Unpacking the Definition of an Athlete

Webster’s defines an athlete as a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.

I’d like to unpack that a little.

First, it says trained or skilled. I’m not sure I like the past tense there, because it implies that while training or becoming skilled, a person is not an athlete. I strongly disagree with this. For one thing, athletes do not stop training when they become officially recognized as athletes.

I’ve recently read Dara Torres’ book about becoming an Olympian, again, at age 42. She’s a swimmer, a sport where most athletes consider themselves done by their mid-20s. What really struck me is that she was a better swimmer at 42 than in her mid-20s. She improved her stroke. No one would dare suggest that between mid-20s and 42 she wasn’t an athlete. She has a box full of Olympic medals to prove them wrong.

I suggest that it is the act of training and becoming skilled that makes a person an athlete. It’s Michael Jordan deciding to spend 1000s of hours learning to fly toward the basket that makes him an athlete, not the flying itself. It’s all the years and miles that Jackie Joyner-Kersee put in, the zillion balls Serena and Venus Williams hit, the thousands of laps Torres’ swam–those are what made them athletes.

Now let’s look at the second part: exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, doesn’t it? I mean, for some people, in order to activate their physical strength, agility and stamina, they need to run a marathon or play professional sports.

Something like tying their own shoes or being able to sit at their desk with out pain isn’t on their radar. And that’s okay. Everybody–every body–is different.

But, it might take as much effort for someone to condition their body to the point that they can tie their own shoes as it did for athletes like Dara Torres and Michael Jordan to get fast or strong.

No, really. I’m serious.

And not only that, but the method is the same. If you have a stiff back and can’t bend to your feet, you make every movement in that direction purposeful. And just like Dara Torres got faster, just like Michael Jordan got higher–you will get bendier.

You may not ever be a perfect bender, although I’m not sure who gets to decide that. But you will get bendier.

Now it’s true, some people are born with a set of genetics that makes athletics a natural thing for them. It helps to be over 7 feet tall, for instance, if you want to play professional basketball. And Torres talks in her book about how having big feet is an asset to a swimmer. You can’t fake things like height or the size of your foot.

But there is nothing in the definition, not even the traditional definition, of athlete that says you have to be Michael Jordan or Dara Torres. And millions of people who are less than 7 feet tall or have smaller feet than Dara Torres play basketball and swim every year. Even competitively.

I’ve been thinking about the term ‘natural athlete’, too. I guess it refers to someone who moves easily, who as a child enjoys exercise and sports. And that’s okay. I consider Ruby a natural athlete–she’s a perpetual motion machine and gets excited about things like taking karate lessons (she calls them kar-a-tay lessons) or learning to swim. There is a definite difference between her and her sister, Adrienne, who never wanted to play team sports and needs an inhaler to participate in marching band.

Adrienne, though, signed up for yoga this semester to avoid PE, and has found an athletic pursuit that suits her. One that she wants to continue in college.

Many people aren’t born athletes. Some are born with physical differences in ability. Many others have whatever joy they ever felt in movement stolen from them in childhood.

Are you less of an athlete if it doesn’t come naturally?

I have to give that a big, resounding NO. I read once where someone pointed out that the person who finishes last in a race has to run longer. Think about this:  the winner of an Ironman Competition might get finished in 9 hours. The guy who comes in last is working for 17.

You might have to fight harder. You might have to spend some time being the only person on Earth who knows you’re an athlete. (If you find yourself there, email me. I’ll be person number two, if you need me to be.) But you are definitely an athlete.

You might spend your whole life never being an Olympian or a professional athlete.

Let that sink in. And then let it go.

To be an athlete, all you have to do is train. That’s it. Even Webster makes ‘skilled’ an option.

To train, you don’t have to be tall, lean and muscular. You don’t have to be young or fit or even temporarily able bodied.

All you have to do is make the decision, and then start moving with purpose. Make movement about joy and getting stronger. Make it about relishing your body in all its imperfection.

You start where you are, and then you go for it. And don’t worry if you ever catch up to anyone else. Think about this: being an athlete doesn’t mean winning. All you have to do is show up with a commitment.

I walked a 5K yesterday on the treadmill in 68 minutes. That’s less than 3 mph. And I would defy anyone to try to convince me that doesn’t make me an athlete.

Every time you push just a tiny bit past what you thought you could do, you are training. It doesn’t matter what it is your training for.

It’s one thing to decide that you just don’t like to move. That you choose not to be an athlete of any kind, defiant or not, because sweating is gross and you don’t care if you never walk a 5K.

It’s another to have the option stolen from you, or to just give it up because you don’t think you deserve to own it.

If you want to be an athlete, you absolutely can be.

Yes, you.



Filed under body

7 responses to “Unpacking the Definition of an Athlete

  1. cristi

    I just wanted to say that I am loving reading your blog. It’s so inspirational.

  2. Ruth

    As someone who is becoming a more and more “skilled” athlete everyday, but someone who struggled with asthma, injuries, childhood gym-related trauma, and more, I say YES to this post!

    I was an athlete, training my butt off, for a long before my accomplishments seemed to reflect my effort. Consistency counts.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Ruth

    For a long TIME. That’s the word I missed. Oops!

  4. Dee

    Process, not progress. I’ve got a half-written post somewhere about how valuable that idea is, but I’ve always been divided on the issue. Training and skill do matter.

    Growing up, I was taught that practice (training, education) wasn’t an end in itself, but a structure that can help you achieve excellence. However, there are things that are worth doing (like being active) that have all kinds of benefits but where achieving excellence – as an adult, anyway – is pretty irrelevant. Participating is what matters. And of course, “excellence” is up for interpretation too.

    I don’t call myself an athlete even when I’m very active, because I’m not aiming at any particular skill- or competition-based goals and I’ve never achieved excellence in a sport. However, I call myself a “musician” even when I’m not practicing because I have skills that I built up over many years of serious pretty serious training and performance. There’s an investment there; muscle memory and focus and success in competition.

    I guess that the opposing argument is that once you earn your “athlete” (or “musician”) card, it’s yours forever, but if you toil away at those activities all your life without focus, competition or progress then you never get to claim them as part of your identity.

    Did I say ” focus, competition or progress?” That could mean anything, couldn’t it? Maybe what I meant was “impressing people.” And now that I say that, I don’t like it.

  5. RachelB

    Think about this: the winner of an Ironman Competition might get finished in 9 hours. The guy who comes in last is working for 17.

    I hadn’t thought about that before. And now I am thinking about it. Thank you for that.

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