What Defines You?

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A few months before I quit skating, I saw a sports psychologist for the first time. Within the first few minutes of our session, he asked me to draw a circle and then to divide the circle up based on the various parts of my identity.

I paused for a minute. I was confused. 

I was a skater.

That was my identity. My sole identity. That was all I could remember being—“Jenny, the skater”—for the past decade. I was “Jenny, the skater” throughout middle and high school. Whenever anyone asked me about myself, my answer was always, "I'm a skater." That t-shirt that said “Skating is life. The rest is just details”? 

I lived that t-shirt. 

But that was also why I was sitting in this guy’s office. My sole identity as a skater was making me hate the sport.  Skating had become my everything and the only thing. The rest of that stuff, the details? I didn't let myself think about them. 

I was twenty years old, and the thought of doing anything in my life besides skating terrified me. My family was the skating community. I was dating a skater. My best friend was a skater. My days were defined by how many jumps I had landed in my long program run-through. If I was having a bad triple lutz day, I was having a bad day.

Skating was my everything.

Yet, over the past two years, I had begun to resent this identity I had created for myself. I felt guilty any time I did something that didn't coincide with what I felt I should be doing as an elite athlete. If I stayed up too late or made "normal" friends, I worried that it was going to negatively affect my training. I had created a life for myself where I felt trapped, and to venture away from skating to focus on a different part of my identity just felt impossible

In reality, I was so much more than a skater; I just couldn’t see that at time. I couldn’t see that balance was what I needed.  This can happen to so many athletes. It usually doesn't happen overnight, and it starts with good intentions: to be the best at the sport you love. But slowly, you may start to feel like you can’t do anything that goes against your athletic identity, that you feel could threaten your focus. This may mean declining invitations to parties and sleepovers, not going to the prom, spending less time time with friends and family. It may mean pushing aside hobbies or convincing yourself that your education doesn’t matter. Your days are suddenly defined by how your training is going. Results at each competition start to define your worth. 

A little bit of this is okay. As an athlete, you need to put your all into your sport. And, even after skating, there are going to be times in life when one part of your identity is going to hold more weight than all the others. That’s necessary from time to time. But too much focus in one arena—whatever that may be—will lead to burnout and resentment.  As a human, you need balance. You need variety in your life. You need to see that you are a full, well-rounded individual. This will make you a better athlete. It will make you a happier person.

To do this isn’t always easy. It also goes against what so many young athletes are taught. When you grow up in a sport like skating, it's easy to think that more hours on the ice will automatically yield better results. Sometimes, homeschooling is a more favorable scheduling choice. Your friends become your training mates. Family vacations become competitions. Often, much of this is necessary—and totally okay. Yet, skaters also need a life outside of the confines of an ice rink. Exploring identities, friendships and hobbies away from the ice is a good thing. It will help a skater’s career and make them value their time on the ice.

Skating is a wonderful part of a young athlete's life, but it cannot be the only thing in their life. While it would seem that more focus and time spent on something is automatically going to yield better results, this doesn't always ring true. Too much time spent doing any one thing can lead an individual to feeling confined and boxed in. When the weight of your whole world, your very identity, rests in one thing, the pressure becomes too much—and unnecessary. 

When I left competitive skating, I was terrified. I had zero clue who I was outside of an ice rink. I was essentially leaving behind myself. I suddenly didn't have the thing that defined how my day went, how I was as a person. It was up to me to create a new path. And, bless, did I stumble. But in that process, I blossomed. I realized that I am so much more than a skater—and I always was. I learned to see that my time as a skater will always be an incredible part part of my life, but it doesn't define my life.

If you're an athlete, you need to put everything you have into your sport, and I think it’s good to have that one thing in life that you love. But that one thing can’t be the only thing; it doesn't need to be at the expense of the other facets of who you are.  Every identity you hold is just as important as what you do. That thing that you're going all in amazing, but also remember that it's just a part of you. It does not need to define you.