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| Feb 06, 2014
Written By Sharon A. Chirban, Ph.D.
That is the question often haunting an athlete following an unexpected loss during high-level competition. For many athletes, it was achieving Olympic-level competition that drove years and years of training and preparation. For some sports (figure skating, ski racing, skeleton, etc.), the Olympics are the largest venue for competition and the Games only come around every four years.
Reorganizing one's identity following athletic loss can be one of the most challenging experiences an athlete faces after the rigors of training and mental preparation for the Olympic stage. Depending on the reasons for the loss (and they have ranged, in Olympic years, from family tragedies to catastrophic injury to burnout, to just not “having it” on the day of competition), the athlete can have a range of feelings from shame for self or for one’s country to anger and extreme feelings of disappointment and/or disorientation.
Some pick themselves back up and commit immediately to their next four years of training. This is a quick resolution to restore the identity and pursue their life path – as many athletes do, over and over. For others, the disillusionment, the pain, the shame can last for months, even years. For these athletes, it’s often the end of a long road and without glory. It can be devastating to try to make sense of the years of commitment to training and a disciplined lifestyle with an unintended outcome.
Many high-level athletes talk about not knowing who they are outside of their performance domain. Researchers (Palmer, 1981) explain that who athletes feel they are is heavily dependent on what roles they have carried out. For some, it’s the only role they know, and adjustment to post-athletic life can be very difficult. Those who identify more with their athletic role (Brewer, Van Raalte, and Linder, 1993) often have traded other life roles in order to pursue training and competition at the highest levels. Recovering from this kind of identity disorganization often follows similar stages as recovering from loss. Some athletes who do not move through the phases with ease may need professional assistance to negotiate a reorganized identity to make a healthy transition to post-athletic career adjustment.
Post your comments: What cases of emotional distress and disappointment from competitive loss have you seen in athletes you’ve worked with?