Last weekend, the New York Times presented the fact Dick’s Sporting Goods refers to customers as “athletes” as if it is something new. It’s not. At CTS, we’ve referred to the people who work with our coaches as athletes from day one, nearly 23 years ago. Perhaps what’s worse is that the NYT views it as a marketing strategy. It’s not. I do not know a more accurate way to describe people who prioritize exercise, performance, and health in their lives.
You are an athlete
I hear it every time I travel. “I’m not an athlete.” Or worse, “I’m not a real 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 athlete, 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 life. When you identify 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.
Why “Athlete” means so much to me
Referring to people who work with CTS as “athletes” was not a strategy dreamed up in a conference room. There was never a question they would be referred to as anything else because the term “athlete” has been important to me since childhood.
When I grew up in Miami through the 1960s and 1970s, Florida was a hotbed for competitive cycling. A lot of that was influenced by the influx of immigrants from Cuba, Colombia, and other parts of South America. Their passion for cycling manifested in a vibrant culture of cycling teams, junior development programs, weekly criteriums and road races, and tough group rides.
I entered and won my first race in 1969 at nine years old and never looked back. No other sport captured my interest or fit my personality and natural talents the way cycling did. By the late 70s I was in high school and competing at the national level as a junior. But to my gym teacher, a bicycle was just “a toy”.
In 1978 I was training to represent Team USA at the Junior World Championships. The volume and intensity of the training was significant, and even back then I knew hard training was limited by the amount of recovery I could achieve. I asked for my cycling training to count for my Physical Education credits so I could focus on Junior Worlds. The school refused. To them, I wasn’t an athlete, even though I could show them the training plan, racing schedule, and results.
Years later, after becoming an Olympian and then a professional cyclist with the 7-Eleven Pro Cycling Team, I started my career as a coach in 1990. As I advanced through the coaching ranks at the US Cycling Federation (now USA Cycling), the organization referred to elite riders as “cyclists”. I always felt, personally and as a coach, that “cyclist” was too limiting. When I became Coaching Director, I changed the terminology to “athletes” and later carried that policy to CTS.
“Athlete” encompasses a whole person
From a coaching perspective, “athlete” encompasses the entire person you’re working with. You say you’re a cyclist. I say you are an athlete who happens to ride a bicycle. Moreover, you are a person who rides a bicycle and has a family and a career and an entire life off the bike. These distinctions are important because they influence how communicate and how we integrate exercise, rest, nutrition, lifestyle stress, relationships, and so much more into the coach-athlete relationship.
Person > Athlete > Cyclist
This is the hierarchy we use for coaching. Sport specificity comes last because it can – and should – change over time. At a more granular level, it might mean changing from road racing to gravel racing, or mountain biking to gran fondos. Or, it’s from triathlon to cycling or cycling to ultrarunning or – most commonly these days – a move from a single sport focus to a combination of endurance sports.
This is why I designed the CTS Coaching College to supersede sport-specific coaching certifications. We teach people how to coach and then incorporate sport-specific applications of that curriculum. CTS Coaches still specialize in the sports and areas that align with their interests and experiences, but fundamentally we develop coaches to work with people first. As a result, CTS Athletes often work with CTS Coaches for several years – some more than 15 years – through all manner of lifestyle changes and shifts in sport specificity and performance goals.
I have no problem with Dick’s Sporting Goods calling their customers “athletes”. In fact, I applaud them for doing so. I just hope it’s more than a marketing strategy because it is so much more powerful as a core value.
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer