Elevate Your Game

Who am I? A College Athlete’s Personal Dive into the Effects of Identity on Performance and Life Fulfillment

by Gavin Ashworth on Jul 9, 2024

When you meet someone for the first time, what is one of the first questions that often gets asked? “What do you do?” It is such a commonplace question that we have habitual responses that seem to come out of us without any thought or pause. Simply, “I am a doctor, I am a teacher, I am a mechanic…”, or for many of those reading this, “I am an athlete.” These interactions are a daily occurrence and, as such, do not often warrant scrutiny. However, I ask you this: if today, something happened where you could no longer participate in athletics or your profession, what would your answer be to “What do you do?”

As athletes, we often conflate who we are with the sport we play. For nearly my entire life, my response to any question along the lines of “What do you do?”, “How would you describe yourself?”, “What makes you unique?” would be “I am a basketball player.” For the longest time, this held no weight to me; it was simply how I naturally viewed myself. My passion and drive to become great at the sport I loved had naturally attuned me to, on some level, correlate my identity with the game. My world was centered around my performance and my perception of where I was relative to where I thought I should be on my basketball journey. Every negative emotion was exacerbated, and every positive one felt insignificant. Bad games weren’t simply frustrating; they were devastating. Injuries weren’t a small setback; they were soul-crushing. Seeing other athletes succeed where I had struggled felt like the future I had so desperately wanted for myself was unattainable.

The summer before I entered my freshman year of high school, I was playing in a scrimmage on my AAU team. I casually went up for a rebound as I’d done thousands of times before, but as I came down, I landed on a teammate’s shoe. My leg collapsed from under me, I felt a snap, and my body hit the ground. I did not cry out immediately; I was calm. The pain was severe but nothing that I was unfamiliar with. But that calmness changed the moment I began to think about what I believed the injury meant. At the time, my younger self had no idea how long I would be out or what long-term ramifications this injury would entail, but as kids do, I envisioned the worst. My mind raced with spiraling thoughts: “I’m not going to make varsity, then I’m not going to get to play in college, and of course then professional basketball is off the table”… my basketball career was over… my life was over. My identity was so utterly consumed by basketball that in the moment I heard that snap, I did not know who I was anymore. Of course, looking back, my life was not over, and I was who I always was, but my younger self could not comprehend that.

Side note: The injury was far from what my younger self had exaggerated it to seem—a sprained ankle and a fractured foot. I healed quickly and went on to have a great first year of varsity basketball.

Why is this conflation of identity and what we do important? I believe for two main reasons: the first being performance and the second being life fulfillment.

When your identity and sense of self is tied solely to one thing, it makes high-level performance in that thing near impossible. Every shot feels like a life-or-death moment, every performance feels overwhelming, and the space for enjoyment and passion is overtaken by a desperate need to succeed to maintain who you believe you are. It is a rare person who can perform well under these conditions, and there is no one who can perform to the best of their abilities.

Alongside this, as every athlete will one day have to come to terms with, the ball will eventually stop bouncing. When that day comes, and your sport is no longer an option, how will you continue to view yourself? What will your identity be? This is an extremely common occurrence in the sports world: athletes end their careers and, for the first time in their lives, seriously have to question, “Who am I?”. Having to relearn who you are mid-way through your life is a challenging task.

Throughout my athletic journey, I have utilized two strategies to change the way I view myself and to prepare for the eventual day that my basketball career will be over. These two strategies are an ideological shift and a diversification of personal identity.

Firstly, when asked “What do you do?”, if I mention sports or basketball, I intentionally respond with “I play basketball” rather than “I am a basketball player.” This is a simple shift, but there is power in words, and there is a stark difference between “I am” and “I do.” I purposefully engage in my life in ways that attempt to dissociate my identity from the things I am passionate about; they are simply things I do, not things I am.

Secondly, I actively diversify my life. If your life is a pie chart of things you attribute yourself to or are invested in—things like sports, family, religion, passions, etc.—it is advisable to not have any one thing take up more than 10% of that pie chart. Because with anything in life, there is always the chance that it can be taken away from you or not be an option to invest yourself in anymore. And if that does happen, we want to be in a position where we are still whole and fulfilled.