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Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.
Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.

Turning On (and Off!) the Athlete Self

The athlete self helps us compete -- turning it off helps us relate.

Image: Flickr/Mimoza291

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. Kristi Pikiewicz, PhD, psychotherapist in Boulder, CO submits this post:

Runners, dancers, rock climbers, sailors, triathletes, basketball players and people who want to lose those extra 20 pounds may look different on the outside, but inside each person lives an athlete self. All have had to push through that part of themselves that says it's too rainy, too snowy, too cold, too hot or we're too tired to exercise. Eventually, for successful runners, dancers and the rest, it's the athlete self that gets us out the door.

But these same aspects of the self needed to dance Swan Lake, run a marathon, play little league baseball or twist yourself into Kapotasana may not be as helpful during coffee with your mother in law or at a recess game of tag. Parents, coaches, athletes and sports psychologists tend to focus on training the athlete self without mentioning it can be a dark and powerful magic. Just as turning it on allows us to compete, turning off the athlete self allows us to exist outside competition – and if not, well, see the many unfortunate examples in professional sports.

Let's take a step back: for an athlete, training the athletic self is a must. For example when working with a kids at the national youth championship rock climbing gym, the 9-18 year-olds came up with words such as strong, committed, in control and focused to describe the mindsets they wanted to express during competition. For them, these were the aspects of a successful athletic self – an alter-ego they could draw on for peak performance.

Likewise, I had kids list the detrimental qualities they felt could hurt their performance. Before the American Bouldering Series National Championships, we wrote these doubts on slips of paper and literally locked them in a wooden box I bought from a crafts store. In the past, I've done this with clients working toward fitness or weight loss goals, helping them lock away concerns about body image or childhood self-consciousness during training.

As for the athletic self? We listed each young athlete's peak performance cognition on a small rock, which they carried with them in their bag of climbing chalk.

But then here's the most important part: after competition, we unlocked the box. These unsure aspects of the self are equally important as the aspects of the athletic self – only perhaps not during competition. Once the time for peak performance is over, we reclaim our fears and doubts, helping to integrate the athletic self with our true selves. Just as we learn to turn on the athletic self when needed, we learn to pack it away for future use those times it's not.

By creating an athletic self we are able to turn off the negative and doubtful chatter in our brains, and get out the door. But only by stepping out of that mindset are we able to connect with others. This duality – this stepping into and out of vulnerability teaches the valuable skill of drawing on the power of the athlete self when and only when needed.

In fact, it's a skill with many uses. For example, when my young athletes have difficulty at school I often ask them to list the aspects of their personality that are helpful and detrimental when communicating with a teacher or peer. We learn to express "student selves" and "friend selves" and – importantly! – to integrate these aspects of identity underneath the umbrella of a self that feel true.

A truly divided self is a quick path to mental un-health. But learning to emphasize and deemphasize aspects of the self can help athletes and everyone else put their best foot forward, on and off the field.

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About the Author
Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.

Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D., is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.