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Insightful articles for helping permanently-sidelined athletes find a meaningful way forward.

Becoming Sidelined: Creating a Healthy Identity Beyond the Game

by Christine Pinalto

“You’re only as good as your last game . . . match . . . race.”  Sound familiar? 

As a competitor, it is common to tie your athletic identity to your performance in your sport. How well you’ve performed on any given game day can play a large role in how you feel about yourself overall. If you competed well, that confidence can stick with you throughout the week. If you didn’t perform well, this can cause you to beat up on yourself, participate in negative self-talk, and be burdened by building pressure to prove yourself in the next competition. 

What can happen though if you aren’t careful is that your performance can become the key indicator of how you measure your worth and subsequently, can greatly impact how happy you are overall in life.

Maybe you haven’t thought much about the source(s) of your self-worth. But if you are an athlete who can no longer compete in the sport you love and your athletic performance has been a large factor in your perception of self, then it makes sense that you are struggling with where to go from here if you can no longer perform in the way you are used to. 

Separate your person from your performance

As a sidelined athlete, it is especially critical that you separate your person from your performance. In other words, separate your self-worth from what you can achieve. 

WHO YOU ARE does not equal what YOU DO.

Likewise, WHO YOU ARE does not equal what you CAN’T. 

You may feel down on yourself because you can no longer contribute to your team or prove yourself on the court/field in the same way. But this isn’t productive thinking and will only lead you down a negative path. 

It’s really important to distinguish the value you have in life because of who you are vs. the value in what you accomplish. In thinking this through, it is helpful to consider two ways to view your athletic identity: performance-based athletic identity vs. a healthy athletic identity. 

Performance-based athletic identity

Performance-based athletic identity comes down to this - when your self-esteem is derived from what you can achieve in sport. Think through an honest reflection of your own views on your athletic performance and how this impacts how you feel about yourself in life. How much do you agree with the following statements?

  • “My importance increases as my accomplishments increase.”

  • “I feel good about myself because I am a good athlete.”

  • “Sport is the most important part of my life.”

  • “I am important because I am a good athlete.”

  • “I feel bad about myself when I do poorly in my sport.”

  • “I identify as a winner/loser.”

  • “Being an athlete is who I am. If I can’t compete in sport, how will I be ‘me’?”

If your personal feelings resonate with the above statements, you probably have a high performance-based athletic identity. According to Barbara D. Lockhart, EdD, “Research indicates that the more an individual identifies with athletic performance (high athletic identity), the less stable their individual identity and self-esteem.” This being said, it’s not a surprise that you are struggling to come to terms with your new reality now that you can no longer play your sport. It’s more than just a hobby for you - it’s a measure of how you feel about yourself. 

CrossFit trainer and athlete Taryn Haggerstone agrees, “When we use our athletic successes to define ‘who we are’, boost self-esteem and help us relieve stress any type of injury that takes us out (even just temporarily) can do some pretty serious damage to our identity and self-worth.”

Clearly, a performance-based athletic identity is not a healthy identity to have. It’s highly unstable and can lead to negative self-talk, depression, and poor coping mechanisms especially when the athlete is taken out of their sport permanently through injury, health condition, or repeat concussions. Understanding the ways in which you have relied on your sport performance to determine your worth is a critical first step towards right-thinking. 

Healthy athletic identity

Just as winning or losing does not define who you are, your achievement in your sport does not define who you are. You have value because of who you are and who you were created to be. The person of who you are is a whole lot more important than what you can and can’t do. 

Athletics has no doubt played a role in shaping you into the person you are today. There is value in retaining your athletic identity while refusing to be defined by your ability to perform. By digging deeper and asking some key questions about the positive impact your athletic participation has had on who you are as a person, you can formulate a much more stable self-worth and self-acceptance. Take stock of the following:  

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  • I am a fierce competitor.

  • I am a determined individual.

  • I am high-achieving.

  • I enjoy being challenged.

  • I have the ability to overcome personal obstacles.

  • I am mentally strong.

  • I am devoted.

  • I am resilient.

  • I like working towards goals.

  • I enjoy pushing myself to the limits.

  • I value being part of something bigger than myself.

  • I’m a team-player.

  • I like to motivate others.

  • I am a leader.

Notice, these qualities speak to who you are as a person. That doesn’t change because you are no longer able to compete in the same way. 

Your journey isn’t over. The question is what’s next for you? How will you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and make the mental shift to apply these qualities to a new arena? 

If you are a sidelined athlete and this article has resonated with you, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Shoot us a message HERE and tell us what you’re processing. Learn more on the value of harnessing the athletic mindset to conquer new challenges by reading this feature: Beyond the Game: The Power of Mental Vigilance in Overcoming Challenges

You are capable of great things. There’s a whole lot of life left to live.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Neither Sidelined USA nor its affiliates provide clinical or medical care of any kind via their relationship with Sidelined. At no time should a user have an expectation of clinical care or professional services offered or rendered. 


Christine Pinalto

Sidelined USA's Executive Director and Co-founder, Sidelined USA Board Chair

"I am passionate about providing support for both sidelined athletes and their parents in the transition following the end of an athletic career due to medical disqualification. There is power in learning from those who have faced this difficult transition and who have found a way to thrive after such a devastating loss."