Building the Resilient Athlete: Understanding Athletic Identity
Updated: Jan 26
In 2015 I nearly died training for a half Ironman. I was out on a typical 5-mile run when I went into ventricular tachycardia (VT). My heart rate increased from 150, 160, 180, 200, 230 and nearly 300 BPM. I was dizzy, disoriented, and sure I was going to die. I was one of the lucky ones and I survived, but my life changed forever. For over nine months I was tested, prodded, and studied by doctors. No one seemed to know what was wrong with me, then I was diagnosed with ARVC, a rare genetic heart disease that gets worse with exercise. I was told I could no longer run, bike, swim or do anything that was strenuous. I was devastated and completely lost. I had been a runner for over 20+ years, done marathons, triathlons and loved every second of it. All my friends were athletes, everything I ate was fuel for my training or race, my clothes were all running related, and my career was treating runners and triathletes. My identity was so deeply intertwined with being a runner that I did not know who I was outside of my sport and it crushed me.
When an athlete becomes injured or must retire from their sport it is very easy for them to go into a deep dark place, to become depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. This is because as athletes our identity is often intertwined with who we are. Athletic identity is defined as how much of your personal identity is tied to your sport. Athletes with a strong athletic identity can have improved performance, improved relationships, increased confidence, and self-esteem when all is going well. BUT when they have a bad practice, race/game or become injured they often find themselves lost without their sport.
It is time we start teaching our athletes to know who they are outside of their sport. It is inevitable that someday they will get injured or retire and when that time comes, we want them to thrive rather than crash and burn. It is our responsibility as coaches and healthcare providers to teach our athletes these tools. If they feel more secure with who they are in life then they are less likely to have a difficult time processing a bad race, bad workout, or injury. They will become more resilient and confident.
So, how do we do this? It is a difficult process that might take years, but it is worth it and all we have to do is take the first step and ask for help.
The First step is that must push past the stigma of what athletes do and do not do. As an athlete myself, I remember thinking, “I am an athlete I don’t spend my free time (reading/journaling /painting/meditating). I work out, train and learn more about my sport.” I used to spend hours reading books, and articles about running, writing my training schedule, and planning my meals. I never once thought about the fact that someday I might be able to run.
Next, having your athlete reflect on what else they like to do is a good start. This might mean journaling about it, trying new things outside of their comfort zone and asking for suggestions. Initially it might take awhile, but once they do find something encourage them to build some free time into their training schedule to do it. Athletes must be doing something fun and fulfilling unrelated to their sport on a weekly basis. I know that sounds insane for those of us that are used to our sacred training schedule but learning who we are outside of our sport is training for the future.
For more about my story you can check out my book: