Identity and Self-Worth in Sports

This is not another article about how you are more than your sport.

This is not a post about how identifying with your sport is a bad thing and that you need to find balance.

This is a post about you, having made an informed decision to play/commit to a sport you love, are (yes) a human being first, but also, perhaps, very much an athlete.

This post is about your identity as an athlete (and why that’s okay) and your self-worth as a human being and how to separate the two.


“I had teachers who said I was not good enough. So, I said I will become good enough. So, I became this guy who become obsessed to become good enough. Now I sit down and tell people who I was. Now I say ‘Do you know who I am?” Herschel Walker.

I played a little volleyball in my life. I wasn’t the best volleyball player there ever was, but I played at a high level and achieved enough success to identify myself as a volleyball player for more than half my life. In high school, I discovered this identity kept my shyness at bay. In college, I discovered I didn’t really need any other identities. At the top of my career, I discovered those paying me to play needed me to identify as a volleyball player. Not a problem.

And, it’s easy for me to slip back into that identity when I’m around other athletes. Here’s a recent exchange I had with another former volleyball player:

Fellow Former Student Athlete: Were you a pretty good student in college? Did you know what you wanted to major in when you were in high school?

Me: I went to college to hit volleyballs.

Both of us: lolz

I say this tongue in cheek, but being a student was not my main identity in college, being an athlete was. I did what I had to do to stay eligible and I did what I had to do to graduate college in four years and I did just that (turns out I really did more than just hit volleyballs). See, our identity is something we do, something we are, something we’re probably good at and those things are going to supersede pretty much everything else.

Try this. Answer the following questions to see where you might be placing your identity:

  • What things am I good at?
  • What things do I spend most of my time doing?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • How would my friends and family describe me?

While this might not be everything you identify with, it will probably hit the biggies. For example: I am a mother, a wife, an athlete, a coach and a friend.

But our identity can sometimes be co-dependent. Let me explain.


“Growing up, I started developing confidence in what I felt. My parents helped me to believe in myself. I wasn’t the best looking guy, I wasn’t the best athlete in the world, but they made me feel good about myself,” Herschel Walker.

Self worth is not self esteem. It is not confidence and it is not your identity. While our identities are ever-changing and ever-evolving, self-worth is rooted a little deeper and the two can be so closely intertwined at times they seem like the same thing.

Self worth is how we determine our value.

It’s what makes us feel worthy. There are many contributing factors to this (including our identity), but, parents, peers, boyfriends, girlfriends, coaches, mentors, clergy, culture, belief system, teachers, siblings or employers all play a part in shaping our self-worth. Our self-worth is, in part, character traits, virtues, our values, our ethics, and our belief system to name a few.

Answer the following questions to see how you might determine your self-worth (hint: use character traits or virtues instead of identities or roles you play):

  • What makes me valuable?
  • Why do people like spending time with me?
  • What do people say are my best characteristics?
  • What is my best character trait?
  • How would my friends and family describe me?

How did you do? Some of your answers might look like this: I am kind, I persevere though hard things, I listen well, I am compassionate, I share authentically, I have good work ethic.

Unfortunately, if we receive mixed messages from important people, we might say things like this: I am worthless unless I win my games, I don’t have value if I don’t perform well, my friends only like me because I am good at sports.

Unlike identity, self-worth takes time to develop and it begins in early childhood development. If you struggle with a low sense of self worth, my guess is most of what you think isn’t true, but you can get help. Sports psychologists, therapists, counselors, mentors and conversations with other athletes who have wrestled with the same topics are some great places to start.


It okay to identify with your sport, some of us need that to compete and achieve our goals. Remember, however, your identity is ever-changing and ever-evolving but your self-worth can get stuck in a bad place if you allow the two to be one in the same. Start looking at how you add value to the world and people around you, it might be through sports and it might be through something else, you just have to be willing to look closely enough to see it.

Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury, The CrossFit Games and OPEX Fitness. She is married with two children and in a former life played collegiate volleyball at the University of Georgia where she was given the nickname “The Spikedoctor” by their Sports Information Director – because, you know, she could hit volleyballs.

Additional resources on Identity and Self Worth:

Understanding Athletic Identity, Rebecca Symes

When You Lose Your Sport, What Happens To Your Self?, Carey Goldberg

Is It Really Burnout?, Priscilla Tallman

Published by pytallman

Wife, mother, Christ follower.

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