One of the things that I have experienced quite a lot as an athlete was how, what you do can often be defined as who you are. So many times when someone met me they would say “are you the water polo player”. While water polo is not a high profile sport, being one of the best in your field, regardless of what it is can often become all consuming and can start to take over the very essence of who you are if you are not careful and guarded.
One of the things that my parents did so well with us children was to always keep us grounded. While they celebrated our successes as athletes or achievers, they always challenged us on our character. We were often brought back down to earth very quickly by being called out on our flaws as young adults. We were urged and encouraged to constantly work on ourselves to be good and well rounded people. It was grained into me from a very young age that what I do does not give me my identity. While water polo was a huge part of my life, it was just that, only a part of my life, it wasn’t my whole life and it did not define who I was as a person.
Being so talented in something comes with a lot of stress. People start to talk, they start to have expectations and you start putting massive pressure on yourself to perform. You want to constantly get better, be better and strive for more. This is all great but if done for the wrong reasons, can have reverse effects on you as an individual. I often hear this statement that can be quite corny but is also so true.
IF YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH WITHOUT THE MEDAL YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH WITH IT!
There is so much truth in the above statement. What I have experienced in my career is, as athletes or top professionals in a field, we put so much time into perfecting our skill or trade and not too much time working on our characters. What happens when the sport gets taken away, you get injured or you get old? What you are left with is a person who was really good at something and placed all their time and value into that and now they are stuck or lost.
I have watched a lot of top level athletes in all sports struggle with retiring. I have read books of retired athletes who have gone into depression after sport and I watch athletes who are past their sell by date but refuse to hang up the towel. A lot of the reasoning behind this is due to the fact that for a lot of athletes, their self worth is completely wrapped up in what they can do instead of who they are as individuals. When it comes time to step away, the transition is so difficult because all of a sudden you go from hero to zero and you have very little in your character arsenal to pick you up from that point.
As coaches, teachers, parents, bosses and mentors, it is our duty to bring the people we are working with down to reality. It is our job to challenge them on their characters and to reiterate that although their skill is very important, if they aren’t good enough without that skill, they will never be good enough with it. It is important for us to foster young adults in realising that their true identity is wrapped up in who they are as people and that their sport, work or skill is just a part of that.