On finding or losing our (athletic) self

Different strands of psychology and philosophy have ended up with different conclusions about the importance of ‘finding’ or ‘constructing’ a coherent and strong identity, or a sense of who we are. Should we develop this strong identity, or realise that identity and self are illusions that distort our view of the nature of reality? And what has any of this to do with our involvement in sport?

Am I a runner or just a person who often finds herself running?

Erik H. Erikson, who can be considered one of the founding fathers of the study of identity, emphasised the importance of a strong sense of personal identity. This would bring direction, continuity and coherence to our lives, whereas role confusion would lead us to living confused lives when we are unable commit to anything or identify what is worth pursuing in life.

Sport psychology researchers often quickly point out that talented athletes commit to their athletic identity in adolescence (Erikson’s key period of developing identity) but neglect to explore other identities. Role confusion enters into the picture when these youth athletes leave sport; they have lost direction provided by sport and lack other identities that could do so.

Narrative psychology, some of which builds explicitly on Erikson, has placed emphasis on the integrative function of narrative identity and its ability to provide a sense of sameness and continuity. For example, McAdams (2018) has suggested that narrative identity “situates a person in the world, integrates a life in time, and provides meaning and purpose” (p. 361). Mental health and well-being, then, becomes a question of being able to tell “a good life story” where we are agentic protagonists, able to direct our lives and our stories.

But then we have other approaches that consider the fuzz around coherent self and identity to be (Western) illusions. In a sport context, Mark Andersen’s (2020) recent article reiterated the Buddhist thesis that “our egos, or identities, or selves are constructions that are not real but, rather, they are illusory, empty, and substance-less and a source of chronic unhappiness” (p. 3). The ‘solution’ to our distress and confusion is not to try to build a stronger sense of self, but to let go of self (and its desires and attachments). As Andersen notes, we also have Western philosophers (e.g., Heraclitus and Hume) who consider “I” as an illusion.

Another Western perspective relevant to our discussion is Sartre’s classic account of the waiter which makes the point not to confuse who we are with what we do. When playing sport, we should remember that we are just ‘playing the part of the athlete’. No one is essentially any of the social roles we inhabit. To think otherwise is to deny our freedom and fall into bad faith.  

Where does all this leave us? Well, actually, these approaches share a conviction that developing a strong and exclusive identity around one thing we do (such as playing sport) is probably not a good idea. In these situations, we can talk of identity foreclosure (Erikson), monological identity narrative (narrative theorists), or bad faith (Sartre).

And narrative theory actually shares certain key assumptions with the “no self” approaches. Narrative identity is an evolving and situated story of the self, or a collection of stories of the self. There is no hidden “true self” somewhere deep down inside of us that waits for discovery.

In my own work, I have emphasised that we should not only think of the degree to which someone identifies as an athlete, but about that it means to be an athlete. There can be a variety of identity narratives in sport, each bringing a different perspective on meaning in sport and why it is a worthwhile activity.

And finding some degree of coherence seems to ‘work’ for us, even if it might be an illusion.

What are your thoughts?


Andersen, M. B. (2020): Identity and the Elusive Self: Western and Eastern Approaches to Being No One. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action. (ahead of print) DOI:10.1080/21520704.2020.1825026

McAdams, D. P. (2018). Narrative Identity: What Is It? What Does It Do? How Do You Measure It? Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 37(3), 359–372.

Published by Noora Ronkainen

Researcher | Author | Meaningful Sport 🗻🏄| Co-host Physical Activity Researcher Podcast🎙

2 thoughts on “On finding or losing our (athletic) self

  1. Great piece. I might add the sociological lens and suggest that the search for identity is not merely an individual pursuit, but also a social one.

    For instance, when someome stops playing a sport for a while and later returns to it, the renewed sense of identity comes partly from the comforts of collectivity, weness and the joys of interacting through a mutually valued activity.

    The search for identity is sometimes a search for friendship and tribe.


    1. Yes, that is an important part to include. We cannot create our identities out of nowhere but always rely on our social environment. When interviewing retired team sport athletes, I often hear that it is the social aspect of sport that they miss the most.

      Liked by 1 person

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