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Image is Everything (By: Eric Dawson, LCSW)

The World loves sports. Scroll through TikTok and you’ll likely come across a sport-related trick shot or highlight reel (not to mention the dancing). Look up the most viewed events of the past twenty years and you will find the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup, Olympics, and college football consistently at the top of the list. Sports are part of a country’s cultural identity; athletes are not only proprioception gurus, but fashion and music icons. Scroll through photos of NBA pregame outfits and you will question if you are actually viewing a runway show. Andre Agassi said it best in his 1990 Canon ad: image is everything. This is particularly true for athletes.

Athletes have privileges that most people only dream about, but they also face unique developmental challenges. Let’s look at the adolescent athlete. Adolescence is defined by the emergence of an autonomous self. In order to develop a separate, adult self, a person must “differentiate” themselves from their family. This can look like a lot of different behaviors—from benign to self-destructive—but for the sake of this article it is the psychological space that is paramount.

Psychological space? Essentially, during adolescence an individual needs the freedom (or permission) to try on as many hats as they see fit. However, the developing adolescent athlete is especially sensitive to which hats society says they are and are not allowed to try on. Remember, image is everything. The star forward on the hockey team who’s favorite class is Art skips class because he does not want to be labeled as soft by his coach and teammates.

It is normal, especially during adolescence, to be self-conscious and anxious about how others perceive you. However, when the only hat available to wear is a rigid and uncomfortable fedora, then an individual will begin to feel discouraged and unmotivated to further their development. When there is little to no room for self-exploration, healthy development is jeopardized. The pressure for adolescent athletes to be cool, to represent the right image, is a struggle too many adults are apathetic about. Being an athlete comes with certain societal privileges and several societal restrictions. What if exploring their non-sport curiosity enhanced their sport performance?

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