprised of those goals, values
and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally
committed”. True identity formation therefore resides in commitment to occupational and ideological options most congruent with an individual’s principles, needs, interests, and abilities. Such a commitment necessitates an active exploration of different roles and behaviors and the accomplishment of particular developmental tasks.

Achieving excellence in elite sport typically involves incredible sacrifice and dedication,
which often prevents athletes from engaging in adequate exploration of different roles and
behaviors associated with identity formation. Commitment of one’s identity to the sport role without exploration of alternatives indicates a state of identity foreclosure, which precludes the achievement of true identity. the nature of elite gymnastics compels the athletes to “maximize their career into the years before puberty”, the very years assigned to exploration and identity development. Accordingly, identity conflict has been strongly associated with retirement from elite gymnastics.

Gymnasts typically reach their peak in the years before adolescence. Retirement therefore occurs during adolescence, when the developmental task of identity formation is most pertinent. The process of identity formation for young females “is hard work, fraught with the anxieties of loneliness and failure”. It follows, therefore, that the identity issues provoked by disengagement from elite sport are pronounced for female gymnasts because they retire during a stage in their life that is already inherently challenging. From this perspective, and given that the
developmental endeavors of adolescence are understood to be instrumental in effecting a
productive adulthood.

Increasing athletes’ personal control and independence in sport would also serve to temper
the discrepancy between athletes’ lives before and after retirement. Allowing athletes greater
involvement in the content and structure of their training sessions and their competition
schedules might be one way to reduce the pre/post transition discrepancy. Similarly, parents
could facilitate identity development by creating opportunities for their young athlete to
establish and maintain interpersonal relationships with their non-sport peers and/or with
their sport peers outside the sport milieu. This diversification might be achieved through
the identification of mutual interests outside gymnastics. Finally, a more supportive approach
to weight control is needed in aesthetic sports. This should include access to nutritionists
well-versed in the demands of aesthetic sports, and the provision of psychological support in
retirement to facilitate athletes’ adjustment to the absence of any need to control their diet or
appearance.

In conclusion, an association between elite sport involvement during
adolescence and delayed development of self-identity. For some athletes, the extreme
dedication required to excel in elite sport was incompatible with the process of role
experimentation and the development of personal control and independence. It may also
have complicated the formation of mature peer relationships, and the ability to accept one’s
physical appearance. Therefore, in the current context, the interaction between elite sport
involvement and the process of identity formation may have negative implications for athletes’
experiences of retirement. However, this research also suggests that if parents and coaches
become more cognizant of the important developmental endeavors of adolescence, elite sport
participation could facilitate rather than hinder the process of identity formation. From this
vantage point, a sport environment that fosters excellence in and beyond the sport milieu is
conceivable, whereby: “it’s not about dedicating your life to your training but about dedicating
your training to your life” (Millman, 1999, p.15).

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