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Finding Your Identity Outside of Sports with Mindset Coach and Endurance Trainer Whitney Miller

According to the Merging Vets & Players organization, “the NCAA touted in one report that 56% of its former athletes are thriving after sports. It sounds good until one considers that it leaves 44% struggling to find purpose post-sport.”

To address this growing struggle in the athletic community, The Hidden Opponent discussed how athletes can be proactive about rediscovering their identity and preparing for life after sport with Endurance Trainer and Mindset Coach, Whitney Miller. 

Runner holding their head and their hands sitting on the sidewalk

What identity obstacles do you commonly see athletes struggle with?

Athletes and identity is such a big topic because for a lot of athletes, being an athlete is their sole identity. When they come to work with me as their coach, there is a deep rooted connection between the two. I work to help them understand- where that comes from, how it is created, is the connection positive, negative, or somewhere in between, and how does the connection translate into life. 

Currently, I am working with a woman in her 50s and when she came to me her goal was to be in the top 10 percent of her age group for running. We've worked together for almost a year and just recently in a coaching session she told me that the goal of being in the top 10% of her age group is no longer a priority to her. She told me she wants to feel connected to her sport in a way that feels good, refreshing, and empowering. This was a HUGE step for her because for so long she tied her identity and worth to being a “fast” runner.

Identity as an athlete is such a deep rooted challenge, sport takes years and years to become ingrained in your identity, but then it takes years and years to understand that's not all you are. It’s about learning how to understand that, adjust to it, still make sports a part of your life and enjoyable, but not be so intense. As athletes we are coached to take sport seriously and remain diligent and determined, but it's about finding how those skills translate into life outside of sports. 

What suggestions do you have for younger athletes who are not anticipating life after sport coming soon? Do you suggest they be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to finding their identity outside of athletics?

That's such a good question and such a hard question because athletes don't want to think about the “end” of their sport journey. 

What I have found to be helpful with the athletes I work with is really focusing on who else they are, what their values are, what they enjoy, and what they want to do that maybe they don’t have the time or energy to participate in right now. I try to coach athletes to really make that scope broader, zooming out, and seeing themselves as a whole. Sport takes up a good portion of time, so it’s important to slowly start introducing new things. 

I find that athletes tend to not really know themselves outside of being an athlete. It can almost be like a reintroduction where they have the opportunity to get to know themselves again.  That can be really exciting, but also can feel scary and uncertain because a lot of athletes can't connect the characteristics of being an athlete to these new things. 

There's so many transferable skills from athletics into other activities, but athletes tend to view identity as very segmented, either an “athlete” or “not an athlete”. It's really just connecting the two and seeing how the person can be reintroduced to themselves in a way that is interesting, curious, and exciting versus the mindset of “well, now what, what do I do?” Many athletes come to me saying just that. That is my own story as well, finishing my career as a lifelong competitive and decorated swimmer and not knowing what else I wanted to do. I didn’t know how to spend the five hours a day that I had spent in the pool for so many years. That led to the deeper question of “who am I?”

It is really important to allow the space for people to get to know themselves more, while also allowing that space to be a little muddy. Allow yourself to try new things and allow yourself to possibly feel discouraged if you don’t enjoy something. It is more about curiosity and trying versus immediately making yourself find something that is for you in that next stage of your life.  

Softball team lined up on the foul line

When it comes to the transition after sport and identifying those transferable skills into the next stage of life, can you give me some examples of the transferable skills you find to be most relevant for individuals as they transition out of sport?

The top three that are standouts to me are grit, determination, and perseverance. Those are the top core skills that all athletes have. Every one of those skills can come into play in trying a new sport after a competitive career. For example, I was a competitive swimmer and then after college became a runner and a cyclist. This is also relevant for relationships, in your connection to something greater than yourself, in your job, and/or in your relationship with money. There are many things that the skills of grit, determination, and perseverance can transfer to. 

I work with a client who has done just that. She was a teacher and wasn't happy, she really did not enjoy the space that she was in with her career. She decided to go back to school and become a nurse. Now she's not only a nurse, but an educating nurse. She teaches students how to be nurses at a local college! 

The transferable skill of grit- of understanding that she wasn't where she wanted to be, having to use grit and tenacity to move toward something she wanted and to figure out what that was. Determination to be steadfast in that decision and continue to work towards a new goal. Lastly, perseverance to try and evolve and grow in her job as a nurse to then get to a position in her dream job now! It's marrying what she loved about teaching, but also what she needed in a new position of her career. 

