Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Identity in sport

Recently, something happened which surprised me a lot.  I reached a point where I just couldn't talk about athletics anymore!  The watershed moment came on a recent altitude training trip to Ethiopia when I was staying at a training camp, surrounded by athletes, talking about athletics, all day long.

Don't get me wrong.  Sport is my life!  I run twice a day most days of the year, am in a bad mood when I haven't trained, have competed in the sport for more than 21 years and have no immediate plans of quitting, plan my social life around the race calendar, spend my holidays altitude training, studied sports science for 7 years, and have spent my entire working life supporting athletes and writing about sport.  I could not imagine my life without sport.  But at that moment in time, I just wanted to talk about something else!

I guess that even after all these years of being involved in sport, I've still managed to develop a personality independent of it.  True, sport has done a lot to make me the person I am, but I am not defined by it.  And that moment brought home to me just how important it is for athletes of all levels to have interests away from their sport, and to be able to switch off from repetition times, competitors' results, and target paces. Not only will it help with your performances as an athlete, but having interest outside of sport, and having an identity that is not completely built around sport, greatly eases the retirement transition.

I have often heard people say that you shouldn't study sport if you're an athlete; it'll be too much.  I can see where they're coming from, but there are a couple of flaws in their advice.   Who is going to make the best sports academics and practitioners, apart from the people who are genuinely interested in sport?  When advising athletes about career choices, I always encourage them to do something that they are interested in. Why study aeronautical engineering when you have no interest in either airplanes or engineering?  Yes, don't study sports science just because it has sport in the title - when you have no interest in science - but don't just avoid it because you already do sport.  There are many other ways to develop an identity that is not completely dependent on your sport and your performance as an athlete.

Let one thing lead to another
You may start out studying sport science, but this may lead to an interest in a particular area which takes you away from sport (e.g. biomechanics in ageing populations), and back again (e.g. how exercise can delay the ageing population).  Your interests are inspiring your career choices, but you have not pigeon-holed yourself because of what you see your identity to be.

Taking my own career as an example, I can explain this a little better.  I studied sports science because I was interested in sport and science.  This got me interested in research, and I did a PhD which looked at menstrual health in female athletes, something which I had a personal interest in.  Along the way I realised that I wanted to help athletes, and got a job supporting high performance athletes.  During this time I was surrounded, not only by high performance athletes, but by colleagues with a range of interests and hobbies.  I learned who to develop websites - when I set up a club website - and developed an interest in writing when writing athletics reports for a local newspaper.  I learned a range of skills on the job, that could be applied to a number of situations outside of sport.  Training at altitude in Kenya developed an interest in travel, and in African sociology and history.  I also got interested in photography, and started taking photos at races.  And I've always loved reading.  So the transition to writing a book which involved travel, taking lots of photos and running was an obvious one.  When doing that I learned about publishing, promotion, blogging and other social media, not to mention developing my stress management, self motivation and personal management skills.

The sport that I love has always been my guiding light, but I feel I have managed to develop a well rounded personality, with a range of interest (even if all these interests are related to sport).  I don't think I am defined by my results in athletics (probably just as well), or by anything else I have achieved along the way.  I am defined by how I behave, interact with others, and approach life.  All of these have been molded by my participation in sport, but would not change dramatically if I stopped running, and got a job away from sport tomorrow.

Surround yourself with the right people
There is no doubt but that being surrounded by the right people affects who we are, and how successful we become.  For some athletes that's being surrounded by other athletes that will motivate and push them. For others, being in a competitive environment 24/7 is just too much, and some successful athletes don't hang around with athletes at all.  Yes, you need people to understand you, but that doesn't always have to be other athletes.  Find the right mix of people for you.  Don't become stuck in a rut just because you and all your fiends have the some interests, drive and goals.  It's good if your friends have the similar values to you, but you don't have to have the same hobbies or interests as somebody else to get on with them.  In fact having a friend group with different interests, backgrounds and roles will not only help you in your sporting life, but will also help you moving forward from sport.

Don't let your results define your own self-worth
It's good to have stretching goals, to work hard towards those goals, and to celebrate in achieving those goals.  In fact there are few things more rewarding than finally realising a dream.  However, your self worth should't be defined by how fast you've ran, or what you achieved in sport.  I see myself as Elizabeth Egan, the person who takes on massive task, learns what she needed to along the way, overcomes a few setbacks along the way, and achieves what she sets out to do, rather than Elizabeth Egan who wrote a book.  The first is about character, is long-lasting and is independent of talent.  More importantly it consists of skills that can be transferred to any aspect of life.  The times we run, or medals we win are dependent on luck, other external factors, and talent, and will soon be forgotten about.  We can dine out for a lifetime on our personality and character, but even the Olympic golds will be forgotten about.

In summary
To have a long a successful sporting career, and a successful and rewarding life after sport, learn to have interests outside of sport. Surround yourself with a variety of well-rounded individuals, who may or may not participate in sport at a high level.  Other interests don't always have to have a negative impact on your focus or energy.  In fact, time away from thinking about training and performances usually have a positive impact.

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