Becoming Sidelined: The Loss of Athletic Identity
by Christine Pinalto
For athletes forced to discontinue their sport due to injury or health condition, the mental journey towards acceptance and internal healing can be confusing, complicated, and flat out brutal.
Permanently-sidelined athletes have described their grief as feeling as though a part of them has died. Sports psychologists refer to this as “losing the athletic identity”. One of the hardest parts of processing the loss of ability to compete in sport is feeling like you don’t know who you are without your sport.
Why it matters so much
Sports participation in the current culture is rather all-encompassing for the dedicated student-athlete. The hours spent training, competing, and traveling often leave little time for much else beyond school. It’s no surprise then that for dedicated athletes, sports participation is a primary source of identity, self-esteem, motivation, stress-relief, and friendships and furthermore is often is viewed as the means for which to pursue a better life for oneself. Losing the ability to compete therefore, is no simple matter. It quite literally can feel like the athlete’s whole world is turned upside down.
Reflecting back on their personal experiences being forced to discontinue athletics, permanently-sidelined athletes shared these thoughts:
“I had no earthly idea of how I was gonna get through the day. Like, I was so warped. Cause I was so used to, literally, not stopping 12, 14 hours a day.” - Jason
“I didn’t know how to deal with it at first. I had no where to go at least in my mind, that’s what I thought . . . At first it almost looked like a dead end . . . I had to totally change the direction of my life.” - Spencer
"I was lost. I didn’t even know who I was without it. Because I had used gymnastics to identify as me. Take that away and I was empty.” - Jackie
Sports medicine professionals add to the conversation reporting:
3 Implications for the athlete
1. Realize you aren’t alone.
It can feel like nobody gets it. After a few months, your teammates move on. Your parents get busy with work. School pressures pick back up. Life goes on. And what people may not realize is that you are still struggling. Months later. Maybe years later. The research shows you are not alone. It is not uncommon at all for permanently-sidelined athletes to continue struggling to come to a point of acceptance and personal healing even years later. At Sidelined USA, we understand your hidden pain. And that’s why we started this organization. There are permanently-sidelined athletes everywhere still struggling. We want to give you a voice and a place to connect. We’re here for you. Reach out and tell us your story here.
2. Acknowledge your feelings.
What you are experiencing is really difficult. You’ve got to allow yourself to work through the range of emotions you are experiencing in order to come out on the other side. You can’t hide from your feelings. All the distraction in the world can’t actually heal you. Don’t be embarrassed to admit that you are struggling internally. Talking about what you are going through with a trusted friend, parent, athletic trainer, etc. is one of the best things you can do throughout the process. We also encourage you to talk with a professional counselor or psychologist. They are trained to help you process your loss and can be invaluable in working through your emotions. There are even sports psychologists who specialize in the unique considerations of athletes and can help you talk it through. Want to talk with someone who has been in your shoes? We have online connection groups where you can interact with other sidelined athletes who personally understand what you are going through. Click here to let us know you'd like more information.
3. Redefine your identity.
Okay. So maybe you can’t be the athlete you want to be anymore. You don’t necessarily have to give up your identity with athletics but you can no longer be defined by your athletic performance. Think about that for a second. You can still identify with athletics - there are other meaningful ways to be involved in sports . . . there are also opportunities to apply your athletic mindset into other arenas as well (scholastics, leadership, business, charitable work, etc.). That being said, you are going to have to work through transferring where you find your identity. You can’t continue to find your identity in your athletic performance. We devoted an entire blog post to this topic of creating a healthy athletic identity here.
3 Implications for parents, friends, athletic trainers, and coaches
1. Understand it’s harder than you think and the hurt lasts longer than you know.
Sidelined athletes may talk about how they are feeling or they may bottle it all up inside - but either way, if they were a dedicated athlete, it’s safe to say they are struggling deeply to accept their new limitations. After a few months, they may no longer initiate conversation about what they are going through, instead choosing to “suck it up”, fearing further talk about how they are feeling will come across as ungrateful, whiney, or weak-minded. Athletes are not exactly used to being vulnerable and “exposing weakness”. Check back with them and ask them how they are doing here and there. Avoid doing so in pity as athletes generally don’t respond well to sympathy. It can make them uncomfortable. Remaining neutral and giving them a space to talk about their thoughts is valuable. Don’t feel the pressure to say something to “fix” their hurt. Just being there for them and saying a kind word or two goes a long way in helping the athlete feel supported.
2. Look past the external.
The athlete is going through intense feelings inside and that may manifest in various ways. As they are going through the grief process, sidelined athletes may experience anger, frustration, confusion, denial, bitterness, sadness, despair, etc. That being said, they may act in ways that aren’t normal for them. They may lash out in anger, avoid people, react impulsively, be generally unpleasant to be around, irritable, testy, or withdraw from activities they used to enjoy. Though the athlete may push you away, remember most likely it is not about you, it’s about the internal dialogue going on in their head. Be patient. Be gracious. Let them know you are here for them when they are ready. It may be best to give the athlete a little space and then reproach them at a different time. Don’t give up on them.
3. Watch for signs of depression.
As a part of the athlete’s support network, it is important to be aware that the sidelined athlete’s grief can turn into depression. According the the NCAA Mental Health Task Force, normal emotional reactions following athletic injury include: sadness, isolation, irritation, lack of motivation, anger, frustration, changes in appetite, sleep disturbance, and disengagement. When those emotions are more severe, as in the case of an athlete who is told he/she can no longer compete, the emotions can evolve into depression. Educate yourself on the signs of depression and monitor the athlete in order to make sure he/she is getting the support services he/she needs.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, warning signs of depression include:
Anger, irritability or aggressiveness
Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge
Increased worry or feeling stressed
A need for alcohol or drugs
Sadness or hopelessness
Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
Engaging in high-risk activities
Ongoing headaches, digestive issues, or pain
Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior
Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with work, family, or social life
Unusual thinking or behaviors that concern other people
The National Institute of Mental Health has some helpful resources on depression that can be found here.
For coaches and school personnel, the NCAA offers a booklet on managing depression and other mental health issues among student athletes which can be downloaded here.
Check out our follow up article where we discuss how to rebuild a healthy identity in something more solid: Becoming Sidelined: Creating a Healthy Identity Beyond the Game.
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.
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."