I lost my identity as an athlete...now what? (By Dr. Matt Moore)
As I prepared to write this blog post, my mind was wandering in multiple directions. My life has been so touched by the world of athletics that identifying a single topic is a near impossible task. I started playing sports as an elementary student, which led to enriching experiences as a middle school, high school, and college athlete. These playing experiences opened doors to the coaching world too. I continue to coach high school and youth sports today. I am sure this brief snapshot resonates with many of our readers.
A year ago I nearly lost my connection with the sports world. It was at this moment that I was reminded of the true power of athletics, and how being an athlete is one of the most important aspects of my personal identity.
Last summer, I went through a string of 14 days where my head throbbed beyond comprehension. I, like many individuals, ignored the pain and tried to fight through the inconveniences it was bringing to my life. This all boiled over when giving a private tennis lesson. What started as a typical lesson quickly turned for the worse. Ten minutes into the lesson I started losing feeling in the left side of my body. My speech became slurred, my vision worsened, and I lost the ability to do something I have done over a million times in my life – feed a tennis ball. I am sure my wife will remember my phone call to her for the rest of her life too, “Lindsay, I feel like I am about to die.”
A trip to the emergency room revealed the diagnosis. I had a major dissection in my vertebral artery (carries blood to the brain). In short, I was moments away from having a massive stroke. Not to mention, artery dissections are a leading cause of death in individuals between the age of 25-35. The road to recovery from a dissection is a mix of medication and rehabilitation. This meant an entire year away from being able to physically compete in sports and very strict rules for the year of coaching. A key piece of my identity was going on an unwanted hiatus.
While I was physically limited, my mind was in constant reflection during this experience. I could not help but think about the thousands of athletes that experience injuries at various points in their career causing them to miss competition. Not to mention, the countless number of athletes that have their life altered by non-sport related incidences, or worse, experience challenges in their long-term functioning because of sports.
It was during these reflections that I gained an even deeper level of respect for my support network and training as a social worker. Having a wife, three little kids, a faculty position, and the ability to still be around athletic competition through coaching saved me. Yes, there were dark days full of emotion, and pivotal moments where psychosocial outcomes could have gone in the wrong direction. Yet, I was lucky to stay on a positive course. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for all athletes with physical health challenges.
Research clearly links injuries and medical setbacks with a variety of mental health challenges (Putukian, 2016; Van Wilgen, Kaptein, & Brink, 2010). This is just another facet of sports that social workers could greatly impact. Athlete identity plays such a critical role in a person’s satisfaction with life (Burns, Jasinski, Dunn, & Fletcher). Social workers understand the value of personal identity and how a change in identity impacts a person’s interactions with their environment. Social workers also understand the interconnectedness between biological, psychological, and social factors. The interplay between these life dimensions is essential when working with injured athletes.
From a practice perspective, social workers can help athletes recognize how athletic competition exposes life skills that will promote their success outside of sport. The identification of these strengths can help athletes find healthy coping mechanisms during their recovery or transition away from athletics.
At the end of the day, many athletes spend as much time participating in athletics as they do with any other aspect of their life. You cannot simply remove this from a person without expecting psychosocial challenges. While we cannot prevent injuries or medical challenges from happening, social workers can stay active in the rehabilitation process or as life coaches to help athletes handle the associated mental components.
I gained a new appreciation for sport in the past 12 months. It is my hopes that all athletes can take the positives from their experiences too. Social workers could be a key piece to achieving this strength-based approach to injury response.
Burns, G., Jasinski, D., Dunn, S., & Fletcher, D. (2012). Athlete identity and athlete satisfaction: The nonconformity of exclusivity. Personal & Individual Differences, 52(3), 280-284.
Putukian, M. (2016). The psychological response to injury in student athletes: A Narrative review with a focus on mental health. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(3), 145-148.
Van Wilgen, C., Kaptein, A., Brink, M. (2010). Illness perceptions and mood states are associated with injury-related outcomes in athletes. Disability & Rehabilitation, 32(19), 1576-1585.