Perspectives on What it Means to be an Athlete, Provided by NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe

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.

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.

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.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

8 Responses to “Perspectives on What it Means to be an Athlete, Provided by NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe”

  1. DJ VAGNETTI on

    Even though I have been training with you for two months now. This is the first time in my life that I have been acknowledged as an athlete. I am 40 years old, at played tennis and volleyball from 5th grade up to my early 20 es. Even though I played very close to a pro level for a long time, nobody ever in my life called me an athlete. Even some NBA, NFL and MLB players are not considered athletes by the media. The stigma is that “there are good athletes and good players”. Michael Westbrook is the best example, nobody really thinks that he is a good player but the best athlete currently playing NBA. They say he could play any sport, which I find offensive and ignorant to all professional athletes in any other discipline. Anyway, I did loose my drive because I was not motivated by anybody. I was a good player but too slow, etc, and I believed them. I am 5’11″ and weigh 225lbs and it is not muscle like Shannon. I am getting that wheel turning but I spent 15 years as a couch potato and it has taken me 2 years to at least see some minor improvement. I am glad it has been hard, so I never go back to that couch!
    Thank you for your inspiration!

    Reply
    • jeb on

      I like DJ’s comment about athlete vs. player. When the media describes a person or team as being “athletic” they are referring to black players who can jump through the roof, do extraordinary things with the ball, and have great quickness. Russell Westbrook is athletic (and a great player) and Peyton Manning just a great player.

      As for us middle aged guys who grew up playing sports and want to maintain an active lifestyle, I find it a stretch to think of my biking much more than just an endurance sport. I’ve been biking for 15 years in every setting, but I have put my “athlete” label on the shelf. I just want my grand children to get tired before I do!

      Reply
      • CTS on

        Jeb,
        Respectfully, I’d have to disagree with your decision to put the term “athlete” on the shelf. The way we view it, you’re an athlete. More specifically you’re a recreational endurance athlete, and that’s great! Moreover, having a grandfather who is active and identifies as an athlete can be a great example – in addition to innumerable great examples you’re already providing – for your grandchildren.

        Jim Rutberg, co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

        Reply
  2. Gary Benkendorf on

    I’m 59 and a former successful amateur Masters body builder turned cyclist. I did so as my body and joints just weeen’t feeling as good as they could, having lost the critical flexibility necessary for good functional movement and quality of life. Over the past 3.5 years as a Time Crunched Cyclist (thank you Chris Carmichael) and Athlete, I went from a 217lb. behemoth to a svelte flexible 175lb. strong group rider, holding my own in the final miles of the Sat morning A ride. I ca ntell you first hand Shannon is right on point with his ideology. Good message and to Carmichael Training Systems a huge Kudo! Now to get hooked up with coaching.

    Can I use a coach if I’m not planning on racing any time soon? Can goals be set within the recreational rider merely wanting to be as strong as they can in their group rides?

    Reply
    • CTS on

      Gary, a large number of the athletes we work with are non-competitive athletes in your age group. Our goal is to help athletes improve their performance so they get more enjoyment from their chosen activity. We find athletes make greater improvements when they have defined goals, but those goals can range from going faster up the local hill to losing some weight, or finishing a century to winning a national championship.

      We’ll have someone from our Athlete Services team reach out to you to discuss all the options we have available. – Jim Rutberg, co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

      Reply
  3. George Crezee on

    Awesome article! Especially the note “If you’re getting out there, getting it done, and having fun, you’re an athlete.”

    I’ve been working with older athletes and trying to encourage them to either remain active or to just start – even if it’s just walking the dog. And most importantly, to embrace the social factor that sports can offer. This really hits home with our message. Thank you!

    George Crezee – GetOffTheCouchAndGo.com
    Remember – NO EXCUSES!

    Reply
  4. Ed Poll on

    Outstanding article. I’ve worked with CTS, gone to the California camps for many years. While my head may say I’m o.k. and can stay with a group, these rides tell me the truth. It doesn’t matter, though, because I’m out there doing my best. It’s only in the last year or two that I have actually accepted Chris’s philosophy that we are all athletes. That’s been a hard one to swallow. But then, it goes along with self-esteem, something most of us lack and have to be taught. I’m 73, just recuperating from open heart surgery, have 4 kids and 11 grandkids, and the only thing I asked surgeon before I said “yes,” was “Will I ride my bike as before?” I hope they didn’t lie to me, but I expect to be back on the road before too long. I’m beginning to think of myself as an athlete. Thank you, Chris, and thank you Jim Lehman, one of the best coaches and friends in CTS.

    Reply

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