Athletes & Tattoos
Updated: Feb 8
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I want to change up all the serious performance and growth talks with a more fun topic. And the first one I thought of was athletes and tattoos. What an interesting fascination. Most athletes I know personally, even amateurs have them. So what purpose do they serve, why do athletes permanently color their skin, and psychologically what do we see it doing for them?
Let me be clear before we jump into this, I don’t recommend people to get, or not to get tattoos on their bodies. I believe that it’s everyone’s choice as to whether it’s something that brings them value in their life or not. I think, though, that there are many beneficial reasons and psychological factors to tattoos that we might ignore.
We’re going to start with psychologically why tattoos are attractive.
As humans, we are attracted to things that are considered controversial, not allowed, permanent, can upset a certain demographic of the population, etc. Do I think that this is the main reason why athletes get tattoos? Rarely. If I’m getting something permanent put on my skin, unless it’s a huge statement, it usually has to have a deeper meaning for me personally.
So there’s some attraction to getting the first tattoo in the fact that it’s taboo, it’s an experience that I haven’t had yet. A desire for the forbidden fruit one could say. Also, there’s a fair bit of peer pressure. If my friends and teammates have cool tattoos that I envy, I’m much more likely to engage in discussions about what might look good or be meaningful for myself. But that only explains the first one.
Hormonally, while getting a tattoo done, the body releases 2 main hormones. Adrenaline and Endorphins. The adrenaline rush helps us deal with the pain, feel stronger, and for a little while at least quite enjoy the process and the pain as a person has a complete boost of energy. That in combination with the endorphins also helps to numb the pain and give a person a feeling of euphoria.
Imagine scoring a goal in a playoff match in additional time, or hitting a 3-pointer with time running out on the clock of an important game. That combination of stress creating adrenaline after a long amount of physical struggle with the endorphins of winning the game could be a similar comparison. So psychologically and hormonally it’s attractive, and once a person has one, will almost always have a desire to go back and get another.
But if we stopped at what you could find in an easy google search, that wouldn’t be any fun.
Something important to think about and remember when it comes to athletes of professional athletes, is that their body has been molded, somewhat controlled, and objectified from a young age. Their skills, physicality, and physique have been rated, judged, and commented on since they most likely started their sport.
What is the result of all of this commentary? A lot of athletes who get out of their teens and struggle with social identity, struggle to know who they are outside of their sport.
I had a footballer as a client at 20 years old who came to me with social anxiety as one of his major issues. As long as he was on the pitch he was completely fine. But whenever the conversation moved away from skills, tactics, athleticism, or his body and attitude, he wasn’t used to any other topics.
This is toxic obviously for a 20-year-old male to be feeling this way, but it’s what he had been groomed to be. His father would never speak to him of anything else, his mother cared for him as best as she could with the main goal of him being prepared for his next training or match, and at school, he was often shunned or bullied not allowed to have an opinion if he did have one, because he’s the good looking football player that isn’t particularly intelligent. Unfortunately for this client, all of this was combined with a heavy dose of being introverted and spending most of his downtime on his own, further ostracizing himself socially.
What point am I trying to make here? Tattoos can be symbolic in that a person announces to the world that this body is my own, and I can do with it what I want. After years and years of being told exactly how to treat your body, what to put in it, when to exercise it, etc. A person desires a feeling of ownership. Something like a tattoo for some athletes is just that. It’s a confirmation that this life, this body is my own and I can do with it what I want, not only what I’m being told to do, so I can achieve my goals.
Using this same thought pattern, this applies somewhat to creative expression as well. Some people see the body as a canvas, and a way an athlete can express themselves and their identity outside of just being labeled an athlete, is through their ink.
With most athletes, it’s quite obvious when standing around most people that they’re professional athletes. They’re bigger, stronger, and faster than the average person on the street. They’re often again judged and stereotyped for these things. So putting some ink on them gives them at least the opportunity to be stereotyped for something different from what they’ve had their entire life growing up, which was athlete, athlete, athlete.
We’re now going to dive into symbolism, motivation, and then round things out with some of the reasons why a tattoo might not be the best thing for everyone.
Symbols and motivation - Tattoos are symbols that give us strength and symbolize our why. Things like animals, family members, quotes, faith, and culture. These are all things that given the right reminders and the rights symbology can help drive us forward in practice and competition.
Animals like lions pronouncing I'm the King, bears, and gorillas with brute strength or sharks as we'll soon get to with CJ McCollum are all interesting things to identify and motivate ourselves with. The more I can compound the fact that I behave like some of the strongest or deadliest animals, the more my behavior automatically models that, and the more motivated I am.
Family members and faith are often also driving factors when it comes to athletes and motivation. I want to do this for my parents who gave me everything and believe in me. Or I want to be driven and as successful as possible for my kids to create generational wealth. Or I just want to be the best example of someone living out their dreams to the fullest possible. These are all things that we can be reminded of by symbology placed on our skin.
Culture is an interesting viewpoint that also is worth taking a look at. The more we're tied to and can represent where we are from, who we are, and what side of that I'm representing, the more driven we are. A lot of athletes have this within them. They want to prove that someone from Compton, Oakland, or the Bronx not only can make it but can make it big. And how much love and talent there is in those areas that are being ignored due to the lack of opportunity.
We're talking about a larger purpose here. That brings us to our why. Chris Bosh in his letters to young athletes stated this the best, but basically, he said that we all need to find and write out our why. And that shouldn't be just why we're doing the sport, but what we're trying to prove to ourselves, to others, to the world. What do we envision our life looking like once we're done with sports, etc. Tattoos help reinforce through symbology what our whys are.
Symbology and identity - representing myself as an athlete or as an individual through symbols.
If I have a why, and I have a clear goal and vision, then it's up to me to decide what symbology I can use to reaffirm within myself the identity change that needs to take place. For most of us, to become who we want to, we need an identity change. Again, seeing the symbology we're trying to represent in the mirror every day helps. It's like having automatic reminders multiple times a day of your affirmations. It can keep a person focused on what's important.
CJ McCollum is well known for loving shark week on the history channel and talking about himself as a shark. He says things like I am aggressive like a shark, I go after blood, and when I smell blood in the water I just lose my head and go crazy attacking. I have to eat when I'm out on the court. What an incredible and powerful image to identify with. Especially being one of the smallest players on the court most nights.
Being chosen by God or the gods depending on a person's faith is another common identifier as a confidence booster. Many players see their exceptional skill, work ethic, athleticism, etc. as God-given. And if God gave me these gifts, then I should be grateful, and use them to my full abilities, otherwise, I'm insulting the being I believe in. This can also be extremely powerful in building confidence, and again, can be reminded through ink.
Why tattoos aren’t for everyone.
Faith, being worried about permanence, being culturally not acceptable like in Japan, or aesthetically unappealing, etc. are all reasons for people to not get tattoos. And these reasons are completely acceptable and no one should be judging negatively towards these decisions. We don't need to have a canvas made out of 7.5 billion people. But athletes then need to find those symbols elsewhere and carry them with them as they travel to continuously remind themselves of their values and their why.
I hope that you’ve had a good time listening to me discuss why athletes get tattoos. If you have other ideas, comments, or just completely disagree with me, make sure you send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll definitely respond. I think it’s great to see how athletes can help themselves in committing, motivation, and their values by putting those symbols directly on their skin. On top of that, they can firm themselves in their identity as adults choosing their path instead of always just performing for others who expect that from them.
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