Athletic Identity and Athletes Depression

I looked up and watched the seconds tick away. A bright light flashed from a camera flashed and captured the moment, 3..2..1..Time. My career was over. I lost. I was one point away from placing at the IHSA State Wrestling Tournament. I lost to two people that entire year. Tony Ramos went on to become an NCAA champion and National Team member for USA Wrestling. Elis Coleman went on compete in the 2012 Olympics and gained media attention with his ESPN Top 10 moment, the flying squirrel. Tough shit, right?

When someone asks me if I played sports growing up I sometimes find myself responding, “I was a wrestler.” In my head it echoes, “I am a wrestler.” I find that most people who played competitive sports respond the same way, including young adults that still play.

I am a point guard.
I was a defensive tackle.
I am a gymnast.

What does this even mean? They identify who they are as the role of an athlete, Athletic Identity. Numerous studies have found that adolescents strongly identify with their role as an athlete. What is troubling however, is they associate behaviors, values, and future possibilities based on how they perform as an athlete. If you win, guess what? You are a winner. You lost? Well, you are a loser. You weren’t on the starting roster? You are mediocre. What are you when you are done competing? You are a has been, incapable of relevance and unable to capture the ecstasy flowing through your veins as you stepped onto your playing field. Tough shit, right?

We have allowed ourselves to judge our worth based on athletic contributions. We associate our behaviors on the field with how we should behavior in society and our relationships. I mean, we did receive praise for it, right? Without athletic competition, how can we contribute? What is our worth? Who are we? Former athletes are dealing with this issue every day, struggling consciously and subconsciously to find out who they are without competition. These struggles leave individuals feeling depressed, lost, irrelevant, angry, aggressive, and develop subconscious coping strategies. Psychological distress ensues.

Guess what? It might not just be those who played professionally or collegiately. It might be you, that played competitively for a few years but couldn’t crack that starting lineup in middle school or high school. Adolescence is a pivotal crossroad in an individual’s life. A crossroad of ‘the person one has come to be’ and ‘the person society expects one to become’. Erik Erikson marked this crisis as Identity vs. Role confusion. Our youth are finding a sense of self and how they fit into society. Easily influenced, they are being told directly and indirectly how they are valued in the hierarchy based on how they perform. When you win, your name or team gets read on the PA system for morning announcements. Fame. When you lose, it doesn’t. Irrelevance. Psychological distress ensues.

Psychological distress presents itself in diverse ways. It’s damn near impossible to determine how this plays out for everyone. There are so many variables at play in the adolescence stage of life. Here’s what I do know though, there’s research to back the claim that strong athletic identity was significantly and positively correlated with anger and aggressiveness (Visek et al., 2010). Might this differ between sports? Of course. Might this differ depending on the environment of the athlete and social influences? Obviously, yes. You are a product of your environment. Unfortunately, our environment has become a society places an extreme amount of pressure on young athletes to succeed from the moment they begin playing. Don’t believe me? Go to a few little league football games and listen to the parents. How old are these kids? Young. The average age for boys to being playing sport, 6.5 years old. Don’t even get me started on the ideology these parents have on making their kids specialize in a sport from the moment they start playing, hoping they will breed the next LeBron James and cling to their child’s greatness to compensate for a lack of perceived success they never attained. We’ll all together skip the biomechanical issues that may present because of specialization, we can save that for another day. It’s time to wake up people.  

Here’s what I’m not saying: Stop letting your kids play sports! Only hand out participation trophies! If kids play sports they will develop psychological distress later in life.

Here’s what I am saying: Pay attention.

Athletic careers end for everyone. There is nothing inherently wrong with athletics. It’s the ideology that we attach to it and impose on our youth, whether we realize it or not. We glorify it.  Athletics can be a tool to help develop well rounded, healthy, productive, contributing members of society. But it is just that, a tool. Do not negate the other tools you have at your expense. Make it a point to validate other behaviors of young athletes and non-athletes. When they learn a new skill, have them teach you. When they contribute to society, encourage discussion. Get them involved in other activities that will also help develop them to be productive members society and develop a self-worth outside of athletics. Stay consistent with the message to the youth. You are more than the amount you earn, the number of points you scored, and the number people who follow you. Take a minute and think about the message you are actually sending to other people and our youth.

I still wonder how my life would have been different if I had won my last high school match. I can still taste the sweat on my face and see the flash of the camera as it captured my moment of defeat. But when I look at the picture today, I realize that moment doesn’t define me. None of those moments do. All of the time I spent in between matches, the days I spent with my family, and everything I did after that moment does.

Nick Leinfelder

Nick Leinfelder

Tribe of Change Blogger

Nick Leinfelder is an Entrepreneur, Trainer, Functional Patterns Enthusiast, and a Realistic Idealist.

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