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More than a footballer. More than a basketballer. More than a tennis player.

Athletes aren’t defined by all they achieve under the watchful gaze of an audience or all they accomplish within the confines of two baskets or goal posts. That is simply one element of who they are.

In 2018 Lebron James and Kevin Durant were told to “shut up and dribble,” when they spoke out criticising Donald Trump. This infamous rhetoric was wheeled out once again when Lebron spoke out in favour of Black Lives Matter (BLM) this year. People believed that because Lebron was the star of our Saturday evening’s entertainment he had no right to comment on the protests or voice his opinion. But Lebron has long done more than “shut up and dribble,” opening The I Promise Elementary School in his hometown of Akron for at-risk children. He used his platform and fortune to help those less fortunate and provided a safe school environment and investment for many children.

If we look at the wondrous work footballer Marcus Rashford is doing trying to bring free school meals all year round, he still faces criticism telling him to stick to what he knows and questioning his intelligence. But Marcus is going out of his way to bring about real change in the UK. He has helped raise +£20 million for charity FoodShare and has an ongoing list of restaurants and shops that will help provide meals for disadvantaged children. Little kids will no longer grow hungry because Marcus didn’t just stick to what he’s good at.

Image Credit James Worsfold/Getty Images

Putting the politics aside, an athlete that chooses to expand their horizons, take up a course or spends time doing something outside of the realm of sport is good for their mental health, regardless of what they choose to do. It allows them to relax and switch off, it allows for distraction if they’re feeling stressed or if there is a big game coming up. Athletes are less likely to experience burnout if they have hobbies and interests away from their sport, they’ll be more energised and less likely to feel fatigued. Time away from sport can lead to physical and mental rejuvenation. When we reduce a person down to one fibre of their being eg. the sport they play, we limit the contributions they can make to this world. We restrict the lives they can touch and the changes they can help make or oversee.

When we put someone in a box and expect them to stay within these confines, it is our downfall when they don’t achieve their potential or aim for self-actualisation. It is an awful reductionist view on things if we think that people should only stick to one thing whether that be a job or a hobby.

Consider this: if an athlete was to listen to the people telling them to stick to what they’re good at and only play their sport, and nothing else. Can you imagine the devastation if this athlete gets injured or a global pandemic stops all sport? Their only outlet is gone, their greatest use of time and energy has disappeared. I can only imagine what their mental health would be like when their vision of themselves and their identity is challenged. The very thing they define themselves by has gone and they are no longer who they thought they were. Their mental health would be in tatters.

But picture the Lebron James’, and Marcus Rashford’s of this world whose identities extend past their sport. If their sport was suddenly taken away from them, yes it would be a loss. But it wouldn’t be as such a considerable loss. They already have their other hobbies, passions, and outlets to divert their attention.

As coaches, we should encourage a wide and expansive identity for our athletes, it will give them time away from the sport to allow them to relax and switch off. When their journey with the sport eventually runs its course they will have something to spend their newfound freedom on. But most importantly it is hugely beneficial for the athlete’s mental health and wellbeing. We take a very one-dimensional approach when we view these people as just athletes. Similarly, when we fail to consider that an outburst by one of our own athletes may be as a result of something bigger than sport, we do them a disservice. We need to see the bigger picture.

More than an athlete, with their own hobbies, interests, and passions that extend farther than their sport and “what they’re good at.” Lebron considers the setting up of his school as his most important professional accomplishment. Forget his rings and MVP’s, helping the less fortunate is what is important to him. So maybe Lebron is a philanthropist that just so happens to play basketball in his free time?

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