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Identity Formation in Youth Sport- Nurturing Personal Growth and Resilience:

The concept of self-identity, which refers to a clearly defined self-definition comprised of personal goals, values, and beliefs that an individual finds personally expressive and wholeheartedly commits to (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to reflect on this idea: What are the goals, values, and beliefs that you are committed to? Do they solely pertain to sports, or do they extend to other areas of your life as well?


Identity development in youth sport is a crucial aspect that shapes the experiences and growth of young athletes. During this formative period, athletes navigate the process of self-discovery and the construction of their personal identities. Understanding how identity develops in youth sport can provide valuable insights into promoting healthy development and optimizing the sporting experience for young athletes.


Identity formation is a complex and multifaceted process that involves various factors. One key factor is the influence of social interactions within the sport environment. Young athletes are exposed to a range of social influences, including coaches, teammates, parents, and the broader sporting culture. These interactions contribute to the formation of an athlete's self-concept, which encompasses their beliefs, values, and perceptions of themselves as athletes.


Furthermore, identity development in youth sport is influenced by the athlete's level of commitment and investment in the sport. The degree to which young athletes identify with their sporting role and perceive it as an essential part of their self-identity plays a significant role in their overall development. For some young athletes, sport becomes a core aspect of their identity, shaping their goals, values, and beliefs.


Most young athletes tend to possess some level of athletic identity, which refers to the extent to which they identify with the role of being an athlete (Sinclair and Orlick, 1993). As we delve deeper into the concept of identity, we encounter a notion called identity foreclosure. This occurs when an individual commits to one area of identity without exploring alternative options (Murphy, Petitpas, and Brewer, 1996). Consequently, some young people develop an 'exclusive' athletic identity, wherein their self-identity is exclusively derived from their athlete role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993).


However, it is important to recognize that a narrow and exclusive athletic identity can pose challenges for young athletes. When their identity becomes overly focused on sport, it may limit their exploration of alternative roles and experiences. This can hinder their overall personal development and resilience outside of the sporting context. Striking a balance between athletic identity and a broader sense of self is crucial to support healthy development in youth sport.


Identity and adolescence:

Adolescence is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood, primarily encompassing the teenage years. It is recognized as a stage in life during which individuals form their true self-identity (Chickering, 1969; Erikson, 1968).

Specifically considering adolescence and identity, those involved in high-level participation in a particular sport often face significant sacrifices and dedications. This can lead to two potential challenges for these individuals:

  1. Prevention of exploration of different roles and behaviors.

  2. Potential susceptibility to identity foreclosure.

Positive aspects of athletic identity:

Having a high or strong athletic identity has been associated with several positive outcomes:

  1. Salient Self-Identity: A strong athletic identity is often linked to a strong sense of self and self-assurance.

  2. Self-Confidence: Individuals with a high athletic identity tend to exhibit increased self-confidence, self-discipline, and more positive social interactions compared to those with a low athletic identity.

  3. Health and Fitness: Individuals who highly value the athletic component of their self-identity are more likely to engage in exercise behaviors than those who place less emphasis on it (Brewer et al., 1993).

Potential risks of an exclusive athletic identity:

There are potential risks to be aware of:

  1. Emotional Difficulties Dealing with Injury: Injuries are an inevitable part of sports. Athletes with a strong athletic identity often struggle to cope with injuries, especially if they lead to a prolonged period of sidelining. They may experience a loss of confidence and feelings of helplessness.

  2. Difficulty Adjusting After the End of Athletic Career: Retirement is an inevitable phase for all athletes, and adjusting to life beyond sports can be challenging.

  3. Failure to Consider Alternate Career or Educational Options: This can be problematic for young athletes who do not reach professional status or encounter career-ending injuries.

How can we support young people in their identity development?

To assist young individuals in their identity development, we can:

  1. Encourage them to consider themselves both as a person and as an athlete.

  2. Helping them gain a clear understanding of their identity beyond their athletic role allows them to:

    • Broaden their sense of self.

    • Gain clarity about their other strengths.

    • Safeguard their long-term psychological well-being.


Contrary to the concern that this might divert their focus from sports, here at Athlete IQ, argue that it's quite the opposite. Having a clearer understanding of who they are enables athletes to:

  • "Switch on and get into a character reflective of their core values" when needed.

  • "Switch off" afterward. This aligns with the knowledge that successful athletes need to be fully present in the moment and possess the ability to maintain concentration.

Coaches, parents, and sport organizations play a vital role in facilitating positive identity development in young athletes. They can create an inclusive and supportive sport environment that encourages athletes to explore their multiple identities and interests. This includes fostering opportunities for athletes to engage in diverse experiences beyond their sport, such as education, hobbies, and relationships with peers outside of the sporting realm.


Promoting a growth mindset is also essential in identity development. Encouraging young athletes to embrace challenges, learn from setbacks, and develop a sense of self-worth beyond their performance outcomes helps cultivate a resilient and adaptable identity. Emphasizing values like teamwork, sportsmanship, and personal growth, rather than solely focusing on winning and external validation, contributes to a more holistic and balanced identity development process.


The development of identity in youth sport is a dynamic and influential process. It is shaped by social interactions, commitment to sport, and the balance between athletic and broader personal identities. Creating an inclusive and supportive environment that fosters exploration and growth beyond sport is crucial for promoting healthy identity development in young athletes. By prioritizing holistic development and embracing a growth mindset, we can empower young athletes to cultivate strong, resilient identities that extend beyond the confines of the sporting arena.


This is why for parents', it is absolutely crucial to communicate acceptance of your child regardless of performance. You must communicate unconditional love by providing attention, affection and approval verbally and non verbally. When parents communicate love conditionally by tying social rewards and attention to winning, or withdrawing affection or attention for losing, it has devastating effects on the child. He/she learns that they're competing for his/her parents approval, making self worth and identity dependant on high performance. This is emotionally draining. Therefore, the fun of competition is then replaced by pressure and losing can feel shameful. Shame is one of the biggest performance and wellbeing barriers we know of.


At the end of the day, all a parent, caregiver or coach needs to do is to continually tell your youth athletes that they are proud of them. You'll be amazed at the release of pressure and anxiety this has on child athletes or any athlete for that matter.

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