In athletics, the approach to identity matters greatly. There can be an emotional and developmental cost to a high-performance mentality. Busy student and professional athletes sometimes push themselves at the expense of their emotional and mental health.
As a former college and professional athlete and mental health professional, Search Institute President and CEO Benjamin Houltberg has spent decades examining the ways that sports can help young people cultivate a healthy identity and transform pain and disappointment into resilience.
Houltberg spoke with Christine Pinalto on this topic for the Team Sidelined Podcast, which explores mental, physical, and emotional challenges for student-athletes. The conversation explores the ways a performance-based identity affects our response to setbacks and roadblocks, and it illuminates the differences between a high-performance mentality and a performance-based identity. Houltberg also shares insights on playing with purpose and cultivating a healthy identity.
The normal trajectory for anyone who falls in love with sports and enjoys competing is that we tend to build our sense of identity around that activity. Even as young kids, we get feedback from the people around us: That was a great race! That was a great performance! Your friends and family notice you for it. It feels good to be part of a team. There’s nothing wrong with those things. Part of the beauty of sports is the special connection with teammates — the relationships.
However, it gets tricky when our identity becomes too wrapped up in how we perform in sports. When we don’t perform well, we feel bad about ourselves. Or when we get injured or experience adversity, we can start to do negative things to try to motivate ourselves to get back into that sport. That’s when identity formation for athletes becomes problematic — when we begin to base our identity on performance and results.
It’s similar to someone basing their identity on their ACT scores or on what college they get into. For an athlete, it could be a time (personal record), a performance, or a certain competition. This performance-based identity undermines our ability to bounce back and be resilient because we tend to shrink back, make excuses, shame ourselves, or disengage altogether. Over the long haul, it wreaks havoc on our bodies, and it is connected to stress hormones.
Signs that someone has a performance-based identity can be fear of failure, justifying poor performances before they happen, and an inability to bounce back after not performing well. Failure can drive young people to work harder, but when they are focused on the results and not the growth, their identity is not developing in a way that sustains motivation.
Athletes are busy achieving things, setting goals, and pursuing dreams, so it’s easy to forget about some of those internal motivations. Identity is really how we see ourselves — who we are and how we fit into the world. Researchers have laid a foundation for the idea of a narrative identity, or your self-story.
When young people hear messages from the adults and peers around them, they begin to internalize them: You’re a competitor, you have grit, or you’re good at math. These messages come from the people that are closest to us. We often create a story around these messages in our environment and around our experiences.
Our self-story is important because we can revise that story. The hope is that we can start to recognize what we’ve formed our sense of identity around and then decide, “Yeah, but this is the story I want to create for my life.”
It can be unhealthy when a young athlete’s self-story is constrained — that is, when it is mainly about their sports and not also about their culture, their character strengths, their relationships, or the other gifts they have to offer the world. The more constrained the story is, the more the person's self-worth depends on their identity as an athlete.
A healthy athlete identity usually has a harmonious passion to it; it works alongside other parts of our lives. It is also more about the relationships with teammates and coaches than it is about individual performance.
In Houltberg’s work with student and professional athletes, he explores the meaning of sports, asking them to do mindful activities where they imagine themselves when they first fell in love with sports, with the joy of play. Many of us have fond memories of playing sports with friends, having fun and being able to play all day. When an athlete's identity is based on performance or a single domain, they can lose the joy and the gift of the sport, and it becomes a burden. This performance-based mentality also harms our ability to navigate things that are out of our control, like injuries.
Injured athletes or athletes who are sidelined for various reasons can experience severe anxiety and depression. They identify so strongly as athletes that they lose sight of the other things they have to offer the world.
Houltberg competed as a distance runner in high school, college, and then professionally. He says he experienced an emotional crash after a poor performance in an important race at the U.S. Open Track and Field event. He felt shame and loneliness and wondered if anyone would care about him if he didn’t perform as expected.
Love of sports can still be a huge part of someone’s sense of purpose and meaning. Houltberg turned his pain into a dedication to helping other young athletes navigate and identify challenges. He suggests that athletes can remind themselves that participating in sports is more than just performance; it’s an expression of hard work, dedication, and commitment.
When athletes pursue their sports and their lives with a sense of purpose, they connect to something bigger than themselves. They are not self-focused; they are connected to their team, their family, their higher power, or whatever it is that is more sustainable.
Houltberg’s research has found that performance levels are similar for athletes with performance-based identities and athletes with purpose-based identities. However, the key differences between the two groups were found in their emotional health. Interestingly, more athletes with performance-based identities got into the Olympics, but purpose-based athletes were more likely to win medals.
So much is required of athletes that it can be challenging to find time for other interests and activities, but nurturing other passions and developing relationships can be the key to a lifelong passion for sports and life. Relationships in sports are crucial for the success and well-being of all participants, but high-quality coaching and other athlete-adult relationships don’t miraculously happen. By building Developmental Relationships with intention, we have the opportunity to benefit young athletes in powerful ways.
Ben Houltberg’s interest in youth development and sports grew out of his personal experiences as a student and professional athlete. He played basketball and football and ran track and cross country in high school. He went on to run in college, where he experienced stress fractures that began to erode his sense of self. Nevertheless, he identified so strongly as an athlete that he pushed himself and battled physical injuries through college and into a post-college career.
He earned his master’s degree as a marriage and family therapist and worked with kids and youth growing up in very difficult circumstances. Later, he completed a Ph.D. and worked with elite athletes and elite sports programs, where he began to more closely examine ideas about emotional resilience. He made the move from academia to Search Institute, where he has continued to focus on helping student-athletes to build a positive identity without letting it get to the point where it defines their sense of self-worth.