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What does it mean to be a true athlete?

What do you believe an athlete is? Do you believe a true athlete is one who prioritises performance over everything? Maybe it is someone who never crumbles under pressure. Perhaps it’s someone who can persevere through any adversity they face? Our own definition of what makes an athlete ranges from person to person. We each have certain attributes we view as critical in making an athlete. However, we need to consider whether our view of what makes a ‘true’ athlete is true. I’ve had many conversations with people who seem to view a true athlete as someone who is committed 100% of the time, never experiences setbacks and has a ‘win-at-all-cost’ mentality. They have taken this image of perfection and believe this is what makes a true athlete. This is far from the truth. We create this unrealistic ideal that we will rarely ever attain. We create this superhero athlete that is infallible. As a result, we start to negatively judge ourselves if we do not follow in the footsteps of this imagined athlete.


Let’s do some reality testing. If you research those who are at the top of their sport, you find out that they are not as perfect as you’d think them to be. As with anyone, they are human. They have their issues, whether that is performance or personal. They have their flaws and quirks. However, possessing these doesn’t make them any less of a true athlete. We should take the same logic with ourselves. You have your flaws, your issues, your bad habits, but having them doesn’t make you any less of an athlete. There needs to be a level of self-acceptance and compassion where we are realistic in what makes an athlete and not look at every crack we have and see ourselves as less of an athlete.


Social media and comparison

Throughout my time working with strength athletes I’ve started to understand that being an athlete means dealing with social media. As athletes you are exposed to so many videos of PBs and near-perfect lift execution. Constant notifications of those in your weight category seeming to constantly improve and never plateauing. As an athlete it is our responsibility to take what we see with a pinch of salt. Without considering this we can enter a never ending cycle of comparison. “They are always lifting more and doing better than me”, “I wish I kept getting PBs as often as her”, “I’m so inconsistent compared to them, I won’t make it in this sport”. By being exposed to all these videos of other people’s performances, without any mental filter, can cause us distress. An athlete needs to be aware of social media’s impact. An athlete needs to understand social media doesn’t show them the whole picture. An athlete needs to understand social media can be a place of inspiration and positivity, as opposed to being the gasoline that fuels our self-deprecating fire.


Committing to the mundane

A consistent attribute that makes a true athlete is embracing the suck. Athletes acknowledge a large chunk of their career will be spent doing things they’d rather not do. The early morning sessions, the consistent training sessions, the dieting, the journaling, etc. An athlete will understand that this is a necessary evil that can’t be ignored. An athlete is aware that without doing that they won’t reach their goal. Being driven by your values and goals, as opposed to your emotions is a vital skill to have. It may sound simple, just exercise, train, do the small boring things consistently; but this is definitely not easy.


Adversity and hardships

I am yet to find a single athlete who has not gone through some form of hardship during their career. This hardship could be performance-based, such as getting an injury or reaching a plateau; and it could be personal-based, such as dealing with a breakup or starting a new job. We cannot expect, as athletes, to not experience hardships. Therefore, a true athlete is one who recognises hardships will come and spends time developing strategies to overcome potential future hardships.


Creating your own path and story

We are blindsided by a lot of people’s perspectives. We watch documentaries, see movies, read articles, listen to podcasts that cover different athlete’s lives and what contributed to their success. This kind of exposure can be good for us, but we may fall into the trap of trying to be a carbon copy of the athletes we admire. We consume all this information about what makes someone else great, but do we get our ducks in a row and think about what makes me great? It is good to take inspiration from other people’s journeys. However, their journey is not your journey. They don’t have the same DNA as you; they haven’t lived the same life as you; they don’t have the same gifts as you. So why spend your time trying to emulate what you’ve seen from others. A true athlete is one who knows the path they want to create for themselves. A true athlete is one who thinks “What is my own unique way of doing things”.


Conclusion

Being an athlete is knowing that you’re always a work in progress. There is always a hurdle you’ll overcome and through that journey you will develop skills that will help you in your sport and life. Being an athlete isn’t about gritting your teeth and solely focusing on performance. It’s about being able to live a life you value. It’s about taking care of your well-being; meeting with friends, eating food you want to eat and having some level of stability. As an athlete your path will be unique to you. It may be a small path or a very long one, but it is still your own path. There is a need to reflect on what a realistic true athlete looks like. Take the time to consider it, define it and find ways that will help you become this true athlete.


PSYCH-CHEK Tips

  • Embrace the suck

  • Spend time developing your ability to cope with adversity and hardships. You will thank yourself further down the road

  • Trial and error. Try different things and see what works best for you, not someone else. Think, “what is best for me?”

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