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Beyond the Game: Navigating Life After Sports - Embracing a New Identity as an Athlete

Explore the journey of what athlete identity is, and how to redefine athlete identity post-retirement or before you retire. Discover how to embrace life beyond sports, find new passions, and build a fulfilling future. :)

Lately, in the quiet corners of Finland and beyond, the narrative of athlete identity has been unfolding in interesting ways. Kiira Korpi, a former figure skater, shares the bittersweet resonance of the word "ex" preceding her identity, a term that feels both dismissive and limiting, especially since her dance with the ice didn't really end—it just transformed from competing in ice skating arenas to making beautiful shows on ice, still using the skates.

Emmi Peltonen, another artist on ice, was posting about the same issue, saying that sometimes she is wrestling with her athletic identity while striving to pen chapters beyond the rink. The athlete identity struggle is real and I am happy we are talking about it.

These stories however got me pondering the whole saga of athlete identity. How often do we hear well-intentioned but somewhat surface-level advice? Phrases like "you are more than your sport," or "don't lose yourself in the game," are common. Yet, they often miss the heart of the matter, much like telling someone nervous just to "stop being nervous"—easier said than done.

​So I searched fro articles, posts etc. about it that I could share. I didn't find any that were what I was looking for... Thus began my deep dive into the realms of scholarly articles and personal testimonies, beyond the generic blog posts that skim the surface of "athlete identity."

My mission? To explore the depths of what it means to align with—and eventually also part ways if needed from—the athlete within us.

What is athlete identity?

Athlete identity, at its core, reflects how closely one's self-concept is intertwined with their role in sports. The crux of the emotional whirlwind that follows retirement isn't just about missing the game—it's about facing the mirror and questioning, "Who am I beyond my sport?"

But what truly is lost in this transition? Is it the identity itself, or the unique essence it brought to our lives? The spotlight sports cast on us not only illuminated our skills but also etched a sense of uniqueness into our being. Without it, we might feel like we are "normal" and that normal is not good. We want to be special and sports brings us that edge. 

​It is also important to notice that the significance of sport in our lives transcends the level at which we played. The level of sport doesn't matter as much as how we identified through sports. It's the meaning and role it carved into our identity that leaves an indelible mark.

The Tapestry of Identity Within the Sporting Arena

Sports is a mosaic of influences, from the adrenaline of fans to the cultural and societal flavors it stirs into our identity soup. Consider the spectators, whose expectations of winning and success through athletes reinforce their sense of achievement.

This collective celebration of success is a powerful concoction that flavors an athlete's self-perception because we often learn to celebrate winning and success with them, "producing experiences" for the viewers sometimes also so much so that it feels like we owe them so we compete injured or in other less smart ways.

​Moreover, the sports world mirrors broader societal narratives that are really important to also consider —  gender roles, cultural identity, and personal journeys.

Sports has been very masculine world so as a female, you might be challenging the status quo which might be a big part of your identity. Or you might try to fit in to the masculine image because it has been long considered as the way of winning. Sports world is masculine and masculine values are more celebrated which isn't all bad at all - it is just important to evaluate if we express those values even tho we don't identify with them. Meaning then we sail further away from our true selves in sports and might feel even more lost when sports is over.

Culturally speaking, every country has its own cultural values that often come up just by doing sport in your country, area, club etc. National teams are often representing certain ideals of the country. For example, in Finnish national team our values were about persistence, honesty and hard work. That reflects the overall culture of Finland very well, I would claim.

Lastly, also the personal journey in sports will add its own flavor to the athletes' identity. Have you always been the underdog, the natural talent, the tactical genius, the hard working warrior, the entertainer, and so on? The experiences we have strengthen the identity lens we have chosen to have (usually subconsiously unless you wake up and start observing this 😉)

Finding Your Self Beyond the Field

As the curtains eventually close on our athletic careers at some point, the daunting question of "What next?" looms large. It might be the scariest thought for some current athletes and if you recognize that is you, please do yourself a favor and start exploring your identity beyond sports and re-defining your relationship with performance. If you need help with this, book a call and let's chat. My Next Level Athlete course could be a great option for you! It's a journey of rediscovery, where the essence of who we are begins to untangle from the tightly knit identity of being an athlete.

