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OPINION

College athletes face crisis of identity

By Sian Beilock | Opinion contributor

As the Big Ten and Pac-12 postpone their fall season, football players are speaking out, saying they want to stick to their normal routines and keep playing, in spite of the serious health risks.

That's what football players in the ACC and SEC are doing with limited seasons - unless COVID-19 makes that change.

The emotions of those seasons ended before they started in the Big Ten and Pac-12 are understandable if you take a closer look at the psychology of these players.

FSU defensive back Jaiden Lars-Woodbey at FSU football practice on Aug. 12, 2020.

From the time most of these Division I football players were young, they have dedicated themselves fully to their sport. These athletes begin paying football as early as age 6. By college, the average player spends over 43 hours a week on football — between practice, reviewing tapes, team meetings and games. They are also celebrated through school marketing and promotion material. In other words: it's not ‘just’ about #wewanttoplay and missing being on the field, football is the very basis of who these players are.

So what happens when your whole identity goes under quarantine?

As a former athlete, a cognitive scientist who has spent decades focused on the psychology of sport, and a college president of student-athletes who play in the Division I Ivy League, I see firsthand the "identity crisis" our college football players are facing right now.

University of Florida football players take part in the first day of voluntary workouts at the indoor practice facility on the UF campus in Gainesville, Fla. June 8, 2020. The team has roll-up doors on the indoor facility, which allow them to open the doors and move workout equipment close to the open doors while pairs of athletes worked out. Equipment was cleaned in between each athlete's use.

Studies have shown that when life events cause a disruption to our social identity, we are more likely to experience lasting feelings of distress. For some people, social identity — who you are based on your relationship to a group — is the sole marker of who you are. Think, for example, of the high-performing, lawyer or doctor who works 60 to 80 hours a week or other professionals from career tracks highly valued by society. When removed from the daily rigmarole and intensity of their jobs, for example, when folks retire, they often struggle to find purpose and lose sense of who they really are.

Similarly, psychologists have found that when athletes base their identity on their game, they too can lose their sense of self when no longer participating in that sport. This is common among Olympians: Gold medalist swimmers Michael Phelps and Allison Schmidt have been open about their struggles with debilitating depression following the end of their Olympic Games.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have cancelled their football seasons while the SEC and ACC plan to move forward.

High-powered professionals, too

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for athletes and other professionals who have also anchored their identity to a single profession or activity — from lifelong restaurateurs forced to close their doors, to the musician no longer able to perform in concert — closures and cancellations can create a real void in our lives.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way.

Research shows that people who are able to express different aspects of their identity are psychologically more resilient. I am an educator — which is looking very different due to COVID — but I am also a scientist, an author and a mother. Being able to celebrate other facets of my personality allows me to find value in myself despite one aspect of my identity being challenged. 

Diverting our energy to establishing new facets of our identities is a great way to strengthen our mental well being right now. That could be as simple as exploring a new hobby or activity. For college athletes facing an identity crisis, now is an opportune time to volunteer, start a podcast or even pick up a minor in a subject that you’ve never had time to pursue before.

Or it can even be as simple as devoting ourselves to strengthening our relationships. Being a father, daughter, brother or friend are all pieces of our identity that we can cling to and find value in. College athletes (and frankly all of us) will benefit more than ever from knowing that these relationships exist even when people can’t visibly cheer us on from the sidelines. 

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist, is president of Barnard College at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @sianbeilock