• Dr Tom Mitchell // PhD Identity in Elite Youth

Athletic Identity - Pros & Cons on the 24-Hour Athlete

Most of us will know or work with athletes that are 100% dedicated to their sports and pursuit of excellence their field. We also know that takes time, commitment and sacrifice. This article with explore the positive and negative associations of such commitment and sacrifice using the concept of Athletic Identity.

The common and current concept used within the sport psychology domain is Athletic Identity and has been defined in many ways, but all such definitions include something along the lines of “the strength and exclusivity of an individual’s identification with the athlete role”[1] An example of this may be a person who describes themselves as being ‘a footballer’ rather than ‘a person who plays football’. The Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS) is used to measure Athletic Identity[1-2]. The AIMS is comprised of three subscales; social identity (i.e., the degree to which an individual views him/herself as occupying the role of an athlete); exclusivity (i.e., the degree to which an individual’s self-worth is established through participating in the athletic role); and negative affectivity (i.e., the degree to which an individual experiences negative emotions from unwanted sporting outcomes).

Positive associations of a strong sense of athletic Identity

Where Athletic Identity has been seen to be strong, but not exclusive to the athletic role, long lasting psychological benefits to the athlete have been seen such as more social interactions, more positive athletic experiences and increased motivation (Individuals with a strong Athletic Identity have been seen to spend more time with teammates and coaches who could further strengthen their Athletic Identity. High levels of Athletic Identity have been associated with higher levels of motivation.

A strong and exclusive Athletic Identity can have a positive effect on athletic performance. In their study, Lamont-Mills and Christiensen[3] used three distinct sports participation groupings across 19 different sports elite (N = 51), recreational (N = 118) and non-participation (N = 45). Using the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS) and associated statistical analyses they found significant differences in overall AIMS scores for all three groups, suggesting those who operated at higher levels of participation associated with the athletic role more than those who were recreational or non-participants.

REFLECTIVE STOP OFF: Arguably, this is the easy bit! Most sport scientists working with athletes can see that the majority of these people love what they do and are dedicated to improving their performances in their chosen sport. They might also have a balanced and well-rounded lifestyle including a family and outside interests. These can offer solace when things aren’t going so well.

Negative associations of a Strong athletic identity

Those who place too strong a centrality to their Athletic Identity may experience psychological and physical negativity during periods of their career.

Abnormal training behaviours

One negative consequence of a strong Athletic Identity and heavy investment in a chosen sporting career may leave athletes and subsequent former athletes rather one-dimensional, and this may lead to abnormal behaviours such as overtraining, becoming anxious when not training, and drug abuse[4].

Lack of career planning

Athletes with high levels of athletic identity might also be less likely to explore educational, career and social avenues due to their heavy investment in sport. Murphy, Petitpas and Brewer[5] reported that important decisions (e.g. career planning) are often deferred to others. One reason for a lack of career planning is that student athletes lack the time and interest to do career planning, or view it as a threat to their athletic identity and their dream of becoming a professional athlete

Difficulty during transitions

Negative experiences may occur during transitional processes such as de-selection or retirement. In their systematic review, Park, Lavallee and Tod6 reported 34 studies that had correlations with a strong Athletic Identity being negatively associated with the quality of athletic transition. Athletes who are somewhat one-dimensional may have severely restricted the development of other roles within the self, such as a spouse, brother or father. The rigorous demands of training and competition frequently require athletes to narrow their focus in order to achieve optimal performance levels. The findings are likely to be the result of high levels of commitment to the athletic role at the expense of other roles and goals, and that the athlete’s social support may solely revolve around their sporting lives (e.g., through coaches and playing colleagues).

REFLECTIVE STOP OFF: The first indication of an overly strong athletic identity in athletes could be their training behaviours, especially when injured or attempting to return to play. Often sport scientists are the first to see such behaviours. Good commutation with athletes, getting to know them and their future plans, if any, are good strategies to offer insight into your own career path or signpost athletes for further special support such as a sport psychologist.

My research has adopted the concept of Athletic Identity in elite youth soccer players within the U.K. We undertook some exploratory, cross-sectional work[7] and are now exploring more longitudinal observations in these populations.

To conclude, I hope that this article has offered some insight into the healthy and unhealthy relationships athletes can have with their chosen sport along with the positive and potentially negative effect. Communicate well with your athletes get to know them and monitor training behaviours.

  1. Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. Athletic Identity: Hercules' muscles or Achilles' heel? Int. J. of Sport Psych., 24, 1993, 237-254.

  2. Brewer B. W., & Cornelius A. E. Norms and factorial invariance in the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS). Acad. Ath. J., 15, 2001 103-113.

  3. Lamont-Mills, A., & Christensen, S. A. Athletic Identity and its relationship to sport participation levels. J. of Sci. and Med. in Sport, 9, 2006 472-478.

  4. Werthner, P., & Orlick, T. Retirement experiences of successful Olympic athletes. Intl. J. of Sport Psych., 17, 1986, 337–363.

  5. Murphy, G., Petitpas, A., & Brewer, B. Identity foreclosure, Athletic Identity, and career maturity in intercollegiate athletes. The Sport Psych. 10, 1986, 239-246.

  6. Park, S., Lavallee, D., & Tod, D. Athletes’ career transition out of sport. 2 Int. Rev. of Sport and Ex. Psych, 6, 2012, 22-53.

  7. Mitchell T, Richardson D, Nesti M, Eubank M, Midgley A, Littlewood M. Athletic Identity in Elite Level English Youth Football: A Cross Sectional Approach. J. of Sport. Sci., 32, 2014, 1294-1299.

#AthleticIdentity #Athletes #SportPsychology


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