​But the end of a sports career isn't the end of our story. It's an invitation to explore, redefine, and embrace the multiplicity of our identity. From the depths of what made us unique in the arena, we can unearth values, passions, and strengths that guide us in life's next chapter. It is such a beautiful process so instead of fearing it, approach it with curiosity - what could I be, be about and become even without sports?

Navigating the Transition: A Playbook for Life After Sports

So, how do we navigate this identity shift?

1) By truly recognizing that our worth transcends our athletic achievements and start finding ways to act like that and most likely question or challenge the current way of doing things that reinforce this narrative.

2) By cherishing the body for its functionality over appearance. So many athletes like their bodies only if they look really fit and they treat them poorly, push through all the pain and edges to achieve the next goal, ignoring the signals, whether that is the pain signals or hunger signals. So instead of treating your body like a disposable unit, something separate from your mind, start finding more connection to it. You will be surprised what happens when your body starts to feel like home - like it is.

3) By exploring the breadth of our being beyond the confines of sports. Put your adventure glasses on and start trying different things, find out what excites you. Don't compare them to sports. Let these things be something different than sports, comparing them will not help. Sports is sports. Very unique so don't rob yourself a chance to find something else that can give you a lot of joy and meaning by comparing it to sports.

My personal recommendation for all these three steps is to try breathwork. It might bring such profound experiences in short periods of time. My next virtual event can be found from HERE

​In general, try to embrace the journey of self-discovery, envision a future enriched with possibilities, and consider how the essence of sport can transcend the field and continue to illuminate your path. Whether through coaching, exploring new hobbies, or simply embracing joy in everyday moments, the key is to stay true to oneself, finding fulfillment and purpose beyond the game. 

​Athlete identity isn't a dilemma to be solved but a chapter in our larger story. It's about understanding that our journey through sports is just one of the many terrains we'll navigate in life. With self-awareness as our compass, we can appreciate our sporting days for the growth they offered and look forward to new adventures with anticipation and resilience.

As we start turning that page, let's remember that the essence of who we are—our passions, values, and dreams—remains intact, they don't change. We still are those things that we just got to express through sports. And now we are getting ready to shine in new arenas.

Thank you for reading,

Sources and further reading: 

​Joseph A. Maguire (2011) Sport, identity politics, gender and globalization, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 994-1009, DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2011.603554

Wiggins, D. K. (ed.)(2006). Out of the shadows. Chap. 19: “Ghetto Cinderellas”: Venus and Serena Williams and the discourse of racism, p. 353-371, 423-428. University of Arkansas Press. ISBN: 1557288267

Becht (2018) . A Review and Integration of Three Key Components of Identity Development: Distinctiveness, Coherence, and Continuity

https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/72325/Becht_2018.pdf?sequence=1#:~:text=Overall%2C%20three%20core%20components%20have,time%3B%20Pasupathi%2C%202014.

Costa, S., Santi, G., di Fronso, S., Montesano, C., Di Gruttola, F., Ciofi, E. G., Morgilli, L., & Bertollo, M. (2020). Athletes and adversities: athletic identity and emotional regulation in time of COVID-19. Sport Sciences for Health, 16(4), 609–618. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11332-020-00677-9

Menke, D. J., & Germany, M.-L. (2019). Reconstructing Athletic Identity: College Athletes and Sport Retirement. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 24(1), 17–30. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2018.1522475

Cosh, S., Crabb, S., & LeCouteur, A. (2013). Elite athletes and retirement: Identity, choice, and agency. Australian Journal of Psychology, 65(2), 89–97. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1742-9536.2012.00060.x

​Joseph A. Maguire (2011) Globalization, sport and national identities, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 978-993, DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2011.603553

Saana Koljonen


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Hi, I Am Saana Koljonen

CEO Of Authentic Excellence LLC

As a mental performance coach/consultant and a certified breathwork facilitator, I specialize in helping athletes and high performers overcome mental barriers and achieve greater success with better speed, joy and confidence.

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