In June 2003, I ran the fastest mile by any high school
runner in the country. Four minutes and one second. A hair shy of one of the
most important barriers in sport. Awards and accolades soon followed. A
proclamation by the Houston Chronicle
as one of a handful of “Houston’s next generation of superstars” and a “Legend
in the Making” alongside the likes of future baseball star Lance Berkman[i].
As a teenager, I built up to where I was running over 15
miles per day. Wake up before classes, go for a run, spend seven hours at
school, and go for another run. Repeat. day after day. My entire senior year of
high school, I stayed up past 10 pm a total of six times. As I ventured into my
college career, the dedication only reached even more extreme levels. Everything
in my world, relationships, friendships, and even schoolwork, went to the wayside.
Running was my obsession. It was my life. It was who I was.
Who I was became deeply intertwined with what I did. I
wasn’t Steve the person, I was Steve the runner. To the outside world, but more
importantly, to myself.
I relished that identity. Cherished it, as it brought
notoriety, pride, and accolades my way. I enjoyed being introduced as ‘the
runner’ before hearing my parents, coach, or friends spout off a list of my
accomplishments. My self-concept revolved entirely around running, and I was
more than okay with that.
As an 18-year old, my life plan was set; college scholarship
than on to professional running and hopefully the Olympic Games. School,
academics, future jobs beyond that. None of it mattered. I was going to run.
That was, until it was all done, well before I anticipated.
Despite running more miles than I put on my car in a year, the hard work did
not pay off. I never ran a step faster than I did that summer day of 2003.
There was no professional running awaiting my college graduation. I had to move
on with life. More importantly, I had to find a new identity.
As I learned in researching and writing my new book The
Passion Paradox, just about anyone who goes “all-in” on anything faces
the same dilemma. An identity tied around an activity. Athletes in particular
are susceptible. We spend our time committed to our sport, to almost extreme
levels, from a young age. And thanks to a combination of early success and
those around us telling us how great we were, we almost all hold delusions of
In a survey
of NCAA athletes, 76% of college basketball players thought it was at least
somewhat likely that they’d go pro. For other sports, it wasn’t much better.
Football? 52%, Baseball? 60%. Hockey? 63%. Athletes held on to their dream despite
the actual percentage being a tiny fraction of that (as low as 0.8% of college
hockey players make it as professionals, according to the same survey). Whether
it’s because of outside influence, or the fact that athletes necessarily have
to be slightly delusional to make it to even the college level, it’s clear that
athletes walk around with very unrealistic expectations.
And as the majority of their dreams turn into the cruel
reality of being done at the age of 22, one of the hardest things to do after
finishing a sporting career early isn’t figuring out what job to take next,
it’s to grasp who you are.
The Athletic Identity
What’s in an identity? It’s the role we adopt, our inner
narrative that answers the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I doing with my
From the outside, they are nothing more than useful
heuristics. The cousin that we see once a year for our families Christmas get
together becomes known for a singular pursuit. We have the relative who loves
football, or teaching, or gardening. From gifts to conversation, we have one
tidbit of information (“Suzy likes horses!”) that we remember. For the next
decade of their life, little Suzy gets horse related gifts for Christmas. In
our mind, this one tidbit of information becomes their identity. The messy
complexity of a human being? Stripped away for someone we see maybe once a
But on the inside, identities are a powerful tool. They
represent the inner story we carry around; a much more complex but still
incomplete picture of who we are. Our personalities, our strengths, and
weaknesses, our likes and dislikes; all contribute to an ever-growing,
ever-evolving picture of who we are.
The function of a strong identity is to provide coherence, a
continual narrative that we can fall back upon during times of stress and
uncertainty. They are a reflection of our core principles and values. Providing
a firm foundation, a ground upon which to stand. And they are beneficial. A
strong identity predicts
better health outcomes and well-being
among college students.
And contrary to what it may seem, identities aren’t static creations that we
are imbued with at birth. We actively construct them.
When we are young, it’s natural to try on different
identities. When we are 8, we might see ourselves as a soccer player, before
ditching that for a future astronaut at 10, or maybe a drummer at 12. What we
do shifts and changes. We try on different hats, sometimes exploring them to
great depth before ditching them entirely for a fancier hat a few months later.
Exploration comes naturally. And it’s beneficial.
As we age, our identities begin to cement. We become
attached to what we do, whom we spend time with, and what image we are
projecting to the world. Part of it is a loss of youthful freedom; another is a
societal push towards specialization. In schools around the country, angst and
anxiety follow if we haven’t picked our college major by the time we graduate
high school. If our career pathway isn’t set by the time we graduate from
college, parental despair often ensues. “My child is lost!” becomes
the declaration of well-meaning parents. By the age of 22, we are expected to
know what we are going to be doing for the next 40 years of our existence.
In many situations, identity cementation can be quite
useful. We “know” who we are, becoming comfortable in our own skin. Confident
of our values and purpose. But if we are too firm, too resistant, then we get
stuck. We become trapped in identities that were partially pushed upon us by
well-meaning adults, while we were still in the age of exploration.
