How to Help Your Athletes Stop Undermining Their Identities

Right or wrong, athletes tie their identities to being athletes. What kind of athletes do they see themselves as? Champions? Fighters? Head cases? Chokers? How an athlete views him or herself has wide-reaching effects on his or her identity.

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Head Case

When I think of how I described myself as a college athlete, I’m horrified.

I saw myself as a “head case,” an “underperformer,” and “not good enough.” By identifying myself by these descriptors I was only making matters worse. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My on-court game suffered as I became less confident, composed, and consistent.

What’s more alarming is that these attributes also affected my identity off the court. I wasn’t who I wanted to be.

Power of “I am”

In Head in the Game, Brandon Sneed explains the power of the words, “I am.” “When your brain hears “I am,” whatever follows registers as a statement about your very identity, compelling your brain to begin taking steps to make it permanent.”

Therefore, “I am a head case,” became a more permanent fixture of my mindset, my game, and my identity over time.

Athletes need to be careful with the words they use to describe themselves. “I am…” should be followed by positive attributes.

Research shows that shifting language from “I am” to “I feel” shifts the brain to a problem-solving mode rather than emotional response. Feeling angry, frustrated, or feeling like an underperformer triggers the brain to search for solutions rather than accept these descriptors as permanent.

What Coaches Can Do

Coaches can play a tremendous role in helping athletes overcome these self-sabotaging beliefs. Here are 3 steps coaches can take to recognize and assist their athletes in developing a more productive frame of mind.

1. Look

You’re already doing this. Coaches notice poor body language and emotional outbursts. You already know which athletes are more resistant to feedback.

These are all red flags – potential indicators for how any athlete views him or herself. This is especially true when you see trends over time.

2. Listen

This is the step I see some coaches skip. Rather than listening to the athlete, they are quick to direct the player to “stay calm,” or “get your head in the game,” assuming the athlete knows how to do that. I find that athletes who know how to regulate their emotions already do a decent job of it.

Instead, ask players about their behavior and listen for the hidden (or unhidden) messages. In my case I probably would have told my coach I thought I was head case. This opens lines of communication.

3. Empower

With open dialogue about how the athlete sees him or herself you can point to strategies, resources, or people that can help them get unstuck and revise their identity as an athlete.

My college coach didn’t need to have all the answers. That was okay. But unfortunately, he wasn’t prepared to point me in the right direction.

This is one reason I train (and write this blog) for coaches – to equip them to better serve their athletes.

Help Athletes Embrace a Positive Identity

How your athletes fill in the blank, “I am ____,” creates a self-fulfilling prophecy by programing their brains to embody their beliefs. Help your athletes embrace their positive attributes and troubleshoot their negative ones. Show them how to stop sabotaging their identities and find solutions to help improve their mindset, mental toughness, and even their lives off the field.

Question: How else can you help athletes develop a healthy self-identity?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.



Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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