Reframing The Athletic Identity
"My name is Nathanael Littauer, and I help people build Strong Futures."
I get to have a lot of unique and challenging conversations with coaches, athletes, and interns alike on a weekly basis. These conversations often lead me to reflecting on my experience with burnout, and in them I've noticed a key trend which seems prominent in sports: the role of identity and how it impacts our lives.
I want you to fill in the blank on this sentence:
My name is ________, and I am________.
I've asked this question a lot recently with some of my high school athletes, and in a lot of coaches I've had the privilege of talking to about burnout in the last few years. Most often, athletes and coaches alike answer this question by stating their title or their sport.
"I'm a Soccer Player."
"I'm a Volleyball Player."
"I'm a Strength Coach."
"I'm a Football Coach."
I'll be honest, this is largely a cultural problem where we identify with a key characteristic or hobby. We all want to be a part of a tribe. As part of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, most of us hang out on the third tier of needing belonging or connection. In this, we attach ourselves to anyone else who is in the same profession in order to gain likeability or connection. But the phrasing here becomes key.
I had this conversation with an athlete recently, who I had trained as part of a team training at the time at which I burned out, and trains with me now outside of the team setting. Years later, we were able to have a very real conversation about what really happened, how the identity I created almost lead to me taking my own life, and how it's imperative to reframe ourselves as someone who participates or fulfills an occupation rather than is the occupation themselves. For those unfamiliar with my story, I'll share with you what I shared with this athlete and how it relates back to identity.
I used to identify as a Strength Coach, and at a point in my career (which was only two and a half years in the making) I ended up having to leave my job. I was in a toxic work culture filled with gaslighting, manipulative management, and dishonesty. I left to work a Christian Boys camp as a cook, and I found out quickly just how lost I had truly become. On my first day off, someone asked me what I liked to do for fun, and I couldn't give them an answer. I drove off the camp property in silence, because I didn't even have music downloaded to my phone anymore. I just had coaching podcasts, and with no one to coach, I was in silence. It was in this period of time, which I had to wrestle with the question "Who am I?" especially since I had wrapped up my entire identity in coaching. If I wasn't a Strength Coach, who was I?
I share this, as it's a real conversation I have with each of my athletes at some point. Who are you when your sport ends? Because it inevitably will. Either you will have to reprioritize your life to make ends meet, an injury will take you away, or an opportunity will be lost. And when this happens, will you be okay? This goes for everyone involved in the sports realm. At some point, your path with sports as you know it ends. And, call it blasphemy if you will, I shared the following with this athlete in particular:
At some point, your time in your sport will end, and it's a good thing.
They tried to refute this, but it's true. Sports, though useful to find connection, learn hard lessons, build skills, and stay active, can only serve a role in our lives for so long. We have to move on from them. Life dictates this inevitably. The key then, is to find what we can learn from our sport, and change how we think about our time within it to become better versions of ourselves.
This is the big nail I try to hammer down with my athletes and, to be frank, with myself at times. In order to learn the most from sports, as an athlete or as a coach, is to reframe our role in the sport from who we are to something we do. Often, we are quick to state our sport or role within a sport as our identity, and not state how it is our identity as a person who participates in said sport or sport role. It's hard to explain sometimes, especially to teens, so I'll phrase it the same way I do in conversation.
"How would your mom define you?"
For most of us, our parents would be quicker to identify us as their child "who does something." This is an important frame of mind to take on, because it denotes something which we can forget if we take up the sport as our identifier: you were someone before your sport and you will be the same someone after. You are a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend far before and far after your sport or role in sports is over. This is key to remember.
I want to take you back to my original question of filling in the blank now. I filled it out myself at the beginning of this article:
"My name is Nathanael Littauer, and I build Strong Futures."
The more identity is tied up in the action rather than the role, the easier we can take lessons and principles away from the role when our time in it ends. Why did I choose the specific phrasing of mine? Because I'll get to help build Strong Futures with people for the rest of my life. I get to do it when I coach strength training. I get to do it when I help move my friend and his wife into their new house. I got to do it when I drove a morning school bus route. I got to do it coaching women's wrestling. I get to do it when I teach the interns at the gym how to program for athletes. I'll get to do it if/when I have the opportunity to start a family some day. I'll get to do it in my volunteer work. The action, and more so the principle of the action, is what matters.
If we can reframe our thinking and the way we see ourselves within sports, the more we can learn from them, and the more we can appreciate those actions when our time in them inevitably comes to a close.