Elisa's Case Study

The sting of sweat running into my eyes only made the tears already forming hasten their way down my face. Here I was again unable to run, unable to even walk at this point. The day had started with so much promise, the sun was out lighting up the trails and the flatirons perfectly. The air was cool, there were few cars out and I had prepared myself for this long run just like the countless other long runs before this one. I was getting back into the groove of training after a debilitating bout of Illiotibial Band syndrome and tendonitis in both knees. My job at the time was that of a United States Marine. I had to be an athlete, I had to push my body to the extreme, I had to be ready for anything. I was, except for this. I was six miles into my run, pushing a decent seven mile pace on the uphills, but my shins started aching, then throbbing, then pure numbness, I could not even control the direction that my feet were landing in. This went beyond mere shinsplints, it was something worse. Here I was, back to square one. Marines have to perform so many physical feats and in all areas of fitness. My years as an athlete and then with the marines were taking their toll. I was fighting a losing battle with my body. Who was I at that point? If I couldn’t train as an athlete, and if I couldn’t train then I couldn’t be a marine. If I couldn’t be a marine then who am I?
The psychological identity held by many athletes is strong. Athletes are required to train and compete year round nowadays instead of seasonally and athletes continue to become bigger, stronger, faster, and more physical but this ultimately leads to more injuries. An injury can present itself as very traumatic for an athlete, especially if he or she placed a great amount of identity in the role of the athlete. On top of the physical pain and psychological struggles, athletes struggle emotionally which will in turn affect their recovery. This case study seeks to analyze the psychological factors behind identity which leads into the athletic identity creation and what happens when the loss of this identity occurs, through this lense I will examine a professional athlete and ultimately how such drastic extremes of losing one’s athletic identity can be avoided.
Much of the research on psychological consequences of an athletic injury have been guided by theoretic perspectives citing that personal factors (ex. Personality, demographics) and situational factors (ex. Social support, environment) influence a person’s psychological response to injury. The cognitive response to injury is believed to be correlated with the emotional and behavioral response to injury [1]. However it is important to note that not all athletes experience observable emotional disturbances and can cope very well with an injury or the loss of their career, going on to do even greater things with their life. In order for an athlete to move on from a career ending injury he or she must originally have had a strong sense of identity.
Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, taught that all desire is the “desire of the Other” meaning most of our unconscious life is a product of a variety of external social influences [3]. Therefore the concept of personality doesn’t mean much because people are composed of many diverse and fragmentary and illusionary images of “self.” The normal fragments of “self” are referred to as “ego-states.”(An example of an abnormal ego state would be a Multiple Personality Disorder). No one has a single personality, or as psychologists will talk about as “identity”, however this single identity is an illusion [3]. Imagine for example, the marine who in the workplace, is very professional, possibly uptight, efficient, even severe. Yet when he gets home at night he is a loving father who jokes with his kids and plays with them and is a lover to his wife. He is still the same person but has different qualities to his personality called “ego states.” Or perhaps when an athlete who loses what he believes to be his identity, he may go on to commit crimes or become a drunkard. Family and friends might say “how could this be, he is such a strong man, put together etc… therefore, a persons actions in one situation does not prove anything about the rest of his or her life. Unless a persons values embrace all of his or hers “ego states” corruption is easily possible. Athletes may tend to place so much emphasis upon their one identity as the athlete that their morals and values will get lost in who they truly are [3].
According to the International Olympic Committee, the athletic identity is “the way you perceive and feel about your sporting role, which comprises your goals, values, thoughts and sensations related to your sport” [4]. For most professional athletes, the athletic identity is central, they dedicate 100% of their time and resources to the pursuit of their sporting goals. They usually will have put their schooling and professions on hold, therefore they focus too much upon their identification as an athlete which will have a negative consequence on their transition process when they leave their sport. This transition process implies an identity change, when an athlete loses their sporting career, he or she loses an important part of themselves. And when this identity played a large role in their life, the loss of it dramatically increases the intensity of the identity crisis.
