Do You Call Yourself an Athlete? (And Why We Think You Should)

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What makes someone an athlete? Are you an athlete? Why are so many of us hesitant to use this word to describe ourselves?

The term “athlete” is loaded with stereotypes and an extremely broad variety of understandings and interpretations of the word. We set out to find some conclusive answers to the question: What defining characteristics differentiate an athlete from someone who exercises or works out?

The literal definition

While it’s not the most creative way to begin an exploration, using the dictionary for reference does provide a useful starting point. Merriam-Webster lists an athlete as “A person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”

A good starting point, but hardly a conclusive answer. Dictionaries provide literal definitions, but don’t provide much insight into the many subtleties of how a word is used out in the real world. We tried again (second opinion, anyone?) with Urban Dictionary, which defines an athlete as “An individual who participates in sports. Characterized by dedication, focus, intelligence, and work ethic.”

Meh.

We’re still not satisfied.

The origin of the word

The root of the word athlete is Greek, and means “Someone who competes for a prize.” In this regard, participation in competition seems to be a defining condition (although what constitutes competition could potentially be up for debate as well).

Real-world definitions

Dictionary definitions and word origins are nice, but how people use and think of a word has a much greater impact on how we perceive meaning. So we set out to see what other people thought. While University of Oregon track and field coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman once said, “If you have a body, you are an athlete,” most of us prescribe to a slightly more exclusive definition.

After polling a few people, from self-proclaimed couch potatoes to athletic rock stars, we found that the interpretation of the word “athlete” varies a great deal, from “Someone who enjoys physical movement” to “Someone who gets paid to play a sport” and everything in between. Some people felt that an athlete’s entire life had to be centered around training and competition, while others felt that a desire to improve was enough. Terms like passion and hard work came up frequently, as did expectations and ability.

So where does this leave us?

Our definition

After giving it some thought, we decided that an athlete can be characterized by three attributes:

  1. Athletes have goals (of a competitive nature, whether against others or oneself)
  2. Athletes make a plan to reach those goals
  3. Athletes stick to that plan with drive, consistency, and passion

As Paul “Bear” Bryant, the college football player and longtime coach of the University of Alabama, says, “It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”

We like that idea.

But in the end…

That’s just our opinion. There are no hard-and-fast, everyone-agrees, defining characteristics. You’ll have to decide for yourself what it means to you to be an athlete.

And finally, why we think you should view yourself as an athlete

Calling yourself an athlete is a matter of self-perception. And self-perception matters. The way you label yourself, and the inherent values that come along with that label, influence the decisions you make. Calling yourself an athlete and viewing yourself in that light raises your own expectations and validates the hard work and sacrifices you make to improve and excel.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision.”


Tracie is a former teacher and a lifelong learner who loves exploring. Most at home in the mountains, she enjoys tearing up and down the trails on her mountain bike, and occasionally leaves the wheels at home for a run through the trees. Having recently earned her personal trainer certification, Tracie thrives on helping others reach their athletic goals.

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