11 Warning Signs of Performance-Based Identity

By Benjamin Houltberg


Many elite athletes, such as Michael Phelps and Royce White, have spoken out on mental health issues as a byproduct of the pressures they face from sports performance. Purpose is critical to an athlete’s identity and well-being. Athletes with a purpose-based identity experience lower levels of mental health, high life satisfaction, and emotional resiliency after disappointing sports performance. Performance-based identity, on the other hand, prevents athletes from thriving both in sports and life. Athletes with a performance-based identity share a fear of failure, self-criticism, and low self-worth. Because these athletes often struggle in silence, performance-based identity is difficult to recognize and can be dealt with in different ways. For example, some athletes may work harder to prove their self-worth while others may avoid competition altogether in order to protect their self-worth. Athletes who base their self-worth on performance rather than purpose risk undermining their emotional health and well-being. 

The following warning signs can help you determine whether your athlete suffers from performance-based identity:

11 Warning Signs of Performance-Based Identity Guide

Download these 11 warning signs here.

1. Feels good about themselves only if they perform well.

2. Blames others or creates excuses after poor performances.

3. Worries that people will like them if they fail.

4. Attempts to control every aspect of their life in order to win.

5. Can’t let go of mistakes or move past poor performances.

6. Use of negative self-talk for motivation.

7. Isolation from meaningful relationships.

8. Self-sabotages or thinks of excuses to avoid competition.

9. Pre-competition anxiety overrides all excitement to compete.

10. Extreme jealousy or anger towards those who do better.

11. Loss of joy for the sport.


It is important to help young athletes counter performance-based identity and move towards purpose-based identity. (Read how caring adults can do this here).


About the Author

Benjamin Houltberg

Dr. Benjamin Houltberg was the former Associate Professor of Human Development at the Thrive Center in the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. His research centers on relational factors that impact emotional health within high-stress environments. Much of his current work is on the role of identity development and character virtues in sport as they relate to emotional health and athletic performance. He is also a founding member of Hope Sports.


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