When Your Sport Defines You

by Ashley Wiles

As athletes we continually push ourselves to achieve (and often to surpass) arbitrary goals set. While doing so we precariously walk the tightrope and delicate balance that exists when one pushes the body to limits of exertion and beyond.

Along that path it becomes incredibly easy and natural to begin to define the self in terms of what we do – we are a runner, a soccer player, a dancer – “meet so-and-so, she’s a basketball player”. We gain self-confidence through our sport of choice. We dedicate our time, our energy and our hearts to this endeavor and it becomes our passion. It’s an extension of who we are – that “thing” which drives us and compels us to write our story based (sometimes solely) on this part of our being. We begin to define ourselves in terms of the roles we play in the context of our sport. No longer do we say “I enjoy playing…” but it becomes “I am…” We move from describing an activity that we do to implying identity. But what happens when that pursuit comes to a screeching halt? When injury hinders our ability to compete, when that season of our life ends, or when life priorities alter the focus of our available energy and time?

Being a lifelong athlete, I’ve repeatedly succumbed to the notion that “I’m a runner,” often losing sight that I’m here for much more. I forget that within me there’s a soul that was created to touch lives, not just to push myself to achieve. As a therapist specializing in athletic counseling, I’ve encountered numerous individuals who’ve struggled to find their identity and redefine their life purpose following the end of their sports career. The ability to see the self as multi-faceted is incredibly challenging as they grieve the loss of something that’s become so innate.

There’s a hole that now exists – one that needs filled. A huge vacuum of time opens up and the void of the social outlet that training provided serves to further negatively impact the situation. This combination can lead to feelings of worthlessness, depression, anger and envy. In a desperate attempt to deal with these emotions, discover a new identity and find something to replace the sport of choice, it’s not uncommon for injured (or retiring) athletes to turn to self-destructive coping mechanisms including the use of alcohol, drugs, over or under-eating and other destructive behaviors simply because they don’t know what else to do to combat the devastating loss.

Today our youth are pushed to excel at younger and younger ages, inevitably exposing them to the face of injury at earlier and earlier points in their athletic careers. Furthermore, this age is characterized by the exploration and formation of self-identity, complicating matters if the emphasis becomes solely upon development as an athlete and not as an individual with intricate complexities. As coaches, parents and adults influencing the lives of our youth it is critical that we understand the importance of valuing, encouraging and developing one’s character over athletic abilities and interests – our sport of choice is just a small piece of the unique puzzle that makes you, you!

Suggested avenues for growth:

  1. Allow yourself time to grieve the loss of what was, what you believed would be, etc. Should this process begin to negatively impact your life and the lives of those you love, seek counseling to aid in the healthy process of these emotions.
  2. Learn positive coping mechanisms. This is vital as you navigate your future path. Being prepared to handle adversity with grace and to see it as potential for growth results in strengthening character and will help withstand future challenges.
  3. Pray for guidance and discernment. Seek wisdom from those who have positively navigated like experiences.
  4. Develop interests outside your sport of choice. Creative activities can be extremely helpful in processing and expressing emotions.
  5. If appropriate, redefine your role on your team – what are potential needs that you might be able to fulfill – assistant coach, motivator, etc. This step should only come after you have thoroughly examined your desire to remain involved and have reached acceptance of your current state, otherwise the potential for harm is great.

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