This topic came up again for me recently while I was on a run with a friend of mine. She read my latest newsletter and commented that when she reads the word “athlete” in my articles and blogs she thinks… “Well that’s not me. Sure, I’m training for this little 10k trail run… but I’m not an athlete.” This was not the first time I had heard these words. When I refer to the athletes participating in one of my workshops I can pick out the people who aren’t yet ready to take on that identity. I say “athlete” and they kind of move their shoulders a bit, shift (almost) imperceptibly in their seat, raise their eyebrows with a tiny smirk that quickly crosses their face and I imagine they are saying “Yeah… maybe the rest of these people in here are athletes, but not me!” (Sound familiar?) Those folks look around and perceive that there are the “real athletes” in the room… and then there’s me.
On the Mental Skills Training for Athletes Facebook page, I recently asked for ideas on topics if I were to start a YouTube channel and one of the responses I got was on “making a transition from ‘exerciser’ to ‘athlete’ mentally and physically”. Part of the transition from ‘exerciser’ to ‘athlete’ has to do with your beliefs about being an athlete. Your beliefs about both yourself and about what defines an athlete will influence whether or not you identify yourself as one.
What is an athlete? Who defines themselves as an athlete? What does it mean to be an athlete? You might get different answers from different people… but when it comes to being an athlete here is the answer you’ll get from me:
It can be easy to identify as an athlete when it is your job. When you are a professional or elite athlete and most of your time is dedicated to your job (being an athlete) it is easy to identify yourself as an athlete. You are an athlete like I am a Mental Skills Coach or like someone else is a teacher or accountant; you are an athlete because that’s what you do. For the rest of us who might be competing at a less competitive level, it can be hard to take on the athlete persona. I think sometimes we get hung up on the level of the athlete. There are all different levels of athletes, not just the “good ones”. If you’re training for something, you’re an athlete. If you are trying to improve on something, you’re an athlete. Being an athlete is a mindset. If you are dedicated to improving your performance; you want to get better and give yourself opportunities to get better – you are an athlete.
Does it really matter how you identify yourself? It’s a valid question. If you’re cool with your not-an-athlete status there’ no reason you need to force yourself into taking it on. However, taking on that mindset can shift how you feel about yourself and how you feel about your sport. For some people, once they take it on, they start living like an athlete and making decisions like an athlete. Taking on that identity means that it becomes a part of you. It’s the old chicken-or-the-egg argument… which comes first, the athlete or the mindset of being an athlete? Personally, I want us all to be athletes. I want everyone to find passion in some athletic endeavor, no matter what it is. I want everyone to find something that they love and want to get better at and then go do it.
Some people don’t want, need, or desire to call themselves an athlete. If you are confident in this category, then there is no issue. You feel good about where you are and who you are and don’t need to identify as an athlete in order to be someone who puts fitness first. If you are comfortable in this category, it may be that you can’t imagine seeing yourself as an athlete or are afraid of the expectations of identifying yourself as one. (I will address that more when I launch the YouTube Channel!) If you aren’t ready to call yourself an athlete, try “Aspiring Athlete”. You’re not an athlete yet, but kind of hope to be and maybe hoping to be will lead you to do the things that eventually make you feel like you are. And if you’re not ready to do that… just know that when you read my stuff or go to my workshops and hear me say the word “athlete”, I am talking to you! And if anyone tells you you’re not an athlete, tell them to come talk to me.