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When Athlete Identity Falls Apart

BY Patrick Smith

The athlete identity is fragile, and when something interrupts it (an injury, a major life event or say, a pandemic), it can be tough to stay upright.

Have you ever witnessed a car accident, real or metaphorical, and had that moment of realization that no matter what you did or do, it’s still going to happen? The catastrophe is impending. You know it, and you are helpless. As you’re thinking through this, how many of you thought of an athlete who went through this? Despite the best efforts of those around them, their path was clearly going to end in poor outcomes. Last question, how many of those catastrophic stories originated in a disruptive event? (e.g. injury, breakup, job insecurity, etc.)

It’s sad to think that in the current day, most coaches have one or more stories that fit the above description. Disruptive events can be formative, but for many, they begin a chain of experiences that can cost so much more than just the time required to physically heal, move on from a breakup, or find new employment. As coaches, we can help redirect disruptive experiences toward formative growth and away from that metaphorical car crash.

In a previous article, I wrote about developing Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) skills that help coaches and athletes clarify and move toward their values while constructively noticing triggering or ‘hooking’ experiences. These skills help provide us with individualized direction and buy us time to make intentional choices. But some experiences not only momentarily trigger us but can also shake our foundations. Today, we are going to inspect those foundations. We’ll then look at how disruption can upset them and what you can do as a coach to help athletes come back in the most sustainable way.

Stories as Foundations of Self

When we ask ourselves who we are, what comes to mind? Do we start by describing our chemical composition? Our water/mineral balance? The electrical pathways and signals of our nervous system? Of course not. We start with some sort of story— a narrative written through experience and interpretation. The stories are as diverse and complex. Our athlete story, our coach story, our business person story, on and on. 

Disruption Challenges Stories

When we experience massive disruption, one or more of these stories can be challenged. Where we were once a ‘fast runner,’ a broken bone with mandatory bed rest may induce counter-narratives of being ‘slow’ or ‘losing fitness.’ If we try too hard too soon to prove the new narrative wrong, we might make the situation even worse. Once down this path of challenging the counter-narrative, the irony of fighting the narrative is it can amplify it even more. We become sensitized to attend to evidence supporting our ‘slowness’ or ‘unfitness.’ You can see where this destruction spiral goes.

Separating Self from Stories

So what can a coach do to break the spiral? Help the athlete notice that both stories, self-narrative and counter-narrative, are just that. Stories. Constructions of an individual who exists beyond those constructions. One way is to ask your athlete, “If you forgot all of these stories tomorrow, would you still exist?” 

The point here is to help them differentiate between how they talk about themselves and the most fundamental concept of who they are. When we can step back from the stories of who we are and connect with ourselves as a vessel and makers of many stories, the stories transform from defining who we are to just another experience we have in the constant flow of experiences.

When an athlete connects with this transformation of self, it becomes easier to notice and experience our self-imposed narratives and counter-narratives. They become hooks that we can notice and still choose value-consistent action. When athletes gain this perspective, disruptive experiences are more likely to be perceived as opportunities and result in informative outcomes.

There are many metaphors that can help an athlete connect with this perspective on themselves and the experience of struggling with narratives and counter-narratives. For a free 30-minute consultation about self as context, email me and let me know you would like to learn more.

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About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a Training Peaks Level 2 Coach licensed through USA Cycling. He offers consultations, fully customized training plans, and prewritten training plans you can purchase through the TrainingPeaks plans store. You can learn more at his TrainingPeaks coaching page, his website, or by reaching out.

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