Several years ago, I wrote a post about identity and self worth in athletes. Since then, so much has changed in our world and in my life. With new context and thousands more coaching hours under my belt, I decided to update my thoughts on these concepts.
“I AM AN ATHLETE”
Michael Phelps is an Olympic Gold Medalist.
Simone Biles is a gymnast.
Naomi Osaka is a tennis professional.
Those labels, those titles are identities. While there is a range even in those titles, athlete identity is in part defined by how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. This can be a helpful part of your sports experience because when you play sports, there’s built in identity, community, friends and support for any particular team you play for – from little league all the way to the bigs.
Identity is an external label. It is what you do or what team you belong to.
As a coach (with a background in psychology) I love the work of developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson. His 8 Psychosocial Stages of Development have helped me build developmentally appropriate resources for athletes of all ages. Three of his stages represent the years from age five to age eighteen. Stage 5, “Identity vs. Role Confusion” says this:
“During this stage, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals.” Simply Psychology, Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, Dr. Saul McLeod, 2018.
Simply put, adolescents and teens are looking for an identity. They are also looking for peer approval, belonging and acceptance. Athlete identity (or any group your teen identifies with) actually serves a specific purpose for the psychosocial development of a child. This stage hits some big physical and emotional milestones too as it begins around age 12 and ends around age 15.
During this time, your child is also exploring their own personal values, beliefs and goals. So, here’s where the work begins – because without a foundation of values, identity can be the only thing an athlete clings too and that can be a slippery slope if it ever gets taken away. Spoiler alert: at some point, ever athlete’s journey comes to an end.
“I AM DRIVEN, DETERMINED AND HARD-WORKING”
Athlete values are the internal operating system by which we live our lives.
Our values are defined by (but not limited to) culture, religion, ethnicity, community, sport played, family, country of origin, city, state, political climate – so you can see, values are not easy to come by and very rarely are they spelled out and defined.
Values are internal. It is who you are as an athlete.
Here’s why value work and formation are so important. We make decisions based on our values every single day. From what we wear to how we speak and act in public or private, our values drive decisions, thought and behaviors. If you know your values, you make better decisions for your life and your goals. If you do not know your values, you are at the mercy of whoever you are around to help define those for you and guess what, your decisions and goals might not align with what you actually believe, but what someone else believes.
Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have all come forward with testimonies about their personal experience with anxiety, depression, trauma, social anxiety; and many more professional and collegiate athletes are coming forward with their own personal stories and journey through the murky waters of sport and mental health.
While there are some amazing organizations like “I love to watch you play” and “Changing the Game Project,” who are creating resources and better ways to do sport, there is still so much work to do at so many levels and so many kids who are not getting this message. Talking about the differences between our identity and our value system can be a way to open a conversation with your athletes and teams about what matters.
WRITE IT DOWN
Here’s a little exercise to do on your own or with your athlete.
Download my FREE RESOURCE “Identity Versus Values” and keep it handy. You can either print it out or screenshot it for reference.
Find a list of values (you can search one up or use this one). Print out a copy – yes, pen to paper because it’s good for your brain – and circle all the values that you feel best describe you.
Now the fun begins. Select your top FIVE values out of all the ones you circled.
These are the ones that matter most to you – notice any similarities to your sports team or your family. Notice any differences. You may not begin to live out or make decisions off these values (and some may change as you grow and learn) but now you have values to work from.
Write this down: I am an athlete who is (fill in one of your values from the list) and keep it somewhere you see everyday like your bathroom mirror or your nightstand.
Priscilla Tallman is a Mindset and Performance Coach in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, SEC Freshman and Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played on the US National Team and played one season of professional volleyball in Geneva, Switzerland. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level.
She has written two nationally-published performance journals.