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The Strength of a Student Athlete: Who Before What

Less than three months ago, former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey stunned fans when she lost a match to Holly Holm. It was a huge upset.

I bring this up because Rousey represents a vivid case study of too many young athletes today. In a nationwide interview on the Ellen DeGeneres show, Rousey became transparent about her emotional trauma after the loss. She told everyone that as she sat in the medical room, her first thoughts were: “What am I anymore if I’m not this? I was literally sitting there thinking about killing myself…and that exact second I am like, ‘I’m nothing, what do I do anymore, and no one gives a **** about me anymore without this (title).’”

Somehow she’d lost sight of who she really was. Rule #1: Never place your identity in something that can be taken away.

In that moment, her entire identity was wrapped up in being the best at her sport. While that sounds great on the surface, it’s just not healthy. Her will to go on was temporarily lost because it was all about a match—not her person. Had she forgotten:

  • She was an amazing swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated? (So I’ve heard). ☺
  • She had a caring boyfriend in Travis Brown, a UFC star?
  • She is followed by people everywhere—for more than her MMA title?

Research shows that athletes are stronger and more resilient at their sport when they construct an identity that goes beyond the sport. We’ve also learned that athletes who’ve developed a healthy sense of identity outside of one sport are better able to handle adversity; to remain emotionally stable and to fight angst. It’s why so many NCAA Division I coaches insist on recruiting multiple-sport athletes out of high schools. Coaches want healthy, steady players. It has been said so many times it has become cliché, but it is still true. Athletes must be able to honestly say, “My sport is what I do, not who I am.”

Walking the Fine Line


So, how do coaches build a healthy sense of identity in student athletes, while still cultivating championship caliber players? Is it possible to have players lay it all on the line, while competing, but still not tie their entire personhood to the sport?

I believe it is. John Wooden has done it. Pat Summit has done it. Sue Enquist has done it. Tony Dungy has done it. Pat Murphy has done it. And the list goes on. Each of these coaches have helped young athletes construct an identity that includes their sport as a major part of who they are, but not entirely who they are. It’s a fine line.

“Who” Before “What”

Young athletes must settle who they are, before deciding what they’ll do. If they get this order wrong, they can become a basket case, building an identity around something that can be taken away. After all, one day their “sports days of glory” will end. Wisdom says, “A strong who leads to a strong and lasting what, but not the other way around.”

When I speak to audiences full of coaches and athletes about this topic, I always show a diagram of a tree. I believe healthy identity looks a lot like a fully-grown tree.

  • Roots – The roots below represent identity—unseen but most important to the strength of the tree. They must be deep and intertwined with others.
  • Trunk – The trunk is visible and represents their performance. Strong roots result in a strong trunk that can withstand storms and high winds.
  • Fruit – The branches and fruit are the productivity of the athlete. Only with genuinely strong roots do we get real, (not artificial) fruit: winning in life.

The Elements of Healthy Identity

After three decades of working with college students, I have observed that healthy, resilient athletes are the result of coaches and staff who enable young athletes to build their identity around elements beyond their single sport. In other words, your athletes need you to help them model the elements of a healthy identity:

* It revolves around the characteristics inside you.

* It’s based on something that cannot be taken away.

* It’s built from beliefs that will last a lifetime.

* It involves solving problems and serving people.

* It fosters satisfaction when you live up to it.

* It furnishes a platform to leave a legacy.

For years, Becky Hammon was an incredible college and professional basketball player. One reason is, she’s not only talented but she’s also built a strong sense of identity. Not long ago, Becky became the first female coach in NBA history. She is paving the way for others who follow. In the process, however, she’s taken a lot of flack from those who believe the NBA is for men, not women. In an interview, she was asked about how she handles the adversity. Her answer revealed her robust sense of self. She simply said, “I know who I am…When you get comfortable with yourself like that and you know you’re doing the right thing, you can take a lot of crap.”

Let’s go build strong people. If we do, we will get strong athletes.

(Interested in having a “Growing Leaders” speaker speak with your coaches or athletes on this topic? CLICK HERE)


  1. Joel Gannon on February 25, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Bravo, Tim! Great post. It is important to develop yourself first and strive for excellence at that, then apply it to an activity, task, project or a goal. Finally, the teachable and coach able heart will always be the virtue to maintain and stay the course.

  2. Erica Cenci on February 25, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    This is a great post, Tim. It’s spot on and so important to help athletes become more aware of who they are aside from their sport. We see challenges with this all too often at all levels of athletics and it can be prevented with a little perspective and some awareness on everyone’s part.

    • Tim Elmore on February 26, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      Thank you for weighing in, Erica. You’re absolutely correct. Let’s stay aware and intentional with the athletes under our care.

  3. natesallee on February 25, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    This is one of the main issues I dealt with as an athlete and continue to walk with people through this struggle working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

    • Tim Elmore on February 26, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      Thank you, Nate, for working with athletes and using your past struggle to help others. Keep up the great work with FCA.

  4. Phil Merrell on March 1, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Wanted to share some feedback I received from a teacher after we used this article for a class discussion;

    While I’m sure they were unintentional, the examples you listed of things Ronda may have forgotten (i.e. swimsuit model, boyfriend, social media followers) were not necessarily positive examples of things to base a healthy identity and character on.

    What are some examples of “roots” that may she have forgotten about and what are some “roots” that we can help explore with students who are in similar situations?

    Appreciate all the work you do!

    • Tim Elmore on March 5, 2016 at 1:42 pm

      Phil, Yes, things like being a swimsuit model and her large number of Twitter followers are not landmarks for a solid identity. My point was she had so much more to live for than her sport. And that’s where we must begin the conversation. I believe that family and faith can play a huge role in our identity, as well as continuing to build on our strengths. While she had lost her title, Ronda still has her strengths to cultivate in the future. Just some simple thoughts.

  5. […] shape their identity around who they are, before deciding what they’ll do. A recent article from Growing Leader emphasized the importance of encouraging a healthy […]

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The Strength of a Student Athlete: Who Before What