Another skill is time management, being able to balance academics on top of your schedule as an athlete. That skill is extremely transferable into the workplace and relationships. Boundaries and communication are also skills that are developed through athletics that can transfer to so many other areas of life. 

Career is a big space that we all like to talk about because it's that next phase of life after finishing school. However, there's so many other pieces of the puzzle that athletes use their skills for and that's the really beneficial part of being an athlete. Having all those interpersonal skills, leadership skills, listening skills- all these things can transfer to relationships, career settings, and also to their connection with themselves.  

How would you recommend busy collegiate athletes who are balancing life and athletics utilize the resources around them? How can they manage their time to prioritize athletics while also prioritizing themselves and finding what they're interested in?

It really is what your core values are and how those are represented in what you are engaging in. For instance, if a core value is that you want to be creative, try new things, and learn- how can that be applied into what you're doing in your schooling? Maybe that's exploring different majors, maybe that's going to shadow different careers that you might possibly be interested in. Whatever it may be, allow yourself the opportunity to see your core values in different spaces. I really encourage any athlete who is in college trying to manage all the pieces to ask questions, make connections, and go see people doing potential jobs that you may want to do. 

Also, no one tells athletes that for many of us collegiate sport is the end of our athletic career. Not everyone, but a lot of us. No one tells you that when it's over that piece is not going to be there anymore. You may have a league you join or a space to remain competitive in your sport, but socially, the college team environment is not going to be there. So, I would love to share ‘be present’ with college athletes. Enjoy the moment that you're in because that's never going to be there again. Enjoy your teammates, enjoy everything about hard practices and competition, and know that although there are so many bigger things, for right now, your sport is the big thing.

Be present in not only what you're doing in that moment as an athlete, but also what the future looks like. Try to be present and proactive in identifying that for yourself while also allowing yourself to be unsure for a bit.

I wish that I would have started college and had little idea what I wanted to do so I could have explored. I went into college with a very clear idea and it turned into an idea that I did for almost 10 years. Then I ultimately decided that that wasn't the right thing for me. Collegiate athletes, just be open, be present, and explore because I think that's the biggest piece to finding what you truly want to do.

Whitney Miller headshot

Is there anything else you would like to include?

I really think it's important to talk about what comes before you hit the identity loss wall because the problem is identity can be scary and completely defeating. I'm going to be really blunt. Identity loss is terrifying. It is. And it rocks your world, especially when you've spent a lifetime with your identity being a student-athlete. 

So, it is really, really beneficial to start small (that's not easy for us athletes to do because we don't like to start small), but start small. What thoughts can you shift about your identity? What thoughts are you saying to yourself that maybe are creating negative feelings? You can also identify thoughts that are creating positive feelings! Track your thoughts and instead of being judgmental, get curious. “Oh, isn't it interesting that I keep saying,’well, I'm an athlete. That’s all I am. Hmm, interesting.’” And then move on from there. The awareness that you give yourself by noticing your thoughts is so kind, just by taking the time to notice.

That is the biggest piece, building that awareness muscle. Once you've done that, then go to the next level. What are the behaviors that you can change? Thoughts are creating behaviors so see where you can shift your behaviors once your thoughts have shifted.

Maybe I notice I go into my workout and I bust my butt because that's how my coach used to train me in college. Afterwards I feel awful and I end up spending multiple days recovering. So let me think about the thoughts that created that behavior. How can I shift that behavior based on my thoughts? Then once you get that piece down, you're ready for identity work. Identity loss work is not a pool that you jump into right away.

It really helps to have an educated, experienced coach or mentor to support you in that process because addressing identity and how to evolve in your identity as an athlete is difficult. Having someone to walk alongside you in that journey and support you, allow you to get curious, allow you to fall apart, allow you to celebrate-  all of those things, is really important.

Identity work is not for the faint of heart. So I always encourage people to find somebody to be a support and be an accountability partner in that space. That’s how I have helped so many clients through identity loss after sport - giving them a space to explore all that is coming up for them and heal along the way. 


Whitney Miller Headshot

Whitney Miller is the founder and owner of Transcend Training & Performance and the creator of Transcend Strength, Transcend Fit, and the Transcend Running Retreat. Whitney works with individuals to empower their endurance sport and mindset so they can train smarter, build strength, and live injury free. With over 25+ years of endurance sport and mental health experience, she brings the expertise of educated and powerful training to her clients.

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