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Chapter One: The Sport Ethic & Athletic Identity

Athletes seek distinction, take risks, and challenge their limits. It's part of the sport ethic. It's what defines us as athletes. These are not inherently bad behaviors, however when athletes are going too far in their search for distinction, taking too many risks, making unhealthy sacrifices, and pushing beyond their limits, it can become dangerous to their physical and mental health. Over-adherence to the sport ethic, as discussed by Hughes & Coakley (1991), is potentially harmful to athletes and can derail them on their path to excellence. When overconformity to the sport ethic occurs, athletes sacrifice their body, playing with reckless abandon (Hughes & Coakley, 1991). When this happens, increases in physical injury or mental and emotional turmoil become more likely. Athletes who are more prone to over-adhere to the sport ethic are often athletes who have low self esteem, are more vulnerable to team demands. Further, athletes who are less able to withstand pressure and are extremely committed to sport as a means for achievement are more likely to overconform to the sport ethic.

Athletic Identity

Who you are & what you do are two different things, know the difference.”

We know that over-adherence to the sport ethic can be detrimental to an athlete’s performance and wellbeing. Often, this over-adherence to the sport ethic causes athletes to see their worth as a human, their reason for existing, or their entire identity as an athlete. This lack of sport-life balance can lead to a lack of sense of belonging, feelings of being lost outside of sport. There are great dangers of athletes basing their worth and basing their identity solely as an athlete. This one-dimensional approach to life which is purely focused on sport is precarious and when an athlete fails to achieve their goals, encounters injury, or otherwise faces hardship, puts them at risk for mental illness (Condie, 2021).

Athletes should take a multidimensional approach rather than a one-dimensional approach to their lives. Coaches and consultants can help athletes develop a multidimensional approach by helping athletes understand their values, and identifying their why. This multidimensional self helps athletes perform well on and off the field. They will notice that as their lives outside of sport improve, their athletic performance improves.


A key facet of being an athlete is making sacrifices in order to commit oneself to the craft. Sacrifices made by elite performers may vary widely. Factors that influence the types of sacrifices made by elite performers can include factors such as age, family (are they a parent, caretaker, etc.), financial situation, health. For instance, an elite performer who is also a parent may sacrifice spending time with their family when committed to their sport. Another example would be someone who is struggling financially but due to the time demands of their sport, they cannot sacrifice their time in order to be employed. Further, athletes can sometimes sacrifice their own mental and physical health when committed to their sport if they are exerting themselves past a healthy point. Elite performers sacrifice other personal interests, time, money, social and family events. Hughes & Coakley (1991) point out that making sacrifices is part of being an athlete. Athletes must make sacrifices to show that they care about their sport, and that athletes relegate other interests and responsibilities in order to commit to their sport.

Excellence & Outcome Orientations

Just as it is important for athletes to differentiate their athletic identity from their personal identity, it is also important for athletes to differentiate the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of outcomes. We can think about these as task-oriented and outcome-oriented approaches. The way an athlete is oriented is an important motivational factor and can heavily influence what they achieve.

Weinberg & Gould (2015) discuss these approaches and their influence on athletes’ success and motivation. Task-oriented athletes have a strong work ethic, and persist through failure. Their goals are based on their own past performances, and because of this lack of comparison to others, their perceived ability remains high. Similarly, task-oriented athletes tend to have higher perceived competence because their perception of their ability is based on their own standards. Ego, or outcome-oriented athletes struggle to maintain high levels of perceived competence. They compare themselves to others and base their level of competence on this comparison. When athletes are constantly comparing themselves to others rather than basing their competence on previous performance measures, they risk lowering their self-worth, confidence, and effort, and overall performance.

Coaches and teachers play a critical role in creating climates which are more likely to facilitate task-oriented motivational climates. Coaches can create a task climate by emphasizing task goals and approach goals (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). They also need to be careful in the way that they give feedback, ensuring that it is positive, encourages persistence, and reinforces competence.

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