Developing a Healthy Athletic Identity

By: Shane Moody 

We all define identity in many different ways, whether it is through our families, careers, academics, or many other life facets through which a sense of personal identity is crafted.  An athlete is no different, an athletic identity is how one identifies with their athletic role and seeks from others acknowledgment and understanding of self from that role (Giannone et al., 2017). Athletes build on this identity through struggles, successes, experiences, and motivations. If one has a solid and healthy athletic identity, it can perpetuate other facets of identity and aid in an enduring sense of self and sureness. This, in turn, can lead to increased self-confidence, self-discipline, and more positive social interactions. Identifying character strengths and skills acquired through sport is essential, rather than strictly through specific sport-based skills.

Through the transference of motivation, a good attitude, and discipline, one tends to build themselves to perform at a high level, which is critical to the creation of an individuals identity. The transference aids in committing, sacrificing, and relentlessly pursuing improvements of all kinds. This psychological principle is known as task-oriented motivation. This motivation is described through the focused direction of effort and increasing levels of intensity of effort. The direction of effort refers to whether an individual seeks out, approaches, or is attracted to specific situations (Weinburg, 2019). Athletes will narrow their focus to the things that will better help them perform at their optimal level, typically a combination of nutrition, exercise, reflection, recovery, and mental strategies to obtain their goals. Then their intensity of effort will be heightened when these activities help their overall athletic ability to be elite (Weinburg, 2019).     

Sports ethic is crucial for successful elite athletes within a tremendous athletic identity. This emphasizes sacrifice for the game, seeking distinction, taking risks, and challenging limits (Hughes, 1991). The most beneficial aspect of sports-related ethics is that it does not emphasize the positive outcomes necessarily, but that the ethics themselves (work, discipline, etc.) become the central focus for transforming behavior. At this point, the pursuit of excellence or goal of the journey starts to be the most important in understanding one's motivation. If one is pursuing excellence in themselves, they are self-reflecting on their purpose and who they want to be. 

Once motivation becomes character trait-centered, this motivated behavior can genuinely transform an individual's life. On the other hand, situation-centered motivation is driven by the environment or activity that one is experiencing, which often leads to more of an outcome-oriented pursuit. In these cases, if the outcome is negative, the individual often deems the whole experience negative. Coaches and professionals must develop athletes in a way that although they may start as outcome-focused, there is a transition shift to character-driven motivation and identity. 

An emerging field exists for athletes developing identity through mental coaching. Through this discipline, athletes can focus on cognitive skills training, positive discipline psychology, and character-driven / intrinsic motivators. This discipline is helping athletes to participate at the highest level of sports to create a respectful, positive, and caring environment to build great athletes/people. It is crucial for athletic identity to reveal that athletes should not have to feel that a “tough mentality” achieves success. On our end, as coaches, mentors, and teachers, if we can teach athletes how to cope with stress, build different goal strategies, grow confidence, and guide these athletes to be the best person they can be, it will affect their lives in positive ways. This all starts with a great support system between the performance coach and parents to help paint the athlete a picture, show them the proper steps for direction, and then let the athlete put in details towards a healthy identity and development of who they are. 



Giannone, Z. A., Haney, C. J., Kealy, D., & Ogrodniczuk, J. S. (2017). Athletic identity and psychiatric symptoms following retirement from varsity sports. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 63(7), 598-601. DOI: 10.1177/0020764017724184

Weinburg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2019). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (7th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.