The Athlete’s Identity: Should You Really Call Yourself An “Athlete” Anymore?


Recently Chris Carmichael was interviewed about the role of identity in keeping athletes engaged in sport, and how an person’s identification as an athlete evolves over time and as the result of changes in the person’s age, career, and family life. This is a subject we deal with a lot when working with athletes, both at the beginning of their coaching and as years go by. Some people struggle to self-identify as athletes at all, despite evidence to the contrary. Other people struggle with the ways that changes to their activity level, fitness level, and competitiveness impact their identity as an athlete. If you’ve been an athlete for more than a few years, you have most likely experienced some of the situations Chris talks about below.

-What are some warning signs that the title of “athlete” a person is holding onto isn’t actually doing his/her body any favors?
There’s an athlete in every body, even if a person hasn’t been in touch with their inner athlete for a long time. And within reason I encourage people to challenge themselves whenever possible, even if it’s just on weekends, because your body will only adapt in a positive direction in response to challenges. Of course, it’s that “within reason” aspect that trips people up. It’s not wise to jump into competitions without training, and it’s easy for your competitive drive to write checks your body can’t cash. Overall, however, I never want to see a person give up that image of being an athlete, because once that identity is gone it can be difficult to stay motivated and active. It’s better to be an “athlete in waiting” than to decide you’re no longer an athlete at all.

-Why do you think people tend to hang on to past athletic glories? Is it fear of an aging/changing body?
I don’t think it’s fear so much as it is a fondness for times when you were really good at something. It’s the same reason you hang on to memories of your first kiss or your first girlfriend, and your first car. Athletic accomplishments from your youth are great memories and there’s no reason not to hang on to them. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with older athletes getting back into sports to reconnect with that earlier time. They need to be realistic about their capabilities and their priorities, but I see a lot of men and women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s who are returning to the sports they were passionate about in their teens; they just do them more carefully now.

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-For a serious athlete, what are the emotional/psychological challenges of letting go of the past? Is there a certain amount of grief to go through?
There’s a certain amount of grief that goes along with any major change in a person’s life, even overwhelmingly positive changes. When you have a new baby, it’s a joyous time but it’s also OK to grieve a bit for the lifestyle you’re leaving behind. From my experience with athletes, especially elite athletes, the grief typically happens right after they transition to a much lower activity level and perhaps have to let go of some long-held dreams and goals. If a person has been out of an active lifestyle or a specific sport for several years, the grief period is usually long in their past already.

-What are the benefits of going through the transition?
When athletes transition their priorities from their sport being top priority to their sport coming after family and/or work, it’s important to face up to the feelings of loss rather than dismiss them as silly or unimportant. When you have devoted a large part of your life to being fit and competitive, being an athlete has positively impacted your self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. It’s OK and perfectly normal that you’ll feel sad about promoting other aspects of your identity above being an athlete. Being honest with yourself helps you move on and focus on all the positive aspects of building a more well-rounded identity that’s inclusive of your work and family life.

-How does a person start thinking about fitness in a different way?
Teenage and college-age athletes think of fitness as a means to an end, the end being winning. As we get older, fitness needs to transition to being the end-goal, and competition the means or the motivation to achieve it. With all the competing priorities we face as adults, you have to find an activity you thoroughly enjoy in order to ensure that you’ll stick with it. I love riding my bike. In the old days it was because I was really good at it and training meant winning more races. Now I ride because I thoroughly enjoy training. I like the way it makes me feel – on and off the bike – and the way it helps with weight management, stress reduction, and energy levels. I didn’t think about or care about those things when I was a pro racer, but those are the things many older athletes grow to value from exercise and the fitness it creates.

-How can someone who was once a high-level athlete find something they like to do as much as they loved their sport?!
The easiest way is to just get back into the sport you loved in the first place. These days there aren’t that many sports which are restricted to young people (full-contact football being a notable exception). There are age-group competitions for just about any sport you could have participated in during high-school or college. If for some reason you can’t (you used to be a runner but have wrecked knees), then consider what it was that you liked most about that sport and look for that component in other activities. For instance, if you liked the solitude and rhythm of running, you might like cycling or rowing. If it was the camaraderie of volleyball, then solo sports might not be what you’re looking for.

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-Can you share any tips for reinventing a love of fitness?
Embrace a big-picture view of fitness and its impact on your life. Don’t just think of exercise as a way to lose weight or improve your cholesterol levels. Go beyond that and realize how much more focused you can be at work and with your loved ones, how much money you’ll save from fewer trips to the doctor and fewer prescriptions (I’ve seen CTS Athletes cut $5,000 from their annual medical expenses from getting back into shape and improving their diets). Think about fitness as a means of living longer to see your grandchildren grow up and being strong enough to be an active part of their lives. When training becomes a hassle – as everything does at some time or another in our busy lives – it’s the big-picture view that will help you see the enduring value of sticking with it.

-Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to remake their athletic self gracefully and intelligently? 
Choose a goal that’s important to you and represents a real challenge, but that’s several months away so you have time to prepare for it gradually. If you’re looking to compete, choose a sport that features age-groups (triathlon, cycling, swimming) so you can compete on a level playing field with peers. Or choose a sport where you can reach your individual goals regardless of how other athletes perform (marathon or ultra running for example). Team sports can be great too, especially when you find a group of like-minded enthusiasts who share your passion for the sport and competition – but who are also realistic about the sport’s place in everyone’s priority list. Soccer, baseball, softball, football, rugby, even ultimate Frisbee leagues have sprung up all over the country.

