Do you find yourself needing something out-with sport to keep you motivated and your mind active? Or are you questioning if university is worth the time and effort when your sights are set on sporting ambitions? Either way, this blog should help you realise what the benefits are of having a strong non-athletic identity for both you as an athlete and an individual.
What is a non-athletic identity anyway?
You may have guessed it but non-athletic identity refers to what defines an athlete in the world outside their sport, which most likely is what they study at university/college or the career they are building as well as family and friends.
So what are the benefits of creating a strong non-athletic identity?
Firstly, it can help to improve an athlete’s health and well-being. In an American study it was found that college athletes that identified themselves as engaged and committed to their academic studies were less at risk of mental health issues. On the flip side the college athletes who didn’t prioritise study and identified more with being a “jock” were at greater risk of developing mental health problems. When sport is your only focus the bad times on the pitch can creep into every aspect of your life.
Successful career transition
Secondly, having a non-athletic identity in the form of education and training throughout your sporting career can play a huge part in how successful or unsuccessful your transition out of performance sport will be. If your education/training is limited you may struggle to find employment after all the ‘fun’ has stopped. This is a big issue, so much so, that the EU have guidelines in place to promote it and ensure that there are as few obstacles as possible for youth athletes, especially in early specialisation sports. A large emphasis is put on education being possible at the same time as training, rather than it being an after-thought. When successful it can help in more ways than just making you more employable.
Lastly, and depending on your perspective potentially most importantly, having a well-developed non-athletic self can improve performance. Great Britain Hockey Performance Director/Women’s Head coach Danny Kerry, has emphasised how as well as a moral obligation to look after every athlete’s education and career aspirations, having a strong non-sporting identity also improves their performance as a hockey player. This is largely due to them being able to put sport into perspective, allowing them to cope better with the pressures associated with elite level sport. And after all, improving performance is the aim of the game.
4 Top Tips on developing your non-sporting identity
1) Be open to your other passions and interests and don’t be afraid to follow them
2) Involve your sporting support team in your non-athletic pursuits and vice-versa. This will make managing both the sporting and non-sporting much more straightforward as both will know more about the demands of the other.
3) Early intervention is key, avoid letting life after sport be an after-thought
4) Make time to take the athlete blinkers off and enjoy life away from training, this will have the biggest impact on your performance
If managing both athletic and career aspirations at once seems like an insurmountable challenge, it may be worth remembering that it used to be common-place. For example, the late Sir Roger Bannister broke the mile record while a medical student at Oxford, and let’s not forget that Olympic athletes only gained the funding necessary for turning professional to become the norm in 1997.
There are also countless modern examples of how athletes have gotten the balance right, for example cyclist Becky James has taken her hobby of baking pretty great looking cakes and turned it in to a career now that she’s retired. But you don’t need to even wait until you’re retired, distilling Gin and owning restaurants seems to be the dual career of choice for the Glasgow Warriors rugby team.
So, take on the challenge and see where your non-sporting identity can take you, both as an individual, and as an athlete.
EU Guidelines on Dual Careers of Athletes, EU Expert group Education and Training in Sport (2012)
Miller, K.E., and Hoffman, J.H., 2009. Mental Well-Being and Sport-Related Identities in College Students Sociology in Sport Journal .26(2): 335–356.