What Does it Mean to Be an Athlete?

Photo by  Alexander Redl  on  Unsplash

What does the word ‘Athlete’ mean to you? I would bet that your answer is different than the next person reading this post. If asked, some might say an athlete is someone who competes in sport, while others might contend that an athlete is someone who has excellent coordination and is capable of explosive movements. Still others might evoke Supreme Court Justice Potter’s definition of pornography and simply say ‘you know it when you see it’. Despite us being constantly exposed to sports and athletics, ‘athlete’ is a surprisingly difficult word to define. Speaking from my own experience as an athlete, I can only define what it means to me. And hopefully my definition will resonate with you as well.

One thing that I’ve found exploring this question is that many people have preconceived notions about athletes being able to achieve an arbitrary level of performance. As if to say, if you don’t have at least a 30-inch vertical, you’re not an athlete. I find this definition ridiculous because it implies that athletic ability is innate and therefore cannot be learned. It says to the girl who didn’t make the basketball team in high school that her hopes of being an athlete died on the day her coach told her she was cut from the squad. I refuse to accept that. And I would bet that most people with an athlete’s mindset would refuse to accept that too.

So what is an athlete?

To me, an athlete is someone who is out there working hard every day, making improvements through training. It has nothing to do with performance and everything to do with mentality. It’s a way of thinking that pushes you to better yourself physically. The athlete’s mentality is a powerful force that permeates across all aspects of one’s life. It most directly affects training and activity, but it also has a positive effect on diet, sleep, and mental health.

Chris Carmichael, CEO of Carmicheal Training Systems put it best when he said, ‘When you identify yourself as an athlete, you act like an athlete. You eat like an athlete, sleep like an athlete, carry yourself like an athlete.’ This implies that being an athlete is a choice that is made with your head, not ‘talent’ given to you by winning the genetic lottery.

Democracy of Sweat was founded on this principle. Sport is better when everyone competes and anyone can embrace this way of life if they choose to. We also believe that the choice to embrace your identity as an athlete is worth celebrating, because being an athlete is difficult. Your short-term and long-term reward centers are often at odds with one another. Do I go out with my friends tonight even if it means missing my morning workout? Should I do another set of pushups or save my energy for another day? Dessert would taste great right now, but I know it’ll weigh me down on my run. These are thoughts that every athlete has before making the difficult decision in favor of long-term gratification.

But being an athlete is not all hardships. There are some amazing benefits that every athlete out there has felt before and strives to feel every day. One such benefit is the feeling that you’ve ‘earned your sleep’ when your head hits the pillow at night and you feel the self-pride that only comes after completing a hard workout earlier that day. Knowing that as you rest, your body is recovering and you will wake up the next morning a stronger person. Another benefit of the athlete’s lifestyle is that euphoric high you get when you accomplish something physically that you had never accomplished before. It’s the sense that you’ve achieved the impossible and if you were able to break this previously unbreakable physical barrier, what can’t you do? There are countless other benefits, but for the sake of brevity I’ll provide just one more that I think is particularly important, especially for me. All athletes get an outlet for one of the most basic human needs: competition. The instinct to determine where you fit into the pecking order is part of being human. We all crave competition with our peers, but everyday life doesn’t always present us with an opportunity to compete. As an athlete, that opportunity presents itself regularly. Not only does it help us to satisfy that basic need, but it’s what keeps many of us motivated to better ourselves.

Developing the mindset of an athlete will have a profound effect on other realms in life. The arena of sport is a fertile ground for the cultivation of life lessons that would serve anyone well in business, relationships, and achieving self-actualization. All athletes have faced difficult times in training and competition that have resulted in their understanding of some basic truths about life. Truths like ‘setbacks happen, but defeat is a choice’, ‘limitations are only as real as you make them’, and ‘seek progress over perfection’. These aren’t corny phrases taken from a $5 motivational poster, these are conclusions an athlete arrives to after years of experience in sport. Take the first one for example. Every athlete on the planet has experienced injuries that resulted in adjusting expectations for achieving peak performance. At that point, an athlete can decide whether to give up or mentally wrap her head around what happened and come up with a plan of attack for getting back on the horse and achieving her goals. This type of problem solving can be applied to countless situations in everyday life. Also consider the third truth, ‘seek progress over perfection’. Nothing in life is achieved overnight and anything of value generally takes years of deliberate practice to become proficient. Athletes are used to taking incremental steps to achieve big goals. It’s why the point guard does 30 minutes of dribbling drills before every practice or the golfer spends an hour at the putting green before every round. While ‘perfection’ may be defined as putting together that flawless performance in a competition, progress is taking the necessary steps to improve each facet of your game knowing that it will ladder up to your overarching goal.

As you can tell, being an athlete means a lot to me. It’s not just what you see when you watch someone compete, it’s everything in how that person conducts herself in training and in life. It’s applying all the lessons learned in competition in order to improve one’s self. While Marriam-Webster defines an athlete as ‘a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise’, those of us who define ourselves as athletes know it’s so much more than that.