Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

An Interpersonal Psychotherapy Approach to Counseling Student Athletes: Clinical Implications of Athletic Identity

Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

An Interpersonal Psychotherapy Approach to Counseling Student Athletes: Clinical Implications of Athletic Identity

Article excerpt

Research has shown that disruptive circumstances in an athlete's career (temporary injury, permanent injury, retirement) can pose significant difficulties, especially if the athlete has developed a salient athletic identity at the expense of a multidimensional self-concept. The authors present an interpersonal psychotherapy approach to case conceptualization with student athletes that can be effective because of its brief nature and focus on grief, role transitions, interpersonal deficits, and interpersonal disputes.

Keywords: student athletes, retirement, injury, sport, interpersonal psychotherapy


Approximately 460,000 college students participate in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)-sanctioned athletics every year (NCAA, 2012), and these student athletes face the demands of dual roles: that of university student and of elite amateur athlete (Fletcher, Benshoff, & Richburg, 2003; Ford, 2007; Watson, 2002). Parham (1993) identified six demands or challenges confronting student athletes: (a) balancing athletic and academic endeavors; (b) balancing social activities with the isolation from athletic pursuits; (c) balancing athletic success or lack of success; (d) balancing one's physical health and injuries; (e) balancing several relationships, including with coaches, parents, family, and friends; and (f) dealing with the termination of one's athletic career. Because of the sheer number of student athletes and the multitude of issues they face, it is imperative for counseling professionals to be aware of how one's identity as an athlete influences how a student athlete addresses these challenges. Specifically, mental health professionals need to be equipped with a theoretical framework that can be effective in counseling student athletes through these challenges.

Based on its time-limited structure and focus on important interpersonal areas of life (e.g., grief, role transitions, interpersonal disputes, and interpersonal deficits), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT; Klerman & Weissman, 1993) is an example of a potentially effective theoretical orientation to use with student athletes. In this article, we provide practitioners with background on how the role of client identity--particularly a salient athletic identity--affects student athletes' psychosocial functioning. Clinical vignettes are included to illustrate how a counselor can conceptualize student athletes' issues that are relevant to this population (i.e., temporary injury, permanent injury, and retirement) through the lens of an IPT framework.

Identity Theory

A person's self-concept is widely viewed as a multidimensional structure that is composed of his or her feelings and thoughts about the self within various aspects of life (Higgins, 1987; Linville, 1985, 1987). This multifaceted nature of the self-concept provides multiple lenses through which to view the world and allows people to activate different lenses at different times to facilitate the processing of information and experiences (Ryska, 2002). The more often the identity becomes activated and reinforced through interactions with others, the more salient it becomes to a person. According to Stryker (1968), identity salience can be conceptualized as the probability that a given identity will be activated in a given situation. The importance of a given role begins to define people's core identity through which they interpret most, if not all, situations. People will choose to participate in activities that are consistent with more highly developed and central aspects of their self-concept, and they will be more satisfied with relationships that tend to validate highly salient dimensions of their self-concept (Cornelius, 1995). If one identity (e.g., athletic identity) receives greater recognition and acknowledgment than another (e.g., academic identity), then more time will be spent focusing on and developing the athletic identity at the expense of the other aspects of one's life (Hoberman, 2000). …

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