What Is An Athlete?

The other day I was in a strategy meeting and we were discussing a few marketing ideas.  Someone mentioned that we should avoid using the word “athlete” because it can turn some people off because they don’t feel like they are or ever could be an athlete.  On one hand I understand how this can easily happen but on the other it made me just a little sad.

Most of the people I coach in various sports, and especially in running, are new to the sport and are doing it for a cause or to get in shape.  Odds are that they may never win a race or even place in their age group.  And that is exactly why I wanted to get into coaching runners.  I wanted to work with people who were new to running, to help them through their initial struggles and to help them find a love for this sport.

A vast majority of people will say that they weren’t athletic when they were younger.  Perhaps they dabbled in gymnastics for awhile or played Little League baseball for a few years.  But as we get older there seems to be a dividing line.  There is the “I played varsity basketball,” half and then there is the, “I was more into academics or stuck to the piano in high school,” group.

In my experience, you get a great combo of both groups that flock to running in their adult years.  The former athlete often comes to running because they miss thrill of their sport or feel out of shape and want to “feel” like the athlete again.  The never felt like an athlete runner often comes to the sport because in many ways running is the most approachable.  It doesn’t require a lot of new equipment and it is a skill that most of us can pick up rather quickly, at least in some awkward and slightly painful shuffle.

But my question when I left this meeting was what makes a person an athlete?  And how can we all feel like we can call ourselves one?


Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as: a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength.

Well, running does require some training whether you do it with a coach or train yourself.  It is most certainly an exercise regardless of your pace.  And it most definitely requires physical strength and skill.

Dictionary.com defines an athlete as- a person trained in or gifted in exercises or contests involved in physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.

Notice that both definitions mention the person who is trained or gifted.  It is important to recognize that some people are gifted at different things and some more than others.  There will always be people who are naturally more athletic or can just naturally run at a faster or more sustained pace.

But athletes can also be trained.  Just as you are a trained employee who got a job and had someone show you the ropes at work, you can learn how to run or do any other activity.  And just as some people are better at their jobs than others you are still all employees.

It doesn’t matter what shape or size you are.  It doesn’t matter if you run, swim, do aerobics or go to Zumba class.  If you are partaking in a physical activity and are working at it, you are an athlete.

Prince Fielder reminds us all that athletes come in all shapes and sizes.   www.espn.go.com

Prince Fielder reminds us all that athletes come in all shapes and sizes.

I understand that it might be hard at first to grasp the concept if one never felt as if they were an athlete before.  I can understand being a bit self conscious of using the term in front of others because perhaps they might think of an athlete as that tall, muscular fitness model they see on the cover of magazines.  But the truth is, you owe it to yourself to be considered an athlete.  You work hard, you feel the sweat, you push through achy muscles or nagging injuries…..and that is what being an athlete is all about.  There is no cookie cutter version of the athlete.


9 thoughts on “What Is An Athlete?

  1. I love to hear people’s opinions as to what constitutes an “athlete.” I feel like it is a more concrete (as in, a more prove-able, less open to discussion) label than “runner” etc. I think that it is more than just a dedication to a physical pursuit–there is a state of mind component to an athlete, but less so to “runner” etc. It is literally something that spins my head in circles! But I think “athlete” “runner” and “health club” etc can be polarizing, regardless of how inclusive they actually are. They are like badges of honor. Head. spinning. haha

  2. I love the term athlete to describe someone who works out regularly. I know it might not be the same as most people’s definition but I think anyone who trains and commits to physical fitness is an athlete.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the fact that I train and work-out at least 5 times a week and do so to increase my quality of life and performance, I hesitated to call myself an athlete – I hated sports in junior high and high school. Then I realized it’s time to suck it up and admit that yes, indeed, I am an athlete.

  4. It took me the longest time to come to terms with being called a runner, much less an athlete. I think most people still equate “athlete” with someone who plays high school or college sports, or is a professional. I love that you’ve laid it out there…..we each just need to own it. Happy running!

  5. I only started thinking about this a couple of months ago. My whole life, even though I have been trained in some sports, I NEVER would’ve considered myself an athlete. But then I got an injury that sent me to a podiatrist, and the man said, “Well, you’re an athlete. You’re very healthy…” and told me about the treatment I needed. But I was stuck on him describing me as an athlete! My attitude about the word has kind of changed since I started thinking about it, and I wish more people’s idea of it would change too. I think too often we think you can tell an athlete simply by looking at one, that all athletes look like athletes somehow… the funny thing about that is, though, that there is a huge variety of body types and appearances even among Olympic athletes! So obviously judging by appearances is no good.

    I think I define athlete partly in terms of a person being trained and participating in some sport, but also in terms of mentality. Slogging through a couple of workout a week, to me, doesn’t make an athlete. Some degree of dedication and passion on top of the training and practice, is what makes an athlete.

    Thought-provoking post.

  6. I, for one, loved the Nike commercial with the heavy kid running down the street at his own pace. The tag line said, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” I thought that was pretty good. And accurate.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I am mentoring a group training for their first marathon, and I hear the comment “I’m not really a runner” or “I’m not really an athlete”. I gently correct them and say “Yes you are. If you get up, lace your shoes and go for a run, you are a runner. Or, if you go out and participate in a sport, you are an athlete”. Simple as that.

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