What is an Identity?
Individual identity is what defines you as a person. People think of when they hear your name and what they see you do out in public. For many, they only have one identity associated with the main thing they do. For many youths, that is the sport they play. For many young athletes’ lives, their identities are structured around the sport or sports they play. This is partly because they up so much time, and you almost have to play club sports to be competitive for scholarships. Having an identity outside of sport is vital for youth athletes’ long-term development, both mentally and athletically.
Why is Identity Diversification Important?
Let us start with a hypothetical yet common example. Rachel is a senior in high school and has played soccer since she was five with private lessons and training on top of nearly year-round practices and games. She is nearing the end of her high school playing career, and many of her friends on her club team have committed to colleges already. She still believes she can get a scholarship if she works harder during her last season, so she goes all-in on soccer training and puts everything else to the side. Since she spends all her time practicing for soccer, her grades and relationships with her friends begin to dive. The end of the season comes, and she has received no offers to play soccer anywhere. Her grades have slipped far enough to have difficulty getting into universities, and her relationships with her friends have been strained. All the time and effort she put into soccer did not pay off, and she begins to feel depressed.
This is a not uncommon scenario that applies to athletes transitioning from high school to college and from college to professional. The example is not to say that athletes should give up right away because there is too much competition. If you have a dream, you should chase it. But do not forget to live life in the process and realize that everything does not always work out as planned.
If the girl in this example had an identity outside of sport, the result may not have been a strain on her mental health but instead have directed her down a different path other than sports. For example, if soccer was her first love, she also was interested in developing computer software. She did photography in her free time. She would have alternatives she knew she already enjoyed and would not be as depressed when she did not receive a scholarship to play soccer. The reality is that many youth athletes will not go on to play collegiately, and far fewer will play professionally, so having an identity outside of sports is needed for growth.
A common identity outside of sport is often education. It is the most powerful tool that we can use throughout our lives. An interest in a career field that is not directly associated with playing sports can be an excellent plan b if an athletic career does not work out. Finding fun in education can lead to lifelong learning, which attributes the most successful people in any industry all share.
There so many career paths to choose from it can be overwhelming. However, many are associated with athletics and a playing career of any kind can act as experience. Athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, and sports coaches are just a few examples that are well known to athletes. There is also a slough of office jobs that work closely with athletics both academically and professionally. It is not all that important to decide what to do at a young age but more importantly that there are many options to be explored to find the right fit.
A pastime other than sports can be therapeutic for youth athletes that have stressful lives with pressure from school and sports. However, getting on Tik-Tok does not count as a hobby. Something as simple as going for a walk consistently can help relieve stress and can be done (and should be done) for the rest of their lives. A creative hobby such as photography or painting can allow someone to express themselves through a different medium other than sports. The important part is to try new experiences to see what the individual enjoys and not to force a hobby onto someone. That almost always drives people away.
Hobbies can even turn into future careers. In fact, many people say this is the way to go. Figure out what you love to do and then figure out how to make money at it. Many have done this and been very successful financially and had very happy lives.
Having social relationships may be the most important out of all the topics listed, even for the introvert. Whether it is realized or not, humans are social creatures and need some social interaction to stay mentally well. That is especially important for the developing youth athlete who has mountains of stress coming at them from all sides and an ever-changing body and environment. Many young athletes will develop strong social relationships with those on their sports teams which is great. Additionally, it would not be a bad idea to develop relationships with others outside of their immediate athletic circle, such as through other hobbies. This would set them up to build relationships with others once their playing career is through, whenever that may be. Again, forcing new things onto youths (especially if it is a parent doing it) is almost certainly a surefire way for them to take the opposite approach.
Diversifying identities for youth athletes can be vital for long-term development as an individual. Relying on one sole identity, in this case, focusing on playing a sport can be hazardous to a young athlete’s mental health in both the short and long-term. Developing other identities outside of sport such as through education or a career path, finding an interest in hobbies, or forming social relationships, are just a few ways to do this. Oftentimes these other identity pathways will piggyback off of each other. For instance, becoming involved in a hobby can easily lead to the formation of new social relationships.
This is not meant to discourage young athletes from achieving their dreams of playing sports at a higher level, in many cases developing identities outside of sports can lead to an improvement in play by decreasing burnout. Young athletes must know that having dreams and goals is an essential part of life. There are infinite paths to exploring and hThaisaving identities outside of just sport that allow them to continue with life if one identity is taken from them. In the end, it is up to them to choose where their future is headed, but they may need a gentle push to start.