For athletes, they often suffer a double whammy: an identity
that cements when they are young that they then have to move on from far too
early in their careers.
During my teenage years, while my friends were dabbling in
their interests, maybe trying band or drama, I was specializing. Running was
the only activity outside of running I had time for. And my experience was the
Because of a misplaced ideal of specialization, a leftover
of the false idea that we need 10,000 hours of practice, athletes often shorten
a crucial phase of identity formulation: exploration. They are pushed towards
choosing a singular activity to focus on, to join elite travel teams, and hire
private trainers; while the rest of their peer group is still dabbling there
way through life.
Athlete’s identities often set and harden long before their
corresponding peer group. While Jimmy and Suzy are still trying to decide what
video games they like; the athletic prodigy among them is being whisked away to
soccer practice every night, and multiple games on the weekend. For those who
achieve any semblance of success, the process quickens.
Psychologists refer to it as Identity
Foreclosure. When a person gives in to the role assigned to them (i.e.
football player) before they’ve been allowed to explore their own internal
needs and values. As athletes achieve success, parents, friends, and families
help to cement their role as an athlete. Combine that with a misguided belief
that they too can become a professional athlete despite the low rate of
success, and it’s no wonder that athletes go all-in on their role in sports. Some
has suggested that a higher percentage of black athletes have identity
foreclosure than their white counterparts. The same study found that more black
athletes believed they were going to play pro then other ethnicities. While we
don’t know for sure, the authors speculated that this could be a ramification of
the message being sent to young black children that sports are one of the only
ways to break through in life
As athletes show promise, we compound the problem by
stripping away their autonomy- making most decisions for them. When to show to
practice, what classes to take, what their summer ‘vacation’ looks like. Their
sport restricts many outside activities and clubs, and their weekends are spent
playing games. School and sport; other interests aren’t welcome.
Without interests, passions–that mythical drive that we are
often told is the key to living a happy productive life– don’t develop.
Contrary to commencement speech wisdom, passions aren’t something to magically
find or follow. They develop. They follow a clear pattern that is actually
quite similar to most of our dating lives: a) dabbling in a variety of
activities b) Exploring the activities that spark your interest b) Spend enough
time pursuing your interest to see if it can turn into a passion. Interests
hold the key to passion.
And worse, we have to move on and shed those identities well before normal retirement age.
Retirement from a sport doesn’t occur at 65, It occurs at
18, 23, or if you are blessed with a rare combination of immense talent and
work ethic, your early 30’s. A time when
most of our colleagues are climbing the corporate ladder, we are hanging on to
the activity we’ve known since our pre-teen years. Fighting father time, and
our aging bodies. In sports like women’s gymnastics, it’s even worse.
Specializing as a pre-teen, and out of the sport shortly after they hit
puberty. Spending your entire childhood dedicated to mastering a craft that you
have to abandon at the age of 18.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that upon transitioning out
of sports, athletes often suffer from what is called identity confusion. A
confrontation that they will no longer be able to do the one activity that
their life has revolved around for decades. Along with identity issues, often
increased risk of depression, alcoholism, and other substance abuse. It’s
not surprising that upon retirement from the NBA, Dwayne Wade said “I’ll be in
therapy. Seriously.” We should commend Wade for being proactive and raising
awareness, but the vast majority of athletes aren’t prepared for such a
Despite choosing to retire, star Australian football player Barry Hall felt the
implications immediately, telling
the TV program Insight “I had two or three months… that
I really struggled. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t answer mates’ phone
calls, I was eating terribly, drinking heavily. A tough time. And look, I
didn’t know at that stage it was a form of depression.”
Athletes are thus hit with the double whammy of a premature
cementing and shedding of their identity. As Melanie Wright, a two time Gold
medal winning swimmer summarized
the problem “You start sport young and it becomes intertwined with who
you are for so long. Then overnight it’s gone.”
So as you sit back and watch March Madness, your favorite
college football Bowl Game, stop and consider what reality they are about to
face. Yes, some will go on to be millionaires, stars that we will watch for the
next decade in professional sport. But the vast majority of them are about to
face an entirely different problem. An early retirement. A shedding of an
identity that they’ve known since their pre-teen days of dominating the youth
courts. Sometimes, not by their own choice, but an identity that was almost
forced upon them from parents, coaches, and onlookers who saw talent.
As the conversation around mental health and athletics has
rightfully grown, it’s time for us to consider the psychological repercussions
of early stardom and identity cementation. Are we doing enough to provide
athletes with the skill sets to move on, to find new passions and come to terms
with their new identity? Or are we catering to the 1% who make it to the top of
their game, and hoping that the rest survive. Degree (hopefully) in hand, but
identity no where to be found.
Steve Magnessis the author of the new book The
Passion Paradox. He coaches professional and college runners. He can be
found on twitter @Stevemagness
[i] Legends in the Making: A salute to Houston’s next generation of superstars. Houston
Chronicle. January 26, 2004