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I am a runner...or am I???

Athlete Identity

I have been a “runner” since 7th grade. Actually, a runner and a dancer. Despite the fact that I have not danced in 20 years, I will still tell you I am a dancer. I have not run in over two months because of an injury and I don’t see another run in my foreseeable future because of the same injury. Even before the injury, my running was pretty sporadic. But I am still a runner. And a dancer.

I used to be a competitive Division I intercollegiate distance runner and have been transitioning through various phases of athletic retirement for almost 20 years. Throughout my athletic career, I had to transition from an elite high school runner into a mediocre college runner at the age of 17. After college, I transitioned again into a semi-competitive open runner and coach at the age of 21. The older I get, the more I am fighting athletic retirement again and finding my identity as a recreational racer. I recently went through another transition from recreational racer, to fitness runner. Sadly, I anticipate a time (unavoidably sooner rather than later) when I will no longer be able to run at all.

Despite my academic background in athletics and psychology, I still find myself struggling to adopt an identity that is not dominated by competitive athlete. My lifelong identity as an “athlete” (not just a “runner”) includes the perception of me as a healthy, fit, “lean, mean running machine.” Regrettably, this is no longer true as my fitness; body composition and motivation have declined drastically. Yet, I still cling to my athletic identity and hold myself to the same standards I had as an elite high school runner. Because of my refusal to vacate my identity as a runner, I am consistently faced with athletic failures, which in turn, I sometimes translate into being a failure.

So what does all of this mean? Are we (all athletes) doomed to a life after sports where we are constantly mourning our identity loss and feeling like failures? What is identity anyway? Identity has been described as an enduring and dynamic multidimensional view of oneself (Lally, 2007). It is common for one of those dimensions to become more self-encompassing than the others. In these cases, individuals view their entire worlds through the lens of the dominant identity dimension. Various researchers have hypothesized that individuals’ loss of their dominant identity affects their entire self-concept. Since many athletes’ dominant identity is with their sport, this is often the case. Competitive athletes tend to identify themselves as “athletes” first and “people” second. Thus, athletes who voluntarily or forcefully lose their athletic role may lose their entire sense of self. This loss of identity may become so overwhelming to the retiring athletes that they find themselves suffering from despair, which may lead to bigger problems related to social, emotional and professional development.

Identity foreclosure occurs when an individual has committed to an identity without meaningfully exploring other options. Athletes are good candidates for identity foreclosure as they often develop their athletic identities at a young age. These identities continue long into adulthood (even after retirement from the sport) due to the athletes’ own beliefs as well as influence from other sources, both significant and not (Beamon, 2012). My own story above is a perfect example of identity foreclosure related to sports.

But fear not fellow athletes, there is hope for our future identities! Research has shown that working to develop a personal identity along with an athletic identity can lead to eventual healthy retirement from sport. Coaches can be educated and encouraged to coach the whole person, which contributes to personal identity development outside of sport. Furthermore, research suggests that athletes who participate in individual and group counseling early on and throughout their sports careers have had more successful transitions out of sports participation. Some college athletic departments offer athletes programs devoted to career development after sports. Researchers' (Lally, 2007) suggestions that “devoting oneself to both personal and athletic pursuits rather than sacrificing one in favor of the other actually fosters excellence in both” is encouraging as I pursue a career working with athletes on life balance and transition.

So, I come full circle back to who am I. For now, I am still a runner. And a dancer. However, as I continue educating myself and developing other dimensions of my identity I remain hopeful that when I finally do officially retire from running, I will be able to BE more than a runner.

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