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  • Mindy McCarthy

What's in a Label

Labels seem to be everywhere. They can be describing yourself, found in a job title, describing information about what might be in a food, part of name calling in a school yard, etc. We find ourselves surrounded by labels whether we are hearing them or reading them. Sometimes, labels are not the most beneficial thing for young athletes wanting to continue competing in the sports that they love.

Labeling theory states that self-identity and the behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to classify them. This essentially means that if someone calls you something or puts you in a category, you can find yourself believing that.


This is studied in psychology and sociology quite a bit because people can suddenly treat others differently or themselves differently if they begin believing that they are only a part of certain categories. For example, if someone is labeled with a disability, they may then be treated differently. It could even be something more minor like labeling someone into a certain position. A player then believes they are only capable of playing that position instead of trying something new.

As someone who works with a lot of high school players trying to get recruited by colleges, it is interesting to see how players can sometimes box themselves into certain positions while playing their sports. There is certainly benefit in having role players who are there to contribute in exactly specific ways, but when working with young athletes, they should not feel as if they are labeled and only a part of that label.

One thing that can happen with players at a young age is that they can check off certain boxes for coaches who then feel that they should be playing certain positions. An example is having taller players only play the post positions in basketball. However, many people who follow basketball know the best post players are the ones who can also handle the ball well and take over some of the guard opportunities from behind the three point line. With these experiences, these particular players can contribute from all over the court instead of simply being role players, especially as they are growing in the sport and developing their IQ’s.

You can also find some players being complacent with certain labels. For example, players who won a championship the previous year may continue to label themselves as such thinking they can ease off with some of their training or work towards pursuing another one. A player who has been told that he or she is the best player on the court may no longer feel the need to continue working as hard as the rest of the team thinking that label is permanent.


In a time while young players may be having trouble figuring out exactly who they want to be, I caution adults working with these athletes on labeling them a certain way. Continue to challenge them in playing different roles with their teams or give them different responsibilities. Use different methods to coach each day instead of the same one to see who learns better in what ways. This helps you grow as a teaching individual and allows your team members to continue to grow as they get better and better at their sports.

While some athletes do best from receiving specific instructions about what they are being asked to do or complete, I think it is beneficial for young people to not feel that they are only part of a certain label category.

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