A while back I had the opportunity to spend some time with 3x Superbowl Champion and NFL Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, and he’s a very impressive guy. He visited our Colorado Springs facility for a battery of physiological testing: lactate threshold, VO2 max, body composition, and a 3D Bike Fit. He’s a big man, especially compared to the skinny runners, cyclists, and triathletes we typically see in our lab. And he’s also in great shape, quite lean, and looks like he could suit up for the Broncos and play right alongside Payton Manning when the season starts up.
Jim Rutberg, our Media Director, asked him about his motivation for staying in such great condition now that he’s no longer playing in the National Football League. The entire video interview can be seen here. I found Shannon’s response very interesting. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he doesn’t want to walk past a father and his son and have the father tell his son that Shannon once played football, only to have the son ask his father whether Shannon was a defensive or offensive lineman. Now, maybe there’s some vanity in that rationale for staying fit, but there are also some very important statements about identity and legacy.
Shannon said he still wants to look like he could play, even though he knows he can’t. But he also said that he can’t see himself letting himself go to the point where fitness isn’t a major part of his life. (As you can tell from this photo gallery, he hasn’t let himself go.) And his actions and routines are indicative of someone of who values performance as much as, if not more than, appearance. He’s lean and very muscular because he’s continued to train consistently, and with a lot of intensity.
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The interesting is that Shannon is one of a relatively small number of elite athletes I’ve seen who have successfully separated the “professional” from the “athlete” after retiring from being a professional athlete. For many elite athletes, their identities are so closely tied to being professional athletes that they struggle to remain athletes once it’s no longer their profession. Shannon is passionate about being an athlete. Being an athlete runs deeper within him than being a football player, and that’s a great characteristic to instill in kids and young adults when they see him riding, training, and staying in great shape nearly 9 years after playing his last NFL game.
What does any of this have to do with you? How does any of this impact your training? Well, I think identity is a crucial part of being a successful endurance athlete, especially when it comes to working parents and career professionals. When time-crunched athletes reduce their training time too far, and start skipping events and group rides/runs they used to enjoy, it becomes harder to maintain your identity as an endurance athlete.
I hear it every time I travel. “I’m not really an athlete.” Yes, you are. There’s an athlete in every body. Every single one. Sometimes you’re in training and sometimes you’re not. But everyone is an athlete. People believe they are not athletes because they think there’s some unwritten minimum threshold for weekly mileage or training hours, or maybe it’s some arbitrary performance marker, but below that level they no longer qualify as an athlete. That’s just self-deprecating horse- umm, let’s say ‘manure’. Speed, distance, and power output don’t make you an athlete. If you’re getting out there, getting it done, and having fun, you’re an athlete.
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Of course, you could be a better one; which is why we train, recover, fuel up properly, and work with coaches. Improving your performance level strengthens your identity as an athlete – to yourself, regardless of whether it changes how others identify you – and that has a positive impact across other areas of your life. When you identify yourself as an athlete, you act like an athlete. You eat like an athlete, sleep like an athlete, carry yourself like an athlete.
When you allow your athlete identity to whither, it’s more difficult to continue eating a healthy, high-performance diet. It’s easier to migrate over to junk food. When you no longer see yourself as an athlete, it’s more difficult to find the motivation to exercise. It’s easier to stay on the couch. When you don’t think of yourself as an athlete, what is going to fill that void? Unfortunately, some people discover that unpleasant parts of their personalities rise to the surface when they turn away from being an athlete.
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I found Shannon Sharpe’s visit to CTS very refreshing because of the perspective and positive attitude that he brought with him. Here’s a man who reached the top of his sport and spent a long time at the top. But rather than rest in comfortable retirement, he’s still pushing himself; not for money or glory or endorsement deals, but because he’s genuinely passionate about being an athlete. In case you’re wondering, that underlying passion is the difference between good athletes and great ones, and if you can tap into that passion in your own athletic pursuits, you will be a better athlete for it as well.
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