Am I (Are You) an Athlete?

jackie-joyner-kersee-jumping-rtr12e5g_13925_600x450When I first wanted to be a writer, I used to read lots about writing. I read more about writing than I actually wrote. Something I read that stuck with me more than anything was that if you want to be a writer, start thinking of yourself as a writer. Call yourself a writer. Organize your schedule as a writer would. Write.

It took awhile, but eventually, instead of thinking in terms of wanting to be a writer, I started to think of myself as a writer. And I behaved as a writer. That is, I started to write.

I wonder if we can say the same for athletes? If you start to think of yourself as an athlete, will you then behave as one?

As I’ve said before, I don’t consider myself an athlete. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an athlete in any way, shape, or form. I played no sports. I’m fortunate that the other kids liked me for other reasons or I would always have been picked last for a team. I couldn’t hit a ball, throw a ball, or run fast. My best sport was the broad jump. I enjoyed roller skating and tap dancing more than baseball (not that I was all that great at tap dancing either, but I didn’t compete).

The one thing I excelled at was swimming. And I did swim for much of my childhood, even competed. But I didn’t stay with it long enough to consider it an athletic pursuit.

When I think of athletes, I think of Olympians, elite cyclists, champions in various sports. I think of people whose lives are dedicated to their sport and who have reached a certain level of achievement. In some sense, I understand that there is more to being an athlete than competing and winning. But even still, I have difficulty thinking of myself as someone to whom the descriptor “athlete” could ever, in all fairness to those who really are athletes, apply.

What makes a person an athlete? Does it make sense for me to think of myself in those terms.

In Samantha’s recent post on athletic values, she comments that athletes care about competing and winning. This is in opposition to those who would pursue fitness for a particular aesthetic. I think the rest of the post suggests that it’s not necessarily competing and winning, but the emphasis on performance, that distinguishes the athlete from the fitness enthusiast who is pursuing a particular aesthetic.

At least a couple of times Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes, she puts the question to her reader: “Are you an athlete?”

When talking about how much a person should work out, she says: If you have ambitions beyond glowing health; if essentially you are an athlete –which does not mean that you must compete, only that you ache to be a little faster or better at your chosen activity–you will have to push your body somewhat.

I aspire to run faster, lift heavier, and hold my yoga asanas with more strength and better form. On the “aching to be faster or better” criterion, that makes me an athlete. I don’t need to want to compete and win. This is a good thing because competing and winning are not my main goals.

When discussing who should think about sports nutrition, Reynolds says: Ask Yourself: Am I an athlete? Be honest. If you’re not working out for more than an hour a day or at an achingly strenuous intensity, then, really, you’re not.

In my regular routine, not interrupted by travel or injury, I either run or spend time on the elliptical machine every day for 30-40 minutes plus I do either yoga or strength training for a minimum of 60 minutes each day. It’s the perfect balance, for me, of cardio and strength training, doing activities that I enjoy. (side note: I don’t exactly enjoy the elliptical, especially now that I am doing tough intervals, but it’s not a bad way to spend half an hour. It makes me feel a sense of accomplishment and in the recovery intervals I am able to read. I consider the reading time a bonus).

I’m sure to many, thinking of yourself as an athlete is simply a practical thing. If you are engaged in activity as an athlete, with particular goals for improvement, then you need to feed yourself appropriately (sports nutrition!) and train appropriately (intervals!). I could try to explain my resistance to calling myself an athlete in terms of my aversion to both of these things. As I said, sports nutrition is a risky path for me. And even though I am doing intervals, they are hard.

If Gretchen Reynolds’ take on the latest research is accurate, you can’t achieve better performance–faster, stronger, better–without intervals. And if you are active at the level of athlete, then you do need to pay attention to what you’re eating. In particular (she says) you need to eat more carbs than the non-athlete.

But I don’t think that’s what I’m resisting. Instead, I’m not distinguishing between athletes and elite athletes. Just as all writers are not Pulitzer Prize winners or even full-time authors, not all athletes are Olympians or professionals. If it’s about quantity of activity and having performance goals instead of aesthetic goals, then there’s no question that I’m an athlete.

And maybe, as it was when I was an aspiring writer, the qualifier “aspiring” was part of the problem.

What about you? If you fit these various criteria for being an athlete, are you comfortable with the label?

[photo: Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee soars past spectators during the long jump at the 2000 U.S. trials.

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