Athletes focus on their chosen sports at the expense of everything else in their lives. If you’re an athlete, you’ve spent a good part of your life in the single-minded pursuit of athletic goals, and everything else has taken second place. Your entire identity has been wrapped up in sports to the detriment of other aspects of your being, including your emotional maturity, intellectual development and interpersonal relationships. The key to your well being is expanding your identity beyond athletic exploits and achieving greater balance in your life.
The athlete, or former athlete, is a highly regulated individual. He has learned to focus his mind on a set goal, and do everything to achieve it. While he may not have excluded everything else in his life the way an all or nothing person has, he has used the achievement of this set goal to measure his success, and consequently, his worth as a person. The athletic ability that is required to achieve this goal has become a part of this person’s identity, and his family and friends support this. Often, he is the most athletic member of the family, and this also becomes a way for him to gain the attention of the family, and his parents. Where his siblings may have been praised for good grades, or their looks, he has been praised for his athletic abilities. Most likely, he has also experienced additional gains that go with his athletic abilities, such as the praise of his friends, or social interaction, a way to regulate stress, and also a way to know himself. Often athletes describe not knowing who, or what they would be without their athletic pursuits. They have usually built their entire lives around these pursuits, and frequently chose jobs that allow them to incorporate their athletic skills. They are used to operating at a high level, and often have trouble operating in an environment that they view as not up to par. Just as they expect occupational environments to operate at the high level that they are used to, they also expect relationships to operate at this high level as well. This expectation can often make relationships difficult as not everybody expects the same high level of performance that the athlete does. People around the athlete can often feel as though he does not accept them, or value them. This can lead to disappointments in relationships, and a feeling of loneliness. As their athletic abilities are so much a part of who they are, they have trouble adjusting to people and situations who do not operate by the same high standard that they do. For this reason, when they are no longer able to be athletic, they suffer a huge setback. If, for example they suffer an injury that takes them out of the game, they often have trouble reconciling the feelings of failure and loss, resulting from no longer being able to be athletic. They also suffer a feeling of loss of identity when they are no longer able to be athletic, and have trouble finding another way to determine their self worth. This often leads to maladaptive behaviors such as overeating, smoking, or drug use. It is not at all uncommon for former Olympic athletes to turn to drugs or alcohol after their career ends.
Workshop 1 – Who You Are: You’ve probably achieved a great deal of acclaim for your athletic talents and have exhibited outstanding discipline and determination to achieve your goals. When you enter the work world, you expect the same high standards from your place of employment. You want people, including yourself, to achieve to their highest potential. When interacting with others, you often mention the highlights of your athletic career to gain attention, inspire respect, and feel confident.
THE ATHLETE (OR FORMER)
Why You’re That Way: Many athletes grew up in families where they were designated as the “athletic” one, while siblings were applauded for their academic achievements. Excelling at sports became a way to gain attention and carve out a personal identity.
Characteristics of an Athlete:
Single minded pursuits
Strive for excellence
Must have sense of identity
- What areas of your life have you excelled or been successful having this trait?
- What areas of you or your life has this trait not served you as well?
- Has it affected your health & lifestyle? Your happiness?
Workshop 2 – How You Feel: Your identity is tied to your ability (or inability) to perform as an athlete. When you are not excelling in your chosen sport, you feel empty and have the sense that life is meaningless. You feel that success as an athlete will bring you attention, love and praise from others. As they have no way to define themselves, and no other way to determine their self worth, they find a way to distract themselves from these feelings through escaping it. In the case of weight loss, athletes often struggle with learning to find a new way to identify their self worth, and avoid using the same high standard that they used when they were competing. They tend to be overly expectant and rigid with themselves, and when they feel as though they cannot reach this standard, give up easily. Frequently, they will start a weight loss or fitness program for all the right reasons, but without learning to adjust to a less than competitive standard, often give up early feeling that if they cannot achieve the same standard, than the program is worthless. It is like they accept nothing less than first place, and have trouble simply working at weight loss, without always trying to compare it to their past experience of being very competitive. Where they may have been very successful in their athletic career, they have trouble accepting the fact that they may not have been successful at weight loss. This also means that they often have trouble accepting the help of others to achieve this goal.
- With this personality trait, do you expect the same of others, loved ones?
- Has this skewed your judgment towards others if they do not measure up?
- How would you like to see yourself differently?
- Has is affected your health & lifestyle? Your happiness?
Ron was a former professional football player. From the time he picked up a football, the sport came easily to him. He was an all star player in high school, and quickly gained local, and national recognition for his abilities. Achieving a scholarship to a top ranked college seemed to come as no surprise to him, or anyone around him. Ron viewed football as a sport in which only the best need apply, and he held himself to a very high standard. He was well rounded, and had a wide group of friends, but where football was concerned, he expected nothing less than the best from himself. The higher held this standard for himself, the more he accomplished. He excelled in college play, and was soon drafted in the NFL. The high intensity level of play suited him, and he thrived on the pressure. Playing football was all Ron ever loved, and he defined himself by his play. Where relationships were concerned, they were important, but always came after football. Not only that, his relationships needed to be made to mold around his football, not the other way around. So when Ron met his current wife, Michelle, it was clear that she be willing to take a back seat to his football. But he also held her to a high standard. He expected her to want to be as good a wife to him as he expected of himself on the field. This began to lead to tension in the marriage, and when Ron finally decided to stop playing professionally, he didn’t turn to Michelle for support. Instead he felt empty. Football was all he knew, and without it he didn’t what to do with himself. He had put football between himself and his wife, and now that he wasn’t playing, the tension seemed to increase. Ron was also having trouble adjusting to the lack of activity, and he continued to eat the same amounts as when he had been playing. This led to weight gain, and he pushed Michelle farther away as he felt even less like himself. He attempted to join a gym, but the exercise seemed so pointless compared to what he was used to, and he soon lost interest. It just seemed like nothing could motivate him the way football used to. Being on a diet also seemed pointless to Ron, as he was used to eating in order to play football, not in order to lose weight. As his weight escalated, he became depressed. Finally, he realized that he had better do something different, and asked for help.
