Mo Merritt: On Identity in Sport

Mo Merritt is a former collegiate basketball player, turned Team USA Handball player. She recently began the blog “my clarity project” –a place for perspective, an open forum dedicated to happiness and progress.

When you introduce yourself to someone, what things come up first? For most of us, the conversation quickly leads to our sport. We identify as a “player of x.”

Since we were kids and realized our first love, sport has lent itself as our primary identity. Every aspect of our lives revolved around it. There was always practice after school and on the weekends, travelling to competitions, and teammates became our closest friends. As we continued to play, skill level progressed, and sport further connected all aspects of our lives.

Our fused identity with sport is what continues to make us successful; it is how we reach higher levels of performance. We take so much pride in our commitment to get better and ability to perform, like making varsity early in high school, getting a scholarship to college, and maybe even competing professionally. 

But why are we willing to continually commit and dedicate so much of ourselves to sport? Toward what end? Is it to reach the next level? Is it because of the passion we have for playing? Is sport all we know? Or maybe we just enjoy doing something we’re good at? 

For me, all these answers would have been “yes” not too long ago. My sport was who I was. Basketball was me. I lived and breathed it. Until I received a scholarship, my only mission was to get one. With tunnel vision, I achieved that goal. Now, looking back, I am not even sure if that goal was mine. 

When we invest ourselves into sport, we anticipate the upside and usually don’t consider the opportunity cost. Opportunity costs are the opportunities we miss out on because of the decisions we make. By choosing one path, we consequently cannot choose any other. So, though our commitment to sport comes with many benefits, we all know the sacrifices made to get there. 

Do I regret the opportunities I may have missed out on in order to be successful in basketball? No, absolutely not and I am not suggesting you should, either. But, have you thought about your relationship with sport and exploring your identity beyond it?

When sport is the primary source from which we draw our identity, our self-worth, self-esteem, and self-concept are also inherently tied to it. Performing well fuels our perspective of self, but not performing well and facing adversity can negatively impact our self-perception. And we know this because we’ve all been through having bad games, injuries, and now an unprecedented pandemic leaving us uncertain of whether or not we will even have the chance to play.

When we feel we don’t rise to the expectations for a game, our mind produces irrational and destructive thoughts to persuade us that we don’t belong and aren’t good enough. Experiencing an injury can cause us to question our entire existence, because our athletic identity, our largest identity, is no longer accessible.

Personally, I have had terrible games and gone through major injuries. My first ACL injury rocked my world. I prepared for the consequences, but I was surprised by benefits. It was the first injury of my career and it put me in a place where basketball was no longer an outlet. The doctor was adamant about me taking the entire year for recovery, and I eventually bought into the process, using the recovery time to decompress.

I couldn’t rely on basketball to cope, since I wouldn’t be allowed to play for 12 months. I stopped wearing team sweats around campus and switched my backpack to not bear the stamp of ‘women’s basketball’. My rehab times conflicted with the team schedule, so I was often alone with my thoughts and the athletic trainer. I know this seems as if it is taking a dark turn, and it did for a bit. I battled with redefining myself and not being able to play, but the world around me became bigger. I began to seek out individuals outside of my basketball team and eventually, outside of the athletics bubble. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was happy to explore. I spoke to every person I could, and was willing to try just about anything that I hadn’t done before. New experiences and perspectives became my passion. I found new layers and complexities of myself and found value in my own personal development. Up until that time, basketball had been my vehicle to experiencing the world. Now, I wanted to see the world from other lenses.

As individuals, we are in a constant state of evolution –moving towards something, away from other things, molding from our experiences, and more. Like in sport, as people, we evolve in our ability level and our approach. What we don’t always realize about our evolution, (personal and sport), is that we can design it. We can design our process and growth.

Consider this, you are not the same person you were in high school and your experience with sport isn’t the same either. And you will continue to evolve through and after college. So create who you want to be. 

Since college, I have become a member of the United States Women’s National Handball Team and my experience has been completely different than being on a university team. With returning from a second ACL injury during the pandemic and the current social climate of our country, my approach to sport has changed yet again. The relationship I am developing with handball is not tied to my identity like basketball, and the world feels even bigger now. Taking on an unfamiliar sport as an adult is difficult. I maintain the same mindset, but lack the technical skill set. But, through experience, the two will eventually align again. I treat learning handball as an opportunity to show that my athleticism is beyond basketball. My mindset and perspective are also constantly being challenged. 

Our sport and personal development journeys are interconnected. Character development is a major reason parents push their children to play sports, and it makes sense that athletic experience is a value in the work force. Highly sought after qualities in the work place, like teamwork, leadership, handling pressure, time management, and commitment highlight the parallels between life and sport. As players invested in sport, we can miss the transferability between the two. Know though, that what works to be successful in one realm, will work in the other (studying, goal setting, practice, recovery). Sport is a vehicle for development, particularly personal development. And it occurs within and outside of sport. If we only view life from a sport lens, we miss out on everything else sport affords us. 

Handball as a second sport has encouraged my athletic identity to become bigger than basketball. When I say I am an athlete now, I mean it in the broadest sense. I carry the mental and physical qualities associated with performing exceptionally well in any physical activity. I have challenged myself to embody what I believe it means to be an “athlete” in every sense of the word.

Sport has granted me amazing opportunities and experiences, but when taking those in, I also try to let go of that sole athlete identity. For example, handball has allowed me to travel to many countries and now afforded me the opportunity to pursue my doctoral degree. While my sport has provided those experience, I still choose to continue my personal development for myself and myself only.

So, in the words of a great poet Aubrey Graham, “when is the last time you did something for the first time?”, I encourage you to seek that feeling.

Your athlete identity has afforded you privileges that you haven’t even tapped into yet. Set the “athlete” aside and learn something new. What other interest do you have separate from your sport identity? Some options on campus may include university clubs & groups, research labs, the school library. You can ask your professor or TA if they know about something you find interesting. The options are endless. Maybe engage with people more, learn about your teammates, other athletes, classmates, or anyone you see on campus. In person connection is great, but we’re also in a pandemic. Reach out to people on other mediums like Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever else you have. 

As a student athlete you are ahead of the game in your personal development, but use those skills to find new and exciting passions outside of sport. Continue to develop yourself and your knowledge the same way you do in your sport.