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Identity in sport - photo of athlete looking pensive

Identity in Sport – you are more than your performance

Jonathan Armogam achieved his goal of becoming a professional footballer at the age of 23. Following his first season, he was being sought by some of the top teams in South Africa. Yet while his career was taking off, he was struggling with his identity in sport.


‘The question I asked myself is why I felt like such a loser,’ he confesses. ‘Looking back now I think it’s because I was trying to find acceptance, I was trying to find approval through football.’


When that approval didn’t come, a bad game, a bad training, Armogan coped by turning to alcohol and unwise relationships. This lifestyle led to more poor performances, and Armogan found himself in a downward spiral, culminating in his club telling him they would not renew his contract.


‘Football is a beautiful game,’ he says. ‘It gives me so much joy, but I think where I went wrong is the motivation for playing football, and that’s where it went wrong for me big time. I was playing football to seek people’s approval.’


When we experience success in sport, it’s great. There can be a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, of power, and of superiority. As well as this, everyone wants to congratulate us and be our friend. We might even have people offering us large sums of money to play for them or endorse their product. We can feel untouchable. Our self-worth is sky-high.


There are just a few problems with this.


Problem One: it never lasts

Think Michael Campbell, 2005 US Golf Open winner, beating Tiger Woods by two shots, on top of the world. The following year he failed to make the cut in the same tournament. Neither did he make the cut in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 or 2013. In 2007 when he did make the cut, he tied for 58th place. His world ranking slipped from 16 at the end of 2005, to 174 two years later, to 285 five years after that. 


Or you could think of the great Tiger Woods himself.


Think Team New Zealand in 2013, up 8-1 in the race to 9. Impossible to lose from there? Maybe not.


Think the All Blacks in 1999: tri-nations champions and favourites for the World Cup. We cruise through the pool matches, and the quarter-final against Scotland, the mighty Jonah Lomu running right over the top of the opposition; the semi against France a mere formality as we take our place in the final… Hold on. Back it up. Coach John Hart, the saviour whose destiny it was to bring the Cup home, is suddenly vilified. The team slinks home in disgrace. And not for the last time unfortunately.


It’s scary how quickly we can go from hero to zero. And can you think of any athlete who hasn’t been through the experience of losing form and facing criticism? Usain Bolt maybe?


How’s your self-esteem doing at that point? How do you feel about your identity in sport?


Problem Two: even when you’re on top of the world, it’s not enough

Maybe you’ve experienced this.


Sports psychologist Dr Rob Bell has studied Super Bowl winning teams, to find that many players and coaches actually experience a significant feeling of let-down almost immediately after the win, in what should have been their greatest moment.  


He believes the process of getting to the top, the journey you go on and the relationships you form, is more satisfying than the achievement itself.


Problem Three: one day you are going to have to retire

What happens to your identity in sport then?


Many athletes struggle to cope with life after retirement. Because their identity is in sport, they have suddenly lost themselves. Former English cricketer Andrew Flintoff is one who has spoken about this:


“Cricket gave me a life, it gave me an identity, and when it was taken away it took everything. It was like, ‘What do I do with myself? Who am I? What am I doing?’ 


For many of us, our whole identity is tied up in our sport, our performance, our results, our popularity, which is really natural. But what it means is that our self-worth is extremely fragile.


You are more than your performance

So here’s the thing: You are more than your performance; more than your results; more than what other people think of you.


You are a unique human being. Your value lies in who you are, not what you achieve. Sport is one part of your life, an important part, but only a part.


For me, as a Christian, I believe that you are created in the image of God and deeply loved by Him. You can take that or leave it, but think about this: Where does your true identity lie? What is your self-worth based on? What will you draw on when results and fans desert you?


Widen your sense of self to sort your identity in sport

Sports psychologist Rebecca Symes writes that,

It is absolutely vital that we, as support staff and coaches encourage our athletes to consider who they are as a person as well as an athlete. Gaining a clear understanding of who they are ‘off the pitch’ will enable them to widen their sense of self, gain clarity over their other strengths and protect them from longer term psychological difficulties.’

Symes argues that this will enhance an athlete’s performance, by giving them an enhanced ability to ‘switch on and get in the zone’ at the appropriate times and ‘switch off’ thereafter.


Mental training expert Dr Patrick Cohn asks,

‘If you take away the part of you who is an athlete, how would you describe yourself? What are your personal characteristics that describe you? This is what self-esteem should be based on.’

He encourages athletes to make sure their life has balance, know who their true friends are, and refuse to compare themselves with others.

How’s your identity in sport?

How about you? Is finding your identity in sport something that has been an issue for you? How have you learnt to cope with the ups and downs of sporting results and the fickleness of fans? Leave a comment or contact us in confidence.


Ten practical ways to get your identity in sport sorted.


Author Info

Rebecca Hawkins

Rebecca is the Communications and IT Manager for Sports Chaplaincy NZ. In her younger days she played cricket and football with great enthusiasm but very little skill. Now she spends a lot of time supporting her four sons in their sport. She especially loves scoring their cricket matches, which she insists on doing the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

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