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Trapped & Pigeonholed: 5 Steps to Free Yourself From Your Performance Sport Identity

identity men in sport self-concept Oct 06, 2022

Who are you? What makes you “you?”

You might answer with “I’m a coach” or, “I’m a performance director,” or maybe, “I’m a parent,” or “I’m a good friend.

Maybe you answer with, “I am excellent at my job,” “I’m an accomplished practitioner,” or “I’m a successful academic.”

These responses come from your internal sense of who you are. This sense is developed early in life and goes through constant evaluation and adjustment throughout the lifespan.

All of these senses of self have a specific term: self-concept.

The problem is that many performance support staff get lost within their self-concept, which comes at a high cost.

Here's a tangible answer from a coach I work with: "I feel trapped and pigeonholed in my professional identity."

So in this week's article, you'll learn how this shows up in performance support staff and what you can do about it.

This article will cover:

  • What is Self-Concept
  • The 3 Parts of Self-Concept
  • The 4 Concepts of The Self
  • 7 Reasons How Self-Concept Develops
  • Self-Concept & Identity
  • Stuck in Identity: A Coach Case Study
  • 5 Steps to Free Yourself From Your Performance Sport Identity

What is Self-Concept?

Self-concept is an overarching idea we have about who we are—physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and in terms of any other aspects that make up who we are. We form and regulate our self-concept as we grow, based on the knowledge we have about ourselves.

Self-concept can be defined as:

“The individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.”

These beliefs, or myths & stories as I like to call them, are a constellation of beliefs, feelings, images, and rules — operating largely outside of conscious awareness — that interprets sensations, construct new explanations, and direct behaviour.

They speak to the broad concerns of identity (Who am I?), direction (Where am I going?), and purpose (Why am I going there?).

Examples — Fit, strong, reliable, I am a coach, I am a parent, I am a partner…

For me, my self-concept of working in Olympic sports kept me locked in a profession that had become a trap. I was shielded by the persona that people put on me when they heard what I did for a living.

This led me to maintain a role in professional sport to protect this image, despite being deeply unfulfilled and unhappy. People ultimately knew what I did for a career, they didn’t know who I was.

When I finally realised and had the courage to leave, I became free, happy, and fulfilled in the projects I wanted to do. And I had nothing to prove to anyone anymore. And this is why I do what I do for a living now. It’s a heart-centered business rather than one protecting the identity of perceived “success."


The 3 Parts of Self-Concept?

The three core parts of self-concept are:

  1. Ideal self: your vision and ambitions of who you want to be
  2. Real self (self-image): how you currently see and perceive yourself
  3. Self-esteem: how much worth and value you believe you have

The Four Concepts of The Self

Within the framework for self-concept are coexisting theories, such as that of self-presentation, which suggests your self-concept influences how behavior can be a way to show others who you are.

These are:

  1. Public Self: your view of yourself as defined by other people’s public knowledge of you
  2. Self-Concept: who you believe you are
  3. Actual or Behavioral Self: the self created by your actions and habits
  4. Ideal self: the self you aspire to be

7 Reasons How Self-Concept Develops

Here are some common theories to how self-concept develops:

  1. On the broadest level, self-concept is the overall idea we have about who we are and includes cognitive and affective judgments about ourselves.
  2. Self-concept is multi-dimensional, incorporating our views of ourselves in terms of several different aspects (e.g., social, professional, spiritual, physical, emotional).
  3. It is learned, not inherent.
  4. It is influenced by biological and environmental factors, but social interaction plays a big role as well.
  5. Self-concept develops through childhood and early adulthood when it is more easily changed or updated.
  6. It can be changed in later years, but it is more of an uphill battle since people have established ideas about who they are.
  7. Self-concept does not always align with reality.

Self-Concept & Identity

Self-concept is composed of two essential parts:

  1. Personal identity: The traits and other characteristics that make you unique.
  2. Social identity: Who you are based on your membership in social groups, such as sports teams, religions, political parties, or social class.

Social identity influences our self-concept, which affects our emotions and behaviors. For example, in our roles as performance support staff, if the athletes we support lose a competition, we might feel sad (emotion) or berate ourselves and over-work (behaviour). 


