On Sports and Identity
I’ll introduce myself: former volleyball student-athlete. In high school, I was successful in my sport, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to play college volleyball. But wait, there's more now.
My perception at that time was that a bigger school was better, so I went Division I. When I got there, I hated it. It was a job, which I underestimated, and I wasn’t prepared for. I wasn’t equipped with handling the demands, so I tried a lot of unhealthy things to get out of it. But the reality was, I wanted to hold onto it because I was scared.
I was scared that I wasn’t good at anything else if I quit. If I quit, who was I? I had always identified with being an athlete, a volleyball player. That’s how people knew me. “Who’s that?” people would ask. “She’s on the volleyball team.”
If I quit, who would I become? That was really scary, considering I had spent several hours each day forming my identity and success in athletics. Of course, I knew it would eventually come to a halt, but I also assumed I would learn a thing or two before then.
Anyway, eventually I couldn’t hold on anymore. I was done clinging to a part of me that didn’t bring me happiness any longer.
I quit my Division I team, and left the school entirely.
For the next five years, I wandered.
I moved away, thinking a fresh start would solve things. I tried new hobbies, but it was a false passion. I couldn’t relate to anyone outside of athletics, and I couldn’t relate to current athletes, because I was no longer one of them.
For five years, I had no direction, except treading fiercely to stay afloat.
Suddenly, I remembered who I wanted to be. My identity wasn’t a quitter, it was a person of strength and resilience. It was a person who had passion and found quirks in everyday life. I found that I wanted to be creative and silly without fearing judgement. I wanted to be a leader and a good friend. Reliable. I wanted to make my world better, however small that was. I wanted to empower people and give them courage to do hard things.
I wanted to be brave.
So I went back to college. I went back to finish my eligibility, playing the sport I believed shaped me for five whole years. This time, I had an entirely new perspective.
When my teammates were complaining how tired they were, how they hated practice, I was excited I was given this opportunity to play a game I loved with people I loved, for a school I loved, and get an education in a beautiful city.
But, let’s talk identity.
Was I this person I was striving to be? I was getting there. Aren’t we always becoming? Creating our best selves?
I’ve learned a few things, even since then, relating my athletic skills and strengths to my everyday world.
How did I become such a good athlete in my respective sport? Practice.
How do I become a good person, one whom I love and strive to empower? Practice.
The first time I knew I was a student athlete was when I had to make sacrifices. I had to choose: prom, or a tournament? Practice, or missing half of a friend’s birthday party? My priority was to myself and fulfilling my obligations and promises to others.
The qualities that made me a volleyball player translate tenfold into life as a successful person. Things like commitment, communication, work ethic, competitiveness (to succeed in all areas: keep a job, or win a game!), time management…
How will I use these skills in my life?
Motivation- what drives me? Mine happened to be loving every second of my life and being confident in that love.
In sports, I felt good about myself if I gave 110%. Not just good- fulfilled. I was happy that I played my sport with people I loved. I loved cheering on my friends, and getting support back. I loved relying on people and believing working together was better than working alone. If I wasn’t good at a skill, I worked hard to achieve it- this made me feel confident.
These are some things I’ve created in my post-student-athlete life.
If I’m not happy, I have options: I can change my perspective, change my circumstances, increase my opportunities for growth, or leave it. I’ve done all four.
Growth- how did you handle coaching and criticism? Can you give yourself this, or do you need a kick from someone else? Do you want to grow at all, or do you not even see the need? These are the things you need to learn about yourself- how you grow.
In athletics, I know we have all had teammates who slacked off when no one is looking. If this was you, then who does that effect? YOU. Your team, your coach, too. But ultimately, if you’re slacking on your sprints, taking the easy way out on summer workouts, guess who literally suffered? YOU.
I learned the hard way that people really don’t care about your success. Your parents, sure. Your teammates, yes… to an extent. But they care more about themselves. Period. That is the reality.
Personally, I love seeing other people succeed. For one, I know that it doesn’t take away from my own success. And two, it shows you that success from their certain perspective and circumstances is possible. It’s possible for you, too, if you didn’t know.
Some of my favorite teammates and kids I’ve coached were never satisfied. This doesn’t make them greedy, it sets them up to be awesome people. Because they are not okay with “good enough.” When they achieve something, there’s that next action they are ready to perform for what else they want or need.
When we talk about success either personally or athletically, having a mindset rooted in growth is key.
Can you motivate yourself? When you don’t want to wake up early for work on a Monday morning, can you do this hard thing? Or, will you blame someone not waking you up?
The identity of you as a student-athlete is solid: you are a student and you are an athlete… until you are no longer a student. Until you are no longer an athlete. All of this may be due to injury, graduation, or otherwise.
The safety of being a student athlete in high school or a university is beautiful. When you’re so used to a set schedule, someone telling you to work out or have friends you are around 24/7 for an entire season, or year, and then, suddenly, you’re done: what now?
Athletics gives us so many things, but the reliance on it can stall a person for years once that’s ripped from them.
What will you do to help your athletes, or yourself? How can we prepare ourselves and shield against an identity crisis? Beginning young and empowering kids, allowing them to be unapologetically themselves: that’s where we’ll see their lifetime achievement grow.