It’s almost exactly 50 years since the psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term identity crisis. His work focused on the development of the ego and described life as involving 8 stages of conflict that each individual must pass through successfully to become a healthy and mature person. He saw moments of identity crisis as opportunities for growth; occasions where we can leave our narrow and parochial concerns behind, and become more self-aware and open to the world. Although criticised for being too theoretical and abstract, his account has been applied by many different groups to help understanding of organisations and culture.
So what would Erikson’s model say about sport and identity in 2012? Where are we at from a personal, organisational and cultural level? Before anyone can speak of crisis though we need to know why identity is so important. The term identity first emerged in psychology in the English speaking world when Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, tried to understand why European existentialists claimed that meaning was the most important factor for sound mental health. They argued that where people and nations had lost their identity and could no longer find meaning in their lives, ennui, depression, and all manner of psychological disturbance would emerge. The reasons behind this can be seen in real world practice. Meaning and identity are the basis upon which we can carry out three vital tasks. These are focus – what should I attend to? Motivation – why should I attend to something? Action – how should I deal with this? And crucial to this, the person must know why it is important to them in the first place. This can only be fully answered by knowing who they really are anyway, in other words, by acquiring self-knowledge. Or to capture these ideas differently we can say that we need to know the who, to understand the why, to enable the what!
In our increasingly rapid modern world we are constantly exhorted to ‘just do it’. The rest will sort itself out eventually. But in our hearts rather than our heads we know this is a lie! If the core, the foundations and the base are ignored they will degrade and fail us. This principle applies to all of life, construction, engineering, education, relationships and values.
So where is the patient otherwise known as Sport in all of this? Do we have an identity crisis? Does sport provide meaning and a psychologically healthy identity? One way to look at this is around the notion of renewal. The best sporting cultures seem to continuously engage in a process of rebirth and renewal. We can all think of the brands that are somehow more than the brand. The sporting franchises, organisations, teams or clubs who somehow manage to come back to their authentic real self, time and time again. They always appear to be returning home – different, changed, and new but the same! These are the environments where players want to play, managers manage, and coaches coach. This is where we find constancy, loyalty, consistency, calmness, passion, composure and joy.
Our role in this as sports psychologists, participants, sports leaders and administrators is to nurture the legacy, not to use it for our own narrow, selfish, egotistical ends. Do something for sport today. Sack someone who does not contribute to its long term growth and success but is there to plunder it for short term gain! This may sound closely related to values, which of course is the modern politically correct term for the much more powerful words, morality and ethics. At root this is about whether we can be trusted. And what does that much used word in sport actually mean in plain English? Surely, when we say trust we imply that it is about, always not only now, in relation to big things not just the small, and because it is the right thing to do rather than the easiest.
And to finish on a current topic of debate, character and identity and how this can be taught is once again on the lips of our politicians, media commentators and academic elite. But beyond this group, we, the people, already know from our own lives that just like that currently fashionably term in sport, mental toughness, character is caught not taught! These are not skills to be learned (although skills can help in a small way). Rather, these are qualities of a person that can be seen in everything they do, forged throughout their lives by living through adversity whilst being sustained by hope. This is about formation of persons, and some of us believe that sport has huge potential in developing good character.
Dr Mark Nesti CPsychol., is Reader: Psychology in sport at Liverpool John Moores University. His most recent book, Psychology in Football, is based on work inside Premiership clubs over 9 seasons.
THIS MONTH’S ARTICLES:
DARREN BURGESS: TEAM SPORTS TECHNOLOGY IN SPORTS SCIENCE – ARE WE SEEING THE BIG PICTURE?
JEREMY SNAPE: UNDERSTANDING PEOPLE, CULTURE AND IDENTITY WITHIN HIGH PERFORMANCE ENVIRONMENTS – A RADICAL, CREATIVE AND CARING APPROACH
PROZONE ANALYSIS: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MARCH
HOWARD HAMILTON: NETWORK MODELLING – AN APPROACH FOR CAPTURING CONTEXT AND SPACE IN FOOTBALL MATCH DATA