Stuck in Identity: A Coach Case Study

Here is an example of a coach I’m working with that is struggling with their negative self-concept:

"Trying to understand my own identity is where I'm struggling, I sometimes feel I have control but many of the external pressures especially professionally weigh me down. What we've spoken about today has made me understand a little more of why I'm yet to really find happiness. I don't know who I am and where I want to go, something that I've only thought about through the lens of my career. Never from the lens of me as a person."

Many performance support staff feel so tied up in their identity of working in high-performance sports that it seems impossible to think of another way. This was very true for me and kept me trapped and unhappy despite looking successful on the outside.

When social identity becomes too blurred with self-concept, it can negatively impact coaches' lives:

"As a man, I have societal beliefs of what I should be and those pressures are real for me and I feel they aren't spoken about enough. My role has a massive social and personal cost to me. I'm unable to harvest a relationship, miss milestones, have instability due to moving a lot, have regular jet lag, and worst of all I have sleepless nights during competition periods because I get too emotionally invested in the result. If there is a bad result I end up laying in bed unable to sleep."

"I worry about saying I have a normal job and people looking at my lower. The more time I spend working in sport the less fulfilled I feel. It's great I get the tracksuit and say I'm doing all this - I get a buzz working with Olympic athletes, but it's just a job, and then chase the next role or promotion to say I'm a lead etc, and get another buzz until I realised it's still just a job. All of this chasing has left me exhausted and unhappy, because the buzz always wears off."


5 Steps to Free Yourself From Your Performance Sport Identity

“We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real…and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.” ― Thomas Merton

Firstly, if any of this resonates with you I want you to know you're not alone. You may feel like you are and one aspect of my mission is to create an environment that supports you and others that feel similar to you.

Have you ever spent time reflecting on what aspects of your self-concept is keeping you in a situation that you're unhappy with? What identity are you sacrificing your authenticity for?

Below are 5 reflective questions to ask yourself. To truly feel the power of them, spend time with them. Let them circulate in your mind and keep coming back to them. Once you have an idea of which identities shape your life, you'll have a great starting point to look at which ones serve you, and which ones are holding you back.

The 5 Steps:

  1. Identify the stories and personal identities that appear and shape your life.
  2. Which of these stories/identities limits you?
  3. How do each of these stories/identities limit you?
  4. How do they shape your decisions; What do they have you do or not do?
  5. What would you do if you let go of this identity?

As you uncover more of your true nature, you realise all those things you have attached to your personal identity are merely labels to give you a sense of place in the world.

Many people create a false sense of self in an attempt to form an image of who they think they are. Discarding the false self is a call to abandon the beliefs and thoughts of who you think you are in place of discovering a stronger sense of self.


Conclusion

In this piece, you've learned about what self-concept is (an overarching idea about who we are), how it comes about (it develops throughout the lifespan, and is most flexible in the early years), what it is related to and affected by (just about everything, but namely academic achievement, career development, and culture), and whether you can do anything to change it—you can.

Your self-concept is affected by how you feel about yourself and how you judge your abilities, competencies, and worth as a person. When you put some effort into boosting these self-evaluations, your self-concept will adjust to accommodate these changes.

It might seem daunting to put in the effort required to revise your self-esteem and self-image, but like most tasks, getting started is the hardest part.


Join the next intake of The Lost to Libertaed Blueprint

This is one of the core 8 skills within The Lost to Liberated Blueprint.

If this sounds like one of the personal leadership skills you're looking to develop and grow within yourself, join our upcoming intake:

It's a program specifically designed for senior performance support staff who are driven to make an impact in high-performance sport yet feel lost with direction, stuck and pigeon-holed by their identity in sport, and/or burnt out from improving their athletes at the expense of themselves.

This program empowers them to open up their self-awareness so they can move to a place of calm and clarity to find their personal freedom within sport or to create their own exit strategy aligned to their personal values.

Download Workbook now!

Discover where you currently are in the 7-step process of change, the problems that keep you trapped in frustration, the path of moving from "I can't" to "I am", and the powerful guided reflection to support you in taking the next steps in your life.