Workshop 3 – Relationships/Family: When you’re in a relationship, you expect your partner to measure up to your high standards, both in terms of appearance and achievement. Your desire to change your partner will make the person feel unloved and unvalued. You will drive so hard that you often drive the person right out of your life, leaving you feeling lonely and disappointed.
Where perfectionists struggle with accepting themselves, and the world as not perfect, and all or nothing’s struggle with maintaining excitement and variety, athletes struggle with finding a new sense of identity and purpose. As their whole lives have typically been molded around their sport, their identity becomes their sport. Where health and weight loss are concerned, that too has been molded around their sport. In this sense, they have trouble accepting an exercise or diet program that is different from the high standard that they are used too. Athletes are ironically usually the first ones to criticize an exercise or diet plan. As they are accustomed to such a high level of competition, they view anything short of excellent, as pointless, ineffective, or inadequate. When they do, they quickly give up. Another reason for this is that athletes are used to success being quite attainable for them, and not so much for others. What this means is that they are quick to give up an exercise or diet plan when it isn’t immediately effective. This is especially the case when they see others succeeding at the same plan. So in order to be successful, what athletes need to learn is that pursuit of weight loss is not the same thing as pursuit of their athletic goals. That being said, it may not come as easily to them as their sport did. Additionally, where their sport became their identity, weight loss cannot become their identity. Success in the field of weight loss is about balance in life, and if their identity revolves around their weight, they will not be able accept themselves when they are not the “ideal” weight, or when they suffer the setbacks that everybody experiences with weight loss. In order to tolerate these setbacks, and continue to work toward their weight loss goals, they will need an identity that supports their current state. What this means is that their identity must reflect where they are in their life at that moment, not where they were, or where they want to be. For example, the former triathlete who is now 20 pounds overweight must learn to build an identity around things that are accomplishable to her in that moment, such as, getting good grades, excelling in her work, developing strong and supportive relationships, exploring new things, or starting a new business. As all of these things can be achieved at her current weight, or her former weight, when they reflect her identity, as opposed to her weight, or athletic abilities, she will be much less emotionally controlled by both of these things. When she is less emotionally controlled by her weight, and athletic ability, she will be much more able to adjust to an exercise or diet plan that is not up to her high standards. Additionally, she will be able to tolerate setbacks within this plan, and less likely to revert to former unhealthy habits.
- How has this affected you?
- What have you missed out on by having this trait?
- What is important to you at the end of the day?
- If you look back at your life would you feel fulfilled
Workshop 4 – Watch Out For: When athletes are injured, sidelined, or can no longer play their preferred sport, they have a hard time dealing with the loss of identity that these changes in fortune bring about. To avoid dealing with feelings of loss and disappointment, many athletes turn to self-destructive behaviors such as overeating, smoking, drinking, and taking drugs.
Recommendations: Realize that you are a multifaceted, worthy person, and your life is so much bigger than your athletic career. Get outside of your comfort zone by taking up new endeavors. Try a different sport, learn a foreign language, or take up a new hobby. Develop yourself on multiple levels…your mind and emotions as well as your body.
Affirmations for Athletes
- My life is opening up in new ways.
- I am excited about where life is taking me.
- I am a multifaceted person.
- I can let go of my identity as an athlete and enjoy playing the game.
- I spend time getting in touch with my thoughts and feelings.
Inspiration for Athletes
“The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
⎯ Muhammad Ali
“Success isn’t permanent and failure isn’t fatal.”
⎯ Mike Ditka
“The medals don’t mean anything and the glory doesn’t last. It’s all about your happiness. The rewards are going to come, but my happiness is just loving the sport and having fun performing.”
— Jackie Joyner Kersee
Bess’s Athlete (and Perfectionist) Story
Bess is a traditional athlete. That mixed with her perfectionism can be a recipe for disaster — it usually leads to overwork, not just exercise, but in all facets of life. And overwork leads to exhaustion, which causes the body to hold onto reserve fuel fat pockets.
Bess, in typical athlete fashion, came to me while she was doing seven hours of exercise daily and was self-lowering her food intake, as she felt that the 1450 calories she was on was too much. I kept trying to convince her that she can’t work her body as hard as she was…and she was working it hard…without giving it the proper fuel.
She lost eight pounds in a week and was confident that she had proven me wrong. So I ordered a dunk to ensure she was losing muscle.
When Bess saw the results, she had an epiphany — six of the eight pounds she lost were lean muscle mass, meaning she lost less fat than the previous week. We then added calories and especially protein appropriate to her exercise.
Bess is a truly amazing person with an equally awesome husband. He came to us and killed it as well. They are a truly great and motivational pair.
Name a time in your life when you’ve displayed Athlete Personality Traits: