The word foreclosure is defined as "to hold exclusively," and the word takes on a very unique meaning when it is applied to athletes. Specifically, athletes who experience a foreclosure identity status begin to view themselves solely as that of "athlete," and this self-description can lead to a number of negative issues and distress -- especially during the sport retirement transition.
The impact of athletic foreclosure
While it may be advantageous for athletes to give everything they have to their sport while competing, there are looming dangers that can grow when athletes only focus on and engage in athletic endeavors. Yes, being 100% committed to sport goals is generally a good thing, but the same approach to identity development may not be so helpful in life. More simply, athletes who foreclose on their personal identity and only look at themselves as athletes dramatically limit their future potential beyond sports, and become susceptible to a host of mental health issues stemming from the fact that while they still see themselves as "athlete," their athletic careers are over.
A strong athletic identity that has been foreclosed is inversely related to career maturity, future planning, and self-confidence in skills outside of sports. On the other hand, athletes who broaden their identity so that "athlete" is one part of the overall identity (rather than the exclusive identity), are much better prepared to successfully transition from sport during their eventual retirement transition and go on to experience success in life beyond sports.
Some coaches and parents (and athletes) worry that if they aren't 100% "athlete," then they will not reach their full athletic potential. Interestingly, while this argument does invite deeper analysis, an immediate key point needs to be mentioned: Being 100% committed to individual and team goals can be completely separate from developing a foreclosed, athletic identity. What this means is that athletes can commit to goals, yet still keep a balanced human identity.
Why athletic identity foreclosure is especially concerning
Being an athlete, unlike many other things in life, has a finite shelf life. What this means is that the window is relatively small for athletes to earn scholarships and professional sport salaries, and if an athlete only thinks of him- or herself as "athlete" (identity foreclosure), it becomes easy to understand how this thinking can become counterproductive.
Comparing athlete foreclosure against another type of career will help illustrate the point. For example, if a school teacher forecloses on being a teacher, odds are favorable that the teacher will likely be able to continue to fulfill the role of teacher for a long time. In fact, most non-sport careers present little potential problem for people who foreclose on their vocational identity. An athlete, on the other hand, will likely find it quite difficult trying to move on in life after sport retirement if the only identity developed is that of "athlete" when there is no more work to be had as an athlete.
Identity development is an important part of human development, as this formation is generally at the heart of our existence. Our identities serve as a means of how we see ourselves, as well as how the world views us. It is important for athletes to realize that having an identity that consists of "athlete" among other identities is healthy, but foreclosing on athlete may be too limiting and lead to bigger future problems.
Dr. Chris Stankovich is the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. Sports parents, please check out The Parents Video Playbook and sports counseling services at www.drstankovich.com.