“Who am I?” Understanding Athletic Identity

An athlete who prioritizes training and recovery even over essential social obligations.

A weekend golfer who is so upset about not playing well that it is affecting his performance at work during the week.

A rugby player decides to play through his injuries for the sake of his team’s performance.

In what ways are the abovementioned athletes similar?

Athletes who exhibit such behaviors are often described as having a strong athletic identity. They tend to devote the most energy to sports compared to the other roles they play in life (Brewer et al., 1993). A strong athletic identity is advantageous since such athletes tend to be more motivated and determined. On the flip side, such athletes may prioritize winning above all else, leading to intense pressure and a fear of failure. Consequently, they are also more likely to train through pain, suffer from burnout and even exhibit unhealthy behaviors such as taking performance-enhancement drugs (Hughes & Coakley, 1991).

While having a strong athletic identity can be advantageous, athletes need to learn how to minimize the risks and tap into the benefits. A good place to start would be to have a better understanding of self-concept and how it relates to self-esteem and performance.

Self-concept answers the question “Who am I?” and the answer is seldom straightforward. The self is multidimensional and comprises the different roles we perform within or among social and professional domains (Brewer et al., 1993). It is also related to our values and even physical appearance. Meanwhile, self-esteem refers to how people feel about themselves. When a person’s self-concept is tied solely to their athletic abilities, how they feel about themselves (i.e., self-esteem) becomes inextricably linked to their sporting performance. This limited self-concept often leads to the abovementioned risks and feelings of inadequacy in other areas of life.

Focus on being a person first, and your role second…

Coach Hansen

To address this issue, I often help athletes explore their roles beyond that of an athlete, their characteristics, and even their own values. Simply put, I help them see that although sport may be a big part of their life, it is only one part. Rather than limiting their performance, this broader perspective of self-concept will enhance their resilience, self-esteem, and enjoyment of the sport. It will also help them with the transition from being an active athlete to a retired athlete or one who is injured (Hughes & Coakley, 1991).

Some of you may have figured out by now that the risks of having a limited self-concept apply to more than just the athletic identity. Regardless of your vocation, it is important to prioritize your overall well-being over your professional identity.

What are your thoughts related to the notion of self-concept and athletic identity? I welcome your input and would love to hear your perspective. Lastly, kindly share this post with someone you know who would benefit from this information.

Coach Hansen


Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or Achilles heel?. International journal of sport psychology.

Hughes, R., & Coakley, J. (1991). Positive deviance among athletes: The implications of overconformity to the sport ethic. Sociology of sport journal8(4), 307-325.

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