-Do you have any tips for finding new fitness hobbies, like sports/activities that someone might find appealing but that are less strenuous on an aging or injured body, or that don’t require massive amounts of training?
Impact and time commitments are the biggest issues facing aging athletes. A lot of athletes in their 40s, 50s, and 60s have trouble enduring the impact of running, basketball, volleyball, and soccer. Similarly, sports that require a hefty time commitment – golf, triathlon, skiing – can be difficult to incorporate into a busy lifestyle. I think this is why we’re seeing a lot of growth in cycling. It’s a minimal-impact sport for your joints, you can adjust the equipment for comfort and performance, and you have multiple gears to manage the workload you want to do. I think sports where you can use equipment for varying amounts of assistance are great for aging athletes.

-For the person for whom fitness and competition go hand-in-hand, do you have suggestions?
Absolutely. Compete. The worst thing you can do is suppress or dismiss your competitive drive. It doesn’t go away, and I think it breeds resentment and bitterness when you can’t find a productive outlet for it. Fortunately, these days there are so many age-group competitions in such a wide variety of sports that it’s becoming easier for people to find appropriate channels for their competitive ambitions.


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Comments 10

  1. Thank you for acknowledging that competitive drive is still ever present in adulthood as well as the need for age-appropriate competition. There are still some sports – such as competitive adult figure skating – where participants are negatively stigmatized for having outcome goals related to winning or earning a medal, to the point that discussing the importance of age-appropriate categories with standardized levels is met with bullying and ostracism. Fairness in competition and legitimate rankings are an important part of the adult competitive experience and this does not in any way detract from the ability of participants to also enjoy the social benefits of participation. The look of pure joy when scores are announced and a skater wins a medal is undeniable, as is the obvious disappointment when this outcome is not realized. Instead of denying these legitimate competitive aspirations and negatively stigmatizing competitive adult athletes, sport norms and participants must foster a more inclusive approach and recognize that athletes have many legitimate motives for competing and that such motives are not mutually exclusive from one another. Among other implications is the ethical duty of competition organizers to ensure that participants are grouped appropriately based on age and level (e.g., a fundamental principle of good sportsmanship includes fair play). In no way does this detract from the ability of participants to enjoy the activity for it’s own sake, to derive satisfaction from the social relationships gained, or to take pride a personal best score, irrespective of rankings. Adult athlletes iincur substantial costs to train and participate in competitions. Rather than demoralizing competitive aspirations, a more inclusive approach is clearly needed, one that honours and celebrates the adult competitive drive as part of a multitude of healthy and legitimate participant motives.

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  3. I really like the psychological component to your articles.

    It’s probably a good tool to visualize one’s self as an athlete as to help set the wheels of real work in motion. I play guitar every day but would never call myself a guitarist even though in my head i pretend to be as good as Jeff Beck. I know too many dedicated players that are in bands, focusing their livelihood around the craft. Iikewise I wouldn’t want to insult the true athlete by this weekend warrior calling himself one. I am a professional photographer. So many people claim to be photographers these days but not all of them can produce a ad campaign for an advertising client. However, I see no harm in fantasizing in one’s own head, enough to get the ass on the bike 4 days a week or enough to create a break that your friends can’t catch OR enough to motivate one to get up at 6am in the dead of winter 4x a week for a hour’s session of cold basement CTS training fun.
    The connection to CTS through the training vids and these really insightful article really help this amateur feel like a pro athlete even though I don’t consider myself one technically..

    1. Absolutely Not. An athlete is anyone who works at any exercise or sport, on a regular basis by consistent training to achieve gains or meet standards and goals. This person ABSOLUTELY IS AN ATHLETE at any age, professionally or as an amateur. You may be a professional photographer, but there are plenty of amateur ones out there. Either way, you still are a photographer. Same applies as athlete

  4. Being an “athlete” isn’t related to your age, as implied by your article. An athlete is any person who seeks to find and extend their boundaries in their chosen sport. It is a state of mind and a way of life. You might not be an olympic athlete or compete at the tour de France, few people ever do, but as long as you dedicate a significant part of your life to improving your performance you have every right to call yourself an athlete in my book.

  5. I like the competitive nature of cycling even is you never pay to enter a race or a large organized ride there is still the need to compete with friends an a nice ride in the mountains or on the road. I’m 74 and love seeing the same bunch of “old guys” at the Master’s Nat’l Championships and the Huntsman World Sr. Games each year. That is a group of people who will lift your spirits help you get better in many ways.

  6. Thoughtful and intelligent as usual. I’ll be sending this along to a bunch of folks for whom it will be refreshing and inspiring. I checked out the USATF Masters site yesterday….just to see…. and you know what? sometimes you just need to give it a chance. People my age (50) and older are competing in track and field. There are so many opportunities to enjoy sports for the joy of it, for the competition, for all of us.

  7. We are fortunate to be able to strive to recapture that joy. The joy of cycling is never ending. As a sport, cycling also lends itself beautifully to SOC theory (selection, optimization, compensation). This is something the aging “athlete” must always be mindful of! Loved the article. Thank you!

  8. This article over emphases “competitiveness”! One should engage in an activity for the activity itself. There is no reason to try to ride 100km faster than someone else my age (71) or build a longer life list of birds seen or rapids run. I just enjoy the activity and train so I can more fully enjoy the activity. But also remember the mantra “suffering is joy supreme”

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