How Does Self-Esteem Change in Adventure Athletes?

Lessons from outdoor adventure athletes.

Posted Mar 23, 2018

What happens to the self-esteem of outdoor adventure athletes with age? A recent study in the Frontiers of Psychology written by an adventure athlete illuminates how self-esteem changes with age in outdoor adventure athletes. The study uses interviews of hikers, bikers, rock-climbers, sea-kayakers, climbers, and surfers between the ages of 45 to 80.

In outdoor adventure athletes, experts must identify and follow specific routes, safely pass, and successfully overcome a series of obstacles. The successful completion of these obstacles is described as “nailing” the route as opposed to “failing.” The author suggests that nailing a task increases confidence whereas failing decreases confidence.

Self-esteem can be based on many factors: social or physical achievements, aspirations, status, or the opinions of others. Confidence can depend on measuring accomplishments in the present, past (mastery) or future (talent) and can be determined internally by comparing oneself to past records or externally by comparing oneself to peer performance. Professional self-esteem can be based on knowledge, skills, actions, or performance. Self-esteem is often also intertwined with self-identity.

Early on, adventure athletes experience rapid growth in both skill and aspirational goals, which can increase self-esteem and confidence. But with more advancing age and injuries, athletes may not be able to navigate routes in the same way that they had before. Strength and flexibility can decline, endurance can weaken, and reaction times can take longer with age.

In a field where one’s confidence is built on "nailing" very physical, specific tasks, how does one's self-esteem evolve with the aging body? How does one preserve as sense of accomplishment and motivation when the skill and finesse with which one had once performed these feats looms in the background?

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. But there may be a few points that can help one adjust healthily, and core principles from mindfulness could be useful here.

One, body- and self-awareness can help one identify and adapt both physically and psychologically in order to maintain a healthy self-esteem. The author notes that one of the challenges is being able to judge one’s own capabilities accurately and safely. He describes a period where some athletes can be in denial of the changes or injuries in their body and may try to pursue unrealistic routes in spite of these changes. After denial, there can be a period of lower self-esteem and concern that not pursuing more challenging routes signifies a loss of courage.

But being attuned to the capacity of one’s body—at any age—and viewing it as an objective, nonjudgmental observer of a natural process could help buffer the negative effects of self-esteem.  Shifting away from a binary definition of success and moving toward the mindful principle of being nonjudgmental and observational could be useful to improve self-esteem. This may be very challenging, especially in a field where self-esteem seems to be so directly defined by success and failure. 

Finally, recognizing that peers are going through the same changes can be helpful and supportive. Peer support can help adjust expectations, normalizes the experience, and reduces feelings of isolation.