TWU researcher Ashley McTaggart studies sporting culture’s impact on identity development and mental wellness

As an athlete who grew up and is still immersed within the competitive sporting environment, Ashley McTaggart, graduate student in the MA Counselling Psychology program, is applying her research skills to advance knowledge into athletes’ mental health.

Being the recipient of a 2021 Canada Graduate Scholarship – Master’s Award, Ashley McTaggart wanted to investigate the impact of sporting culture, for its role in both supporting and in challenging mental health, as well as its influence on identity formation and the development of the whole person.

Ashley’s research is particularly significant because it differs from traditional sports research, which tends to focus on the protective nature and positive influence of participating in sports while neglecting the unique challenges that athletes have with mental health issues.

Studies also suggest that athletes may tend to have lower help-seeking behaviours, and therefore, may be less likely to reach out and receive support for their mental health challenges. Furthermore, athletic strength and performance is idealized by popular culture, which can lead to increased risk of stigma towards athletes who experience mental health issues.

Ashley's research has the potential to inform sport psychologists, sport psychiatrists, health practitioners, and sporting institutions on how to proactively support identity explorations of the whole person within the culture of sport.

Uncovering the relationship between depression and identity development among competitive athletes

These are just some of the reasons why Ashley believes that there is a critical need for mental health issues to be better understood and addressed among athletes. She hopes that her research can make a positive difference.

“I am determined to give a voice to this population of athletes who are suffering from mental health issues at the same rate as the general population but are often overlooked by the system,” she said.

“Overall, this study aims to gain a rich understanding of the relationship between depression and identity development among competitive athletes to better inform mental health care and psychosocial supports systems.”

Depression and identity during emerging adulthood

The focus of Ashley’s qualitative study is to understand the deeply rich and distinct experience of depression in athletes transitioning from adolescence and developing a sense of identity into emerging adulthood.

Ashley explains that adolescence and emerging adulthood is a novel, unique, and expanded period of development marked by identity exploration and identity issues.

“This transition into emerging adulthood poses a significant challenge for athletes who are struggling with mental health, and who may not have the necessary resources to cope with such a demanding shift,” she added.

Taking an inclusive and holistic approach

Rather than focusing on athletes who have received a clinical diagnosis for depression, Ashley is also looking at athletes who have experienced depression at subclinical levels. This kind of inclusivity aligns with recommendations from the International Society of Sport Psychology and reflects a more holistic view of athletes’ mental health on a “continuum-based model,” with degrees of mental wellness varying from greater psychological functioning (flourishing) to lower psychological functioning (suffering).

Ashley’s research uses the holistic lifespan perspective, which aims to understand the athlete across many domains of life, including psychosocial, career, financial, intimacy/relationships, psychological, and physical.

“This holistic conceptualization of mental health in athletes weaves together elements of identity, mental wellbeing, and performance narratives to facilitate the development of the whole person through this significant transition,” she said.

Using this approach, Ashley seeks to better understand the process of identity development as a factor for proactively supporting mental health, and as a potential barrier to optimal development and well-being in athletes.

Her work has the potential to inform sport psychologists, sport psychiatrists, health practitioners, and sporting institutions on how to proactively support identity explorations of the whole person within the culture of sport.

This research may bring new understandings to protective and risk factors embedded in sporting culture, which influence identity development and mental wellness in young, competitive athletes.

With words and images from Ashley McTaggart.

About Research at TWU

At TWU, faculty mentor undergraduate and graduate students through a holistic approach that integrates faith with discipline specialization, research, internships, and skills training. Whatever your passion, an education at TWU can equip you to have a profound impact on your chosen vocation. Learn more at Research at TWU.

See alsoTWU’s Dr. Katie Steeves awarded a federal grant to research women in leadership within religious institutions in Canada:​
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About Trinity Western University

Founded in 1962, Trinity Western University is Canada’s premier Christian liberal arts university dedicated to equipping students to establish meaningful connections between career, life, and the needs of the world. It is a fully accredited research institution offering liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional schools in business, nursing, education, human kinetics, graduate studies, and arts, media, and culture. It has four campuses and locations: Langley, Richmond-Lansdowne, Richmond-Minoru, and Ottawa. TWU emphasizes academic excellence, research, and student engagement in a vital faith community committed to forming leaders to have a transformational impact on culture. Learn more at or follow us on Twitter @TrinityWestern, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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