When an identity crisis occurs, emotional and psychological reactions are produced. These reactions are based on the individual’s perception of loss[5]. Athletes become unable to participate in a self defining activity thus resulting in anxiety, depression, fear, and loss of self-esteem. In a study on injured runners by Chan and Grossman (1988), it was found that the measure of self-esteem was lower in those injured compared to those who were able to continue their running activities [5]. Reactions to injuries vary from individual to individual, but there are common themes of emotions that occur. The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Program used the Emotional Responses to Athletes to Injury questionnaire to evaluate responses to injuries and the highest ranked emotions were frustration, depression, anger, and tension [2]. Interestingly, symptoms similar to that of PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that is being diagnosed more often these days.
Marion Jones was an all-star track Olympic athlete; she excelled at her first international competition, winning the 100 m sprint in the 1997 World Championships and then in the run-up to the 2000 Olympics, everyone was talking about how she intended to win gold medals in all five of her competition events. She ended up finishing with three gold medals and two bronzes. A feat that had never been achieved by a female before. Jones continued to go on in future Olympics to win four more gold medals, and in the 2006 Olympics she ran her fastest time for the 100m. Throughout her career she was associated with people caught using illegal performance enhancing drugs, this led others to suspect she used them as well. Marion Jones constantly denied those allegations until the founder of BALCO, a company that produced designer drugs, testified he had personally given Jones drugs. In 2006, Jones’ urine tested positive for EPO, a banned performance-enhancer. In 2007, Jones admitted to lying to the federal government about her steroid use prior to the 2000 Olympics and her involvement with a check fraud case.
The U.S. Olympic Committee immediately reacted to the news and demanded she return all the medals she ever received and in 2008 she was ordered by the U.S. Anti-doping Agency to forfeit all awards and medals received after September 1, 2000. Marion Jones went from a world famous Olympic Athlete in a course of a few years because she chose to use illegal substances. While she was not forced out of her sport due to injury, she still lost her identity.
Marion Jones was sentenced to six months in prison with two years of probation following her time served. Marion took responsibility finally after years of lying, but now she is a broken athlete, who destroyed her career and is now completely broke. Her home was taken over by the bank and she must live the rest of her life knowing she threw it all away.
The loss of an athletic identity can seem to be inevitable in some cases and devastating. However, in some cases, such as Marian Jones, it could have been avoided, had she not placed so much of her identity of that of an athlete and let the morals she claimed to have had encompass all aspects of her life. The loss of ones identity does not have to result in a loss of self, it can be avoided. Ways in which an athlete can avoid serious negative effects of changing careers, include reducing their exclusive identification with their sporting role and expand their self-identity to other areas that interest them. The athlete could develop interests beyond their sport, thus developing their confidence in other areas of their life. The athlete should also develop stress management techniques beyond using exercise as a form of stress relief. The athlete should also prepare for a life after sports during their career so if a career-ending injury occurs the athlete wont be left out in the cold. Proper support systems should also be present so if an injury occurs the athlete will have support from family, friends, coaches, and trainers. Once the athletes career is over, he or she should consider counseling sessions in order to help deal with the sense of loss and ability to heal physically, mentally and emotionally.
The loss of identity I felt with my running injuries led to a sense of loss of identity for my own life, this loss devastated me, however I was not on a spotlight like Marion Jones, who, in her endeavor to succeed at her career, threw away her morals because she got lost in her identity as a world class athlete. Every human possesses different identities, depending upon their environment, yet when one identity takes over and becomes dominant, the loss of this dominant identity can prove to be very damaging. Resulting in illegal behaviors as extreme examples to less deviant behaviors such as alcoholism to spending all one’s money and becoming broke. If more coaches and individuals took it upon themselves to be aware of the consequences of losing the athletic identity, I believe programs could be instigated within schools and colleges to help better educate and possibly lessen the effects of the loss of the athletic identity.

For Elisa,
Joe Thymen, Skier injury.
Find current examples that got a lot of media attention. High profile athletes that careers ended afterward. Focus on Injury that impacted psychological. Model article that focuses in on/talks about the psychological effects of an interrupted athletic identity.