July 15, 2019

"Are You an Athlete?" The Social Construction of Identity

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

No one had ever asked me if I was an athlete until recently. While checking my vital signs before a routine procedure, a nurse noted my low resting heart rate and asked this question. I didn’t know what to say; I must have had a puzzled look on my face.

“Do you get a lot of cardiovascular exercise?” she clarified. “Oh, yes,” I told her. In fact, fitness is probably what occupies most of my time, after sleeping and working. But I never think of myself as an athlete.

This got me thinking about how identity is constructed in a variety of social contexts. The identity of “athlete” is often related to social institutions, particularly those that have a special designation for this social category. For collegiate athletes, there is a governing body that creates rules and guidelines that schools must follow.

Being a student-athlete is an identity that can be fraught with contradictions as the dual name implies. There might be great prestige associated with this identity, particularly if one competes at a high level in a high-profile sport. And yet student-athlete can often bring stigma in academic contexts, where fellow students and unfortunately even instructors might presume that an athlete has limited academic skills. Asking a student in a classroom if they are an athlete might suggest that their admission was based on something other than their intellectual abilities.

Schools are also settings where athletic prowess brings popularity from peers and those in positions of institutional power. As Patricia and Peter Adler describe in their book Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity, boys who are good at sports often gain status among their peers. In some school contexts where excelling academically might lower one’s status, excelling at sports might mitigate some of the loss in popularity.

Identity does not have to match ability. In my own preadolescence, I was above average athletically (although certainly not a standout athlete). Perhaps because I was always small for my age, I was never among the first to be chosen for a team—and sometimes I would be among the last picked for a team. This also might have been because my primary identity among my peers was based on academic ability. I was small, female, and in the gifted program, and thus not considered athletic.

One of my fondest middle school memories was of playing softball in gym class and watching all of the fielders move up when I came up to bat. I hit the ball over all of their heads into the outfield and came around to score (I can run pretty fast). I was also decent at basketball, and yet my taller, more popular—but far less athletic—friend would be consistently chosen for teams before I was. My skills did not match my identity as a less-than-desirable player.

The identity of athlete is also related to economic institutions, such as professional sports and media. Professional athletes have an entire branch of media devoted to them, covering both their sport and often their personal lives. Just as in school, being an athlete can be a double bind, in some cases bringing great wealth and acclaim but also great criticism on a daily basis. As many posts on this blog have explored, this criticism may go beyond their athletic performance and also might be tied to broader systems of inequality, such as race, gender, and socio-economic status.

Sociologist Michelle Pannor Silver devotes a chapter of her book Retirement and Its Discontents to retired athletes, who often struggle with creating a post-sport identity. For her informants who participated in their sport from an early age, not only did the structure of their daily lives change after they no longer trained, but they often struggled to figure out what to do and who they were after they stopped competing.

The retired athletes she interviewed were mostly young, sometimes still in their twenties, a time when most people are still developing a professional identity. This further isolated them from similar-aged peers who were not grappling with the same post-career challenges. They were also expected to begin new careers and figure out how to support themselves financially.

So what makes someone an athlete? Can you consider yourself an athlete even if no one else does? I’m still not sure how I would answer the question if asked again. Aside from a hiking group, I don’t participate in organized sports. If I declared I was an athlete, would anyone else think I was? This reminds us that identity is both personal and social; it is not only about who we are, what we do, or the outcome of our actions, but how others view us and the meaning of a particular identity.

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