What Happens When Young Athletes Have an Identity Crisis

identity-crisis-300x300Part of a child’s growing up and becoming a young adult involves developing his or her identify—a sense of self, an answer to the question ‘who am I’.  But what happens when a child or teenager develops an athletic identify – for instance ‘I am a baseball player’, or I am a tennis player’ to the exclusion of all else?

Before we examine the latter, it’s important to note the positive effects associated with children displaying an athletic identify. Children that associate themselves with a sports team, or as an athlete that plays for a team, are displaying healthy behaviours that are part the process of building a personal identify.  According to sports psychologists doing so contributes to confidence and healthy self-esteem.

Identity Foreclosure
However, here is where things can go sideways. It seems if our kids aren’t exposed to experiences that allow them to associate themselves with other roles as they are developing and maturing, they can become stuck; their emotional development is hindered.  Psychologists call this identity foreclosure, which occurs when adolescents commit to a role – i.e. an athletic sports role, ‘football player’, ‘tennis player’ [or other such as dancer, performer etc.]. Children then are at risk of committing to a direction, whether it be career path, school choice etc., based upon what they know. Hence the child  forecloses on one type of activity without knowing what else is out there. I’ve seen this manifest itself in young athletes where they express feelings of being ‘trapped’ in a sport—that they can’t envision what their life would be without it. Even if they want to try something else they are often afraid to express the desire to do so.

Sports psychologist, Dr.C. Stankovitch writes this:

For athletes, though, there is a potentially dangerous identity status that can lead to future unforeseen problems.  What I am talking about is when athletes go through an identity foreclosure status, where they prematurely and exclusively only see themselves as athletes.  When a person forecloses their identity, problems can develop since all other life development and exploration is suspended in light of the one single identity role.”   The Sports Doc

The Risks
I’ve seen this happen with one of my own kids in a sport that this child was very good at—and the effects can be quite devastating.  A young athlete who prematurely forecloses on being an “athlete” of one sport especially—a sport that is played year round, for many hours each week from an early age, to the exclusion of much else, is at risk. One psychologist outlines the risks as follows:

  • Emotional Difficulties Dealing with Injury: Injuries are an inevitable part of sport. Athletes with an exclusive athletic identity often find it difficult to cope with an injury, especially if it results in them being side-lined for a prolonged period of time. They tend to lose confidence and may experience feelings of helplessness.
  • Alternate Career or Educational Options Not Considered: If a teen selects a school or college major based upon their sport, life and career options can appear limited to the child after ‘retirement’ from the sport.
  • Difficulty Adjusting After end of Athletic Career. 

How to Help
Fortunately, in our situation we caught it early—in the early teens.  I could see in real-life what the psychologists described as foreclosure identity.  If the sport is gone my child rationalized, that I am so good at—that people know me for, who am I? I’m not good at anything else except for the sport.  Awareness of potential risks is the starting point for parents and coaches, according to Dr. Stankovitch. He suggests the following:

It is for this reason that we as adults need to make regular attempts to discuss and reinforce all facets of a kid’s personality – not just athletics.  Be sure to recognize the other roles kids often experience, like student, club member, volunteer, musician, and artist.  Holistic identity development will not limit athletic success, but it will instead enhance all facets of the human experience!  Dr. Stankovitch, The Sports Doc

Further Reading:

2 thoughts on “What Happens When Young Athletes Have an Identity Crisis

  1. Coming back from an injury is as much a mental process as it is a physical one. When an athlete’s body fails them in some way it might be the first time they’ve experienced that kind of crisis. Who are they if they aren’t able to play? Learning to trust themselves again is hard.


    • HI Jodi,
      Yes absolutely — coming back from an injury seems to be one of the most challenging aspects for young athletes. And the question as you said is ‘who am I if I can’t play?’ If a child feels this way, it’s a sign that providing other experiences in the child’s life is needed. Thanks for commenting Jodi!


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