“Who Am I?”
Several months ago I was training a client who happened to be a psychologist, and during our sessions I feel as though what she told me challenged my brain as much as the exercises I gave her challenged her body. Even though I no longer work with that particular client, I still think about a lot of the conversations we had and one issue in particular (on athletes, injuries and loss of identity) really hit home for me.
If I asked you to describe (in two minutes or less) who you are, do you know what you would say?
I don’t. How does one go about (verbally) packaging themself up into a neat little 2 minute bundle? Where would I even start? Honestly, I don’t know. That being said, there are a some things that I do know are a huge part of who I am
- I love my family and friends, though I’m not the best at telling them
- I can be outgoing and bubbly, but when it comes down to it I’m really shy and
- Im extremely competitive, stubborn and passionate about sports (maybe a little emotional too…)
The term self-identity (i.e. how we see ourselves) refers to the the (stable) characteristics that we consider to be our ‘defining traits’ and they are drawn from different aspects of our lives that we attach a lot of meaning and value to .
e.g. Being a physically active, having close connections with friends/family, strong work ethic, being ‘the life of the party’
For many athletes our self-identity and self-worth is intricately linked to being physically active and (relatively) succesful in our sport(s). As we become more committed to and competitive in our sport the more our ‘athletic self-worth’ contributes to our overall sense of identity. This means that anything which interferes with our ability to be active, train or compete (e.g. an injury) can have a negative effect on our physical, emotional and psychological well-being.
Sport as A Sense of Identity
The more time and resources we commit to an activity (e.g. Crossfit, Olympic Weightlifting, Volleyball…) the more it becomes an extension of who we are and we begin to define ourselves in terms of the roles we play in the context of our sport (athlete, team-member, coach etc). When we spend a lot of time training with other people we learn a lot about each others strengths, weaknesses how we behave in different situations. Over time these traits are how others and ourselves start to define ‘who we are’
e.g. ‘someone who remains calm under pressure, a teammate/training buddy who always makes you laugh, a competitor you never see coming and then bam! they’re way ahead of you”
When we get injured suddenly it can feel as though we no longer fit into those role and we end up wondering “If I’m not “x” “y” or “z”, who am I?”
Sport as a Source of Self-Esteem
In addition to providing a sense of identity, sports can be a major source of self-esteem and a confidence booster. In general (though not aways) people identify with/stick to the sports that challenge them but allow them to excel ; and finding that sport that just clicks can be super exciting.
Sports create an environment where we have the chance to develop our skills, face challenging situations and overcome obstacles, which in turn reassures us that
“yes I do have something to offer”
And it is this positive reinforcement is what keeps so many of us coming back for more.
Even though we know that sometimes we’re going to feel like absolute shit during a workout (e.g. burpees) and other times we will fail horribly; its worth it in the end because the accomplishments almost always outweigh/outlast momentary discomforts.
When I look back and think about all the training/competitions I’ve done in the past year (i.e. since I got ‘Hooked’ on Crossfit) what really stands out are the moments I felt successful…
- When I found out we were going to Regionals
- The first time I got my Muscle up
- or The days I just had a fun training with my friends
And the less enjoyable moments
- when I felt nauseous
- was tired and grumpy
- or felt like I was going to faint (actually I did faint)
seem to have faded and looking back I don’t remember them being THAT bad….
Sport as A Constructive Outlet for Stress
Not only can sports help us discover ‘who we are’, but they can also provide outlet/channel for any negative emotions (anxiety, stress, aggression) that iis a lot healthier and more constructive than many other coping methods . When I feel really overwhelmed, angry or upset, (whether work-related, personal or something else) sometimes all I need is to get away for an hour or two and having something that is physically and mentally demanding enough to keep me focused (i.e. training) allows me to do just that.
What Happens if I Get Injured?
Hopefully (fingers crossed) none of us gets injured, and while there are definitely ways to minimize that risk…
- Making sure we always Warm-Up
- Mobilizing Regularly (I definitely still have some improving to do here)
- Getting Enough Rest and Recovery
- and Fuelling our bodies properly
…unfortunately its pretty unlikely that we all escape our athletic careers ‘unscathed’. This is why, as tempting as it is, to ignore thinking about the possibility of injury, it’s important to not only take proactive/preventative measures but also to take some time to think about what it will mean if we do get hurt.
When someone sustains an injury (suddenly or from chronic overuse) there are the physical part(s) (pain, loss of strength/speed etc) but there is also a huge emotional component that can be much more difficult to cope with. When we use our athletic successes to define ‘who we are’, boost our self esteem and help us relieve stress any type of injury that takes us out (even just temporarily) can do some pretty serious damage to our identity and self-worth.
Being injured also opens up a huge vacuum of free time, which is made harder if the majority of our friends are also athletes (as it can rob us of our social network too) and this combination can lead to feelings of worthlessness, depression, anger and so on. In an attempt to deal with these emotions, discover a new identity and find something to replace training, its not uncommon for injured athletes to end up turning to self-destructive comping mechanisms (alcohol, drugs, over or under-eating) because they don’t know what else to do.
So What Can We Do?
We can’t prevent injury (unless we want to sit in a padded room for the rest of our lives), but we can make being injured more bearable by having other interests that are completely separate from our athletic lifestyle.
I’m not saying we should all have another equally consuming past-time, I mean theres only so much free time and energy in a day. But at least try to find something that you enjoy doing outside of the gym (as crazy as that may seem), which might take trial and error (e.g. I hate shopping, and gardening) but chances are something will spark your interest.
e.g. learning a musical instrument, volunteering, drawing, writing, making castles out of toothpicks? (you never know)
I think the reason that converastion in the fall really hit home with me is because I know whenever I don’t have competition to train for, am in-between sports (before Crossfit/Weightlifting it was Cheerleading, and before that Ultimate Frisbee…) or have some sort of injury I have a pretty hard time figuring out what to do with myself.
Although it didn’t happen right away after that conversation I did end up finding some things I really enjoy (drawing and writing) and give me a sense of accomplishment. Is it the same satisfaction that I get from moving heavy weights, flipping tires or swinging from ropes/pull-up bars/rings… No, its not, but its still fun and satisfying in its own way I’m normally just as happy when I finish a drawing or complete a post as I am after a good workout.
I seriously hope that I don’t get an injury that forces me out of training, and I know if I do I’ll definitely be pretty down about it (…that might be putting it lightly). I do hope, however that if it does happen…
- it won’t be anything too serious,
- I’ll be able to bounce back quickly and
- if I am unable to train fingers crossed I’ll find ways to keep myself other entertained/out of too much trouble (e.g. writing and drawing more)