Joan Anderson, PhD
Ample evidence has demonstrated that holding multiple roles, such as being a scholar or member of the drama club, is beneficial to an individual’s mental and physical health (e.g., Hong and Seltzer, 1995; Waldron & Jacobs, 1989). “Generally, the more role identities individuals hold, the more purpose, meaning, behavioral guidance, and approving social feedback they have available, and thus, the better should be their mental health or general well-being” (Thoits, 2003, p. 180). Although holding multiple life roles is healthy, individuals in high performance settings are often asked or expected to sacrifice roles in pursuit of a singular role. Such is the case with elite athletes, including but not limited to college athletes.
While an athlete may enter college with a broad set of life roles, these life roles are often subsumed by the overbearing nature of college athletics. The college athletic environment often dominates an athlete’s time, actions, and social circles (Adler & Adler, 1991; Blinde & Stratta, 1992), thus limiting their exploration of other roles. Based on messages and actions from coaches, teammates, and administrators, college athletes are often socialized into assuming a largely salient and often, singular, athlete role at the expense of other role identities (Anderson & Dixon, 2017). In turn, as athletes become engulfed in a singular role, they may become dissatisfied with their sport experience and feel isolated from other people and groups (Anderson and Dixon, in press).
Interestingly, the outcomes of this engulfment seem to be dependent on how the athlete experiences their roles and the agency, or lack thereof, associated with adopting a singular athletic role. For instance, Anderson and Dixon (2017) found that athletes who felt forced into a singular role, were dissatisfied and isolated, yet those who voluntarily became engulfed in their athlete role were satisfied with their athletic and overall college experience. These contrasting findings suggest that the outcomes of role engulfment are largely dependent on how the athlete experiences and manages their roles (see also Barnett & Baruch, 1985). Thus, it is essential to better understand the experiences of elite athletes as they develop and manage their life roles, unpacking the factors that impact their sport and college experiences.
So, research needs to examine how participation in college athletics impacts the number and nature of social roles that college athletes hold and how these roles and management thereof impacts their overall sport and college experience. By unpacking athlete experiences within team environments, we can build a more integrated understating of processes and outcomes toward role management that unfold in teams or organizations. From a practical perspective, we can attend to athlete integration into the campus community, athlete satisfaction with their college experience, and the impact of participation in intercollegiate athletics on the social experiences of athletes. Overall, the findings of this research in the hands of practitioners can inform the ideal management of role identities among college athletes, so that they are able to achieve greater satisfaction with their college sport and overall college experience without negative outcomes.