What do you think makes an athlete?

Recently I’ve been pondering this a lot. Is it the amount of time you train, the level you’rE at, or is it a state of mind?

Even if you’re not a regular exerciser or you don’t play a sport there’s some serious benefits to thinking about the mindset of an athlete, and how it can benefit your life. So bear with me while I start with a little bit of wittering.

As of the start of November I am heading into pre-season with the Norfolk Brawds.

Apart from a couple of weeks over Christmas we’re back at regular training, preparing for our first season in Tier 2 of the Roller Derby British Championships.

We are training hard and cross-training outside of Derby practice, I probably average 8-10 hours a week on and off skates physical training. Plus extra time on mental prep, watching footage and y’know, just thinking about Roller Derby. That’s quite a lot of time, but when I’m sat here on the sofa in my pyjamas, sometimes it’s hard to think of myself as an athlete.

Photo by Ice Cold Photography

Recently I’ve started an online course in Sports & Exercise Nutrition, and one of the first things that took me by surprise was that it classes anyone who exercises for over 5 hours a week as someone who would benefit from a nutrition plan aimed at athletes, rather than following the standard Government recommendations.

I had a figure more like 15-20 hours in my head, but the fact is if you’re doing more than popping to the gym for an hour 3 times a week you probably need to start thinking about yourself and your diet in a different way.

But this isn’t about what to eat. This is about why I found it so hard to start thinking, and referring, to myself as an athlete and what changed when I started using the word, even just to myself.

What is an Athlete?

Athletes get up at 5am to train, and are back in the gym in the evening till 10pm. Obviously.

Athletes take part in events on the TV, they have sponsorship deals and people with money riding on the results of their games, right?

Athletes train over 20 hours a week. A figure I think I got from an article on elite Olympians that has for some reason stuck in my head.

And me? I don’t do any of these things. So I can’t be an athlete, and thinking of myself as one felt, well, a little bit pretentious to be honest.

If you ask Google then an athlete is.

a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.

That could be me, hell, it could be you. If you’re a runner signed up to a couple of 10k races a year, you play Rugby or Roller Derby, you power lift, or even if you’re a regular at Bootcamps then you’re probably proficient in physical exercise.

Changing my mindset and allowing myself to use the word athlete to describe myself has made a huge difference to my motivation and the choices I make. In my research for this post I found this quote from Sara Isaković, an Olympic silver medalist in the women’s 200-meter freestyle swim.

My swim coach in college told us we are athletes 24 hours a day and that as athletes, every choice — from what to eat, to when to go to bed, to whether we stretch and foam-roll — affects our daily performance and the final outcome

When you think of yourself as an athlete, you make your sport part of your work, part of your obligations, and performing well in it is important. It’s easier to get up and go do sprint training that you know you’re going to hate, when the goal isn’t to be good at sprint training, it’s to get better at sprint training. It sucks, and you might be bad at it, but you do it so that next time you do it you’ll be a little less bad at it (though it might still suck), you do it because you’re an athlete and that’s what you do. You train.

Thinking of yourself as an athlete gives you an over arching goal. It helps you make better choices within the framework of how you view yourself. These thought processes aren’t only useful for sport, they can help you succeed in other areas of your life as well.

Athletes Analyze

They don’t over analyze, and they don’t wallow in misery over their failures, but they sure as hell don’t just forget it and move on either. Objectively assessing your performance is a useful skill in life, as well as sports.

After any event or training session it’s helpful to think about things that went didn’t go as well as they could. What could you do differently next time? What can you learn and work on to improve? Do your knees cave in when you run? Do you hunch your shoulders in certain Yoga poses? Making tiny tweaks all the time can help you reach your goals.

Athletes Get Out of their Comfort Zone

The first time Mo Farah put on a pair of trainers and went for a run he (probably) didn’t run a 27 minute 10k. I mean, it probably didn’t take him an hour and 10 minutes either, natural talent is a thing, but he had to work hard to be a record breaker.

If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll never move forward. To improve at anything you need to occasionally step outside of your comfort zone, push your limits and sometimes fail.

If you can start to view failure as a step on the way to success you’ll feel a lot better about trying.

Athletes prioritise

Athletes prioritise their sport within their life. They don’t go clubbing till 2am the day before a long training session because they know it’s going to affect their performance, not just at training, but in the future because they won’t get as much out of that training session. They think their future outcomes are more important than 1 night of fun.

Life is about balance. If no ones paying you for your performance then living life like a a cloistered Nun and going to bed at 9pm every night isn’t much fun, but thinking like an athlete means deciding what’s most important to you, another Cocktail or a 10k PB. Sometimes it’ll be the Cocktail, and that’s ok.

One of my mantras I repeat to myself is What’s Important Now? It works on track and in every day life and helps me clarify and make decisions. What’s Important (to me) Now is making sure I’m as fit as I can be so I don’t let my team down next season. That might mean prioritising gym visits over parties, or getting an early night with a pint of water when I’d secretly like to stay out and have another drink, because the short term fun isn’t worth sacrificing my long term goal.

Athletes never rest

Well they do rest, obviously. Rest is incredibly important. What they don’t do is decide that they’re good enough already, they’re always striving to be better. Athletes are competitive, but their drive to do better isn’t solely focused on being better than everyone else, it’s on being the best they can be.

Don’t let other peoples performance limit yours. It’s easy to decide people are better than you and you’ll never be that good and stop trying. Or to think that you’re doing pretty well compared to those around you and become complacent. No matter how good (or bad) you are, you can always improve. I’m pretty sure that no amount of training will ever have me running 5 minute miles, but that doesn’t mean I have to stay happy with running the 11 minute miles I ran when I started. I can get faster, and sometimes I might even manage a single, solitary sub 9 minute mile.

Acknowledge your achievements, but never stop thinking about how to improve.

These days I can let myself think of myself as an athlete without giggling, even when I’m wearing fluffy slippers and drinking tea. I might not be headed for the Olympic Games, but I strive to be better, I have a plan to do it, and I make choices based on prioritising that plan in my life, and maybe that’s all it really takes.