The Identity Mistake: Don’t Make It

What is the difference of saying I am not a soccer player versus I don’t play soccer very well?   Oftentimes I hear young people especially preadolescents and teens say the former. “I am not a drama person.”  “I am not a runner, I am  not a swimmer.”        What does it mean?  Why is it so deadly?    

When you use the verb to be, such as when you say I am  a … or she is not a …,  you are talking about the person’s identity. who the person is.  Preadolescents and adolescents struggle to find out who they are on a daily basis,  but when they use the verb to be,  what they really should be using is the verb to do.    Soccer or running or swimming are things you do. They do not define who you are.      

Identity questions are better defined in non-material forms because they are always capable of change.     He is courageous, friendly, hard working, joyful, gentle, strong,  and perceptive.   She is determined, enthusiastic, positive, optimistic, and discerning.   These are aspects that we want to have as part of our identity, our defining characteristics.      

By defining myself as a NOT behavior, what actually happens is that I shut the door on using an environment to help me grow.    For instance,  soccer is a great environment to learn team play which is the ability to develop your own skills while being together with a group of others to accomplish a goal.   It teaches you how to see where others are on your team, and  how to interact with them, while at the same time developing your own abilities so that you can be a good team member.    A 10 year old who says I am not a soccer player essentially shuts the door on developing abilities to be a member of a team.    

So really the goal is take a game like soccer and move it out of the realm of identity (to be) and put it in the realm of behavior (to do).    It is not difficult to improve your skills in soccer  or in mathematics or in drama.    You just need to put in the time and effort and learn, but as soon as you place them in the realm of identity, the door becomes shut and then the real damage to identity occurs because the qualities that the activity may foster are then avoided.  

A lot of  pre-adolescents give up on themselves in certain areas because most schools and homes spend far too much time comparing, judging, criticizing, and overemphasizing winning, and far too little time encouraging,  finding positives, accepting, and emphasizing participation and effort.    While most people will agree that being able to work hard is an admirable quality,  children see from a very young age that their adult mentors are far more interested in winning and being #1 than in effort.     At some point children give into criticism and comparison and just use the identity of NOT to protect themselves.   

Kindergarten children do not make the mistake of identity.   They will say they are not very good at a game like basketball or say that they can’t do it,  but they won’t say that they are not basketball players.    So it is somewhere after a child enters schools that they learn to protect themselves by using identity in the wrong way.     

When we coach track and field and swimming, what we have found is that if we put children into heats where they compete against similar levels and then emphasize growth and improvement over place and results,  then children continue to participate in activities for a long time.    If you have 10 boys on a team of swimmers, one of them is going to be the fastest.   What the culture teaches us to do is to give a lot of praise to the fastest and then criticize all the rest.    So it should not be surprising that the fastest one or two swimmers continue for a long time in the sport while everyone else drops out.    

How to change pre-adolescents so that they don’t make the identity mistake is actually fairly simple.   All that really needs to be done is to use a lot of encouragement so that they will get out there and play and also to emphasize the importance of making efforts to improve over just looking at  winning or losing.    

So when your 10 year olds begin to cut themselves out of activities, you can use it as a kind of internal alarm bell that means that he or she may need a lot more encouragement and a lot less comparing.  

I do a lot of running and enjoy it, but it doesn’t define who I am because if, one day, I lose the ability to run, then I will simply do something else.


One Response to “The Identity Mistake: Don’t Make It”

  1. Erika Hastings Says:

    Great article! Such an inpotant issue for students. I really like how you showed the things they can learn from team sports.

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