Off-season athletic self-identity

As a person, you have many roles in life and with each role comes an identity.
A mother, a father, a sibling, a teacher, a student, an engineer, a nurse, a doggy parent.......

In the off-season, you lose a very important identity of yourself and that is one of being an athlete.

You feel a great purpose in life when you are an athlete, even as a mom, dad, employee, etc.

When you were training for your key races in 2016, you didn't tell people that you enjoy running, you enjoy biking or enjoy triathlons but instead, you called yourself a runner or a triathlete. You owned it with confidence (and maybe even a secret fist pump too). 

I AM an athlete.

This is the title you have carried with you for the past 10+ months, alongside being a mom, dad, employee, volunteer, caretaker, etc.

Having a strong athletic identity is what makes athletes great. 

With great athletic self-identity often comes high self-esteem, commitment, discipline and motivation. 
Athletic self identity can also be silent, as it's not a requirement to have a strong athletic identity and be expressive on social media. Many athletes are very confident in their athletic abilities but are not vocally expressive about their athletic journey to others.

But now, all of a sudden, your title feels removed because you are no longer training for an event and you are forced to take time away from your sport in the off-season. 

And suddenly, you don't know yourself.
Who am I?

No alarm clock to set, no incentive for healthy eating, no workouts to crush, no reward food, no sweaty pictures to share on social media, no 3+ hour workout to relieve stress.......is it even possible to function in life? 

For so long, all of your routines, actions, beliefs, feelings and emotions were so heavily tied to your journey as an athlete and now you struggle with how you see yourself. Even worse, you may not be comfortable with yourself when you are seen by others. 

Even though you know you need an off-season and you recognize that you (and your family/friends) have made many sacrifices and you have some serious supportive debt to pay to your loved ones, it can be extremely challenging to feel stripped of your previous athletic identity, specifically as it relates to your body image.

As an athlete, the more time you commit to your sport, the more it becomes an extension of who you are. But more so, it becomes an outlet (or coping method) for negative feelings or emotions, as well as a strategy to help manage your weight or to give you flexibility (and maybe some freedom) with your food choices.

As an athlete, you spend many months working on yourself to improve your performance but you may also spend a considerable amount of time working on changing your body. While it's an assumption that every athlete is 100% focused only on performance, it can't be overlooked that many athletes spend a considerable amount of physical and psychological resources, fixating on body composition or athletic appearance.

The off-season presents itself as a vulnerable time for athletes because it removes the outlet of exercise and burning calories and athletes may begin to over-evaluate appearance.

This may result in body shame, unhealthy body comparisons, body image concerns and body dissatisfaction.

Whereas once your exercise and nutrition actions and behaviors were protected by your "athlete in training" status, no longer do you feel safe with this uncomfortable non-athlete routine.

Consequently, you may find yourself searching for or partaking in unhealthy behaviors, such as dieting, to control weight. 

Seeing that your sport can be a method of control, it's no surprise that so many athletes struggle mentally (more than physically) in the off-season as it relates to body composition.

Perhaps this is why so many athletes admittedly don't even take an off-season. 

During the off-season, I want to remind you that your self-identity is not taken away from you and never is your athletic worthiness defined by a number on a scale or your appearance.

Whether you have a planned off-season, you are injured, you are growing your family, you had a dramatic life change (work/move) or you are putting your sport on hold for an extended period of time, you are still an athlete. Your body is still amazing.

Your athlete status has taught you a lot, like great time management skills, good coping skills for stressful and anxious experiences, camaraderie and compassion. You don't become a better human being based on the body composition you achieved as an athlete.

As you temporarily remove yourself from your athletic self-identity for a planned or indefinite amount of time, you are provided with a valuable opportunity to get to know yourself, without judgement. 

Not feeling or being an athlete can be a good thing, if you let it be. 

The off-season is necessary and vital to your next season success as it's not only a time to let your mind and body relax and rejuvenate but it helps you get to the root of many underlying body, nutrition and exercise related thoughts and issues that may have been overlooked due to your "athlete in training status".

An off-season becomes meaningful when you can reflect on previous actions and behaviors that maybe, were not so performance or health enhancing but you saw them as a necessity due to your athletic self identity. 

Instead of just taking a break from training, work on yourself by breaking some old habits that were masked by your "dedication" to training and learn new strategies for healthy eating and exercising, which are not so extreme.
The off-season is a great time to explore other interests that are completely separate from your athletic lifestyle. Search for other things in your life that give you pleasure, a feeling of accomplishment and value.
It can be a struggle to commit to not training for a few weeks but your sport didn't go away. It's still there and it will always be there for you to return back to.

By successfully navigate your thoughts, actions and emotions throughout your off-season, you may identify that you have many more qualities than you were giving yourself credit for and you can improve your self-awareness as it relates to performance and health enhancing behaviors.

Oddly enough, the off-season (or a break in training) may be the only time when you actually give yourself permission to work on yourself. Don't miss this prime opportunity to start paving the path to athletic success in 2017.

If you feel your self-identity or self-awareness is a constant limiter for you as an athlete, reach out to a clinical sport psychologist for help. A trained professional can help you get to the root of your thoughts, behaviors and actions, hold you accountable to working on yourself and can guide you to make better decisions which can improve your health, fitness and mental well-being as an athlete.