"I Am" Versus "I Play". The Power of Clear Identity.
Being something is more important than simply doing something.
The difference is subtle, but important. One of the most rewarding facets of coaching is moving players mindset from “I play” to “I am”. For example, “I play basketball”, to “I am a basketball player”.
As we get older we tend to describe ourselves by what we do the most, or the best - “I am a doctor”, or “I am an accountant.” But of course, we are many things and play multiple positions at the same time throughout our lives.
Often players come to the team not 100% invested or committed to that sport. In my experience at both the junior and senior high school levels, about one-third of the team might be in this category. Multisport athletes will typically have an Athlete Identity that lines up with what they "do best" or get the most outside recognition for. Their outside persona is built around this as well. This is natural and is part of how we define ourselves.
Developing a clear Athlete Identity is a gradual process as the player begins to have breakthroughs throughout the course of a season. They might begin to think, “I can do this, and do it well.” The shift can also come more suddenly when they contribute to a key team victory, and clearly see their worth and role to the team's overall success. That joy you see on their face when they are in the zone – the level of the challenge perfectly matching their ability.
If you have ever been in a road race with hundreds, or thousands, of other competitors you know this to be true - even those who finish at the back of the pack state proudly: “I am a runner”. I believe it has to do with the dedication it takes to train on your own, when no one is looking, that makes this identity and bond amongst runners so strong. We can take a lesson from runners in this respect.
Strong Identity = Strong Accountability
Of course, the way an athlete sees themselves is a huge contributor to their potential for growth and ultimate performance. There is something about making this mental shift that eliminates excuses and provides a no turning back attitude. I have heard comments like “this isn’t really my sport” when a player struggles. A player might start dribbling the volleyball during practice, to subtly hint that they are really a basketball player first. If asked what sports they play, they might respond, “I play volleyball, but I’m really a basketball player.” This type of response is typically a way to protect oneself – as if to say "I could be better, or do more, but this is not really my primary focus."
Our sport may never become an athlete’s number one focus, and we must respect that. To be clear, it is not a zero-sum game, and one sports win is not another sports loss. It's true, competition is intense these days for the athlete’s dedication (far too intense), but you can love different things and play several roles at the same time in your life.
The greatest satisfaction I can have as a coach is helping my players move the sport from something they do to something they are! At the end of the season, I want them stating proudly to everyone, “I AM a volleyball player”.