How to Maintain a Strong and Healthy Identity In and Out of Sports, an Interview with Mykal Manswell

Athletic identity is a very important topic to talk about because the way you view yourself as an athlete and as a person has a significant impact on your life in and out of your sport. This is why I'm very happy to discuss this unique topic with Mykal Manswell, a professional with diverse experience in the field of athletics. Mykal is a Professional Life Coach, Counselor and Mental Performance Coach who has written a published research paper on athletic identity. If anyone knows a lot about the topic of athletic identity, it's Mykal! Here is our conversation:

SPT: How would you define athletic identity?

MM: Athletic identity is simply the degree to which a person identifies themselves as being an athlete. This means that an individual resonates with the captivating lifestyle that comes with being highly recognized in the realm of sports and is committed to maintaining this lifestyle for as long as possible. 

SPT: What is the importance of having an athletic identity?

MM: Having an athletic identity allows for individuals to not only feel a sense of acknowledgement, but also a sense of comfort that provides confidence, validation and excitement in their sport. A strong athletic identity helps make up the necessary foundation of an athlete’s motivation, confidence, mental toughness, and self-esteem. If an athlete believes that they are truly a successful athlete, they can set themselves up to experience more success in their playing careers. A majority of athletes started playing at a very young age and it has been one of the main components of their life that they not only excel in, but also create opportunities to succeed in life. 

SPT: What happens when an athlete loses their sense of athletic identity?

MM: When athletes lose their sense of athletic identity, their motivation, confidence, and self-esteem can become compromised. One of the important outcomes when losing one’s identity is the struggle with the adjustment of not participating in a lifestyle that was experienced for a majority of their life and brought a sense of pleasure and purpose. Some common issues they may face include trouble finding enjoyment in other areas of life, stress, anxiety, depression, and low-self esteem. 

SPT: How does an athlete lose their sense of athletic identity?

MM: An individual may lose their athletic identity in a number of ways. It could be from injuries, being cut from a team, lack of opportunities, retirement, or quitting. When these events are combined with negative thinking and criticism from others, their impact on athletic identity can cause issues in almost every aspect of one’s life. There are a couple factors that influence an athlete’s identity being altered: Controllable & Uncontrollable Factors. For example, injuries are usually uncontrollable; therefore, if an athlete becomes injured and cannot perform at a high level, they may believe that they will never perform the same or that they no longer "belong" in the competitive world. An example of a controllable factor would be if an athlete decides to retire or chooses not to pursue sports due to lack of interest, decline in performance or prevention of future injuries.

SPT: How can an athlete strengthen their athletic identity?

MM: Athletes can strengthen their athletic identity by putting themselves in positions to succeed in various areas of their sport. Setting realistic goals to obtain desired accolades, training consistently and intentionally to enhance their physical abilities, and earning statuses like captain or MVP are great ways to strengthen athletic identity. Also, it helps to keep yourself in positive environments where you are supported in being an athlete and not taking unnecessary risks that can negatively impact your status on the team or sport. However, to strengthen your athletic identity at its root level, you need to examine your deepest thoughts and beliefs about yourself because a multitude of athletes tend to lose their sense of athletic identity due to flawed thinking. They may think they're not a "real athlete" because of the way they look or perform. Evaluating and challenging their biased thinking by replacing them with more positive and rational thoughts leads to an enhanced sense of identity.

SPT: Is it possible to have too strong of an athletic identity?

MM: Yes! This is called Identity foreclosure, which is a stage of self-identity discovery in which an individual has an identity but hasn't explored other options or ideas. This concept can help highlight the potential downsides to having too strong of an athletic identity. For one, if an individual’s overall self-identity revolves solely around being an athlete, they are in jeopardy of placing immense pressure on themselves to succeed, resulting in their performances to sometimes decline. In addition, athletic identity foreclosure can cause harm to an individual’s mental health. The reality is that an athlete will not maintain high levels of success for a majority of their career, especially due to those uncontrollable factors we discussed earlier. Every athlete goes through peaks and valleys in their development & performance, so if an athlete’s self-identity, self-esteem and self-worth depends only on athletic success, their mental health can become at risk. This can be detrimental for athletes who do not prepare for life after sports because they have not developed useful experience, specific skill sets or simply networking connections with people or organizations OUTSIDE the world of sport. 

SPT: Lastly, how can you maintain a healthy sense of identity in and out of sports?

MM: You need to understand that there's more to life than sports. Sports are great and will always be necessary in society, however; it can be over at any moment, whether you worked your way to the top or simply do not want to play anymore. When an individual understands that they possess more value than just being an athlete and have prioritized their life to use sports as a responsible platform, their sense of athletic identity becomes much more healthier, stable and genuine. A basic tip for all former, current and future athletes to consider is to devote meaningful time to engage in areas of interest outside of your sport consistently. This can lead to new skills being developed, career opportunities after sporting career ends, and an overall sense of happiness, purpose & fulfillment. For example, during the off-season, athletes can attend or join professional networking events, conferences, clubs or even educational advancements in their desired areas of interest that can help their transition out of sport become easier. All of these things can lead to a healthier self-identity, and therefore improve physical performance and mental health!

If you want to connect with Mykal Manswell, you can follow him on social media platforms! Visit his website mykalmanswell.com to learn more about his background and professional services. 

Twitter: @MManswell7 and @HYPEConsulting

Instagram: @mykal_manswell and @_hypeconsulting

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