Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford is having quite a month. He was honoured with an MBE for his efforts to ensure free school meals for children, and his petition to end child food poverty has surpassed a million signatures.
It has often been said that to achieve success on the pitch, one must “eat, sleep, and breathe football”. But this previously accepted wisdom is being challenged.
Rashford’s competing commitments do not seem to be causing his sporting performance to suffer. In fact, the reverse seems to be true: Rashford came off the bench to score a hat-trick in 16 minutes against RB Leipzig in the Champions League on October 28.
Finding purpose outside of sport can contain a multitude of benefits for athletic performance, and – perhaps more importantly – for wellbeing more generally.
One of the occupational hazards of being an elite sportsperson is that an athlete’s identity becomes defined by what they do. This phenomenon is known as “athletic identity”.
This is characterised by an over-commitment to sport, and an avoidance of exploring other identities. Athletes appear to be at particular risk because athletic identity is generally developed at a young age before they can fully explore other role identities.
On the one hand, a strong athletic identity can unearth huge reservoirs of motivation. It can enhance performance and feed a long-term commitment to sport.
On the other side, those with a strong athletic identity can view setbacks and adversity as threats to their identity. They will overinflate the perceived severity of on-field mistakes or injuries, and are more likely to experience crisis when they are no longer able to play the sport.
Moreover, the problem with exclusively engulfing identity in a profession is that a person’s sense of value and self-worth becomes tethered to their occupation.
This means that an athlete may only view themselves as a valuable and worthwhile person when they perform well – and useless and worthless when they fail. As Olympic swimmer Lizzie Simmonds told Sportspiel:
I developed a self-limiting belief that my worth as a person was correlated to my performance in the pool.
This can add pressure to the already highly demanding and scrutinised world of professional sport. It is of little surprise that making self-worth contingent on your performance is bad for mental health and can lead to burnout.