The Three Major Functions Sport Plays in the Athlete's Life

By Dr. Alan Goldberg

(Note: This is the second in a series on Injuries to Athletes: The first installment may be read here.)

#1 SENSE OF IDENTITY – If you are a serious athlete and have been competing long enough, then you will soon come to see yourself in terms of your sport. You’re a swimmer, ball player, skater, tennis player, wrestler, gymnast, etc. It’s who you are and what you do! With your long-term investment and commitment of time, energy and pain over the years, your sport has become an integral part of who you are. It’s how you see yourself and how others see you. Your sport has become an extension of your sense of self. When you compete, this sense of identity further expands to include the role that you play on your team both tactically and socially/emotionally.

#2 MAJOR SOURCE OF SELF-ESTEEM – As a young tennis player growing up in a family with distant and uninvolved parents, tennis served (no pun intended) as my sole source of self-esteem. It was one of the only things that I did that brought me recognition. I learned quickly, steadily excelled and, with each of my accomplishments, my ego was built up by my friends, coaches, other players and the media. It was the one place in the world where I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was O.K. For most serious athletes, your sport provides you with this same continual source of positive reinforcement and feedback. There is enjoyment and self-satisfaction in mastering new skills, overcoming ever more challenging obstacles and progressively getting stronger and better. Furthermore, the outside recognition of your accomplishments by friends, family and your community stoke the fires of self-esteem so that they bum even brighter within you. Having a great game, race or match feels fantastic and provides concrete evidence that your hard work is paying off and that you are “special”.

#3 A CONSTRUCTIVE WAY TO COPE WITH STRESS – There is absolutely no question that physical exercise helps you better handle stress of all kinds. Individuals who have no physical outlets in their life tend to internalize their stress. Since they have no way of getting it out of their bodies, the stress stays there and may emerge as stomach problems, headaches, or other physical symptoms. The individual without a way to physically “burn” stress out of his body may even turn to drugs, alcohol or some other addictive, self-destructive behavior to help him cope. (This is not to say that exercise can’t itself be used addictively and in a self-destructive manner because, of course it can.). Furthermore, many athletes discover that their involvement in their sport is a constructive way to escape from the stress of a dysfunctional family or deprived environment. Their sport offers them a safe and constructive way to channel their frustrations and aggression. Along these same lines, your sport can provide you as an athlete with a vehicle to a better life. If you’re good enough, your sport can get you a college scholarship and open up a door that might have been otherwise closed to you.

So what happens to all of these psychological goodies when you’re suddenly sidelined by an injury? Next: THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES OF INJURY

Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is

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