“I’m an athlete”. I hear that statement almost everyday when dealing with the general public or friends in one way or another. As we get older and our bodies give into gravity, our feet just don’t move as quickly as they once used to, our jump shot is really a thing of the past, and our bench press is almost embarrassing to perform in public, we often want to hold on to that perception of ourselves that we are still indeed an athlete. I have some trouble calling myself an athlete anymore, and have even more trouble listening to some friends and regular clients call themselves athletes too. I guess the person would have to define what an athlete is before they could start to analyze whether they truly are still one. But without breaking open the Webster’s dictionary and writing down what the dictionary meaning of an athlete is, I will offer my own explanation of what an athlete truly is and I guess, by way of default what an athlete is not.
I feel strongly that I have a unique perception of what an athlete is, because in my career I have watched thousands of athletic contests of all different levels, genders, and sports. I have been able to watch thousands of athletes train, practice, win, lose, and many that were just happy to wear a uniform. An athlete, in my opinion, is someone who lives by a unique code, or a bunch of self-prescribe laws. An athlete follows this code and these laws almost always. I am not talking about what many are probably thinking; “Thou shall not eat bad foods, thou shall not drink alcohol, stay up late, or gamble”, for example, rather I am talking more about the law of commitment, the law of hard work, the law of competitive fight, the law of doing whatever needs to be done. Those are laws that all athletes, at least the good ones follow. And they are the same laws that all former athletes have followed.
Once you’re competitive sports career is over, whether that is in high school, college or even some type of professional team, things change. You no longer are committed to all of the things that made you an athlete before, even if you want to be. Yes, you may still train hard, get involved in pick up games, and even find some other competitive outlets, but it is never the same. Mentally, knowing that it is over forces you to give up that part of your life and start a new. Athletes are always striving to do whatever they need to do to get better and win. Winning is everything, and getting better is the key to winning. This is the structure of an athlete’s mind. Are there other reasons that people play and get involved in sports? Sure, there are tons. But if you ask any real successful athlete out there what they are training for, why they are so committed, why they work so hard, and do anything it takes to get better…the answer will almost always come back to winning. Being better than the other guy, or the other team , or beating the time, the record already set, hell, even beating your own best…its all about winning in the end. I am not here to judge whether that is a healthy mind set or not, there are enough debates about that already, I am merely stating what is, again, in my opinion. Athletes have a training regiment, which will usually consist of some form of aerobic and anaerobic training (i.e. running distance, running sprints). Athletes usually have a strength-training component to their training, which will involve weights, variable resistance, bands, hills, sled dragging, etc. Athletes will always have a committed practice schedule where skill is taught, practiced, refined, and played out. These things are part of the athlete’s lives. Once you stop playing and your career is over, the commitment to run those miles, stick to a strict resistance training plan, and block out 3 hours a day, 5-6 days a week to practice are over. You no longer have to, you no longer need to, and so you no longer do. Staying in shape (whatever that means these days), getting involved in leagues, pick up games, and even some competitions that you may have to train for here and there is not the same as it was.
People will still train like an athlete, eat like an athlete, pound the weights hard in the gym, like an athlete, but this does not make them athletes. Athletes are special and unique people. Athletes do have a shelf life in my opinion. There is no shame at all in being a former athlete. I like to call myself an athlete still, but a true athlete I am not. The most important part for me is that I still do think like an athlete and still have the drive of an athlete. I will continue to train as much like an athlete as I can, but never fooling myself into thinking I still am one. My body and schedule will not let me. If I ever choose to become a real athlete again, my devotion will have to be real and my code will have to change. There are true and real athletes of all ages out there. Those of us that are no longer living that code should have no shame in being what once was…I know that I can train athletes much better than most because I truly understand what it takes to be the best and strive for that. The best Sports Performance Coaches that I know are still athletes are heart, but most important remember what it takes and they all find a way to convey that to their clientele. I train many of my “non-athlete” clients much as I do my athlete clients, but their code is different. Most of them just want to look and feel better. Most of them are training for life and in the long run, that is probably the best thing we can all train for whether we are athletes, former athletes or just regular ole’ people!