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What Does It Mean To Be An Athlete?

You’re probably familiar with the word “athlete,” but when you close your eyes and think about the word, what image comes to mind?

  • A young person?
  • Extraordinary physical ability?
  • Stellar performance?
  • A competitive mindset?

Perhaps there are other characteristics of an athlete, too. For example:

  • Does athletic ability change as we age?
  • What defines an emerging athlete?
  • When does someone become a “former” athlete?
  • Are you an athlete if you only compete with yourself in a Crossfit or Sportsfit class?

All these thoughts point to one major question: what is the true definition of an athlete? The answer to this question becomes extremely important when we’re considering our clients’ goals. The focus of the treatments we provide, the intensity of their sports training exercises, and the neuromuscular load on the body we recommend will be different for athletes versus non-athletes.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines an athlete as “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” But that definition is broad. An athlete can be talented in various sports at different ages and performance levels. Physical exercise can refer to organized sports, personal workouts, or performance training. By this definition, almost everyone who does some type of physical activity can be considered an athlete.

The Journal of Human Sport and Exercise has a different definition. They note that the age of peak performance for Olympic athletes ranges from 14 to 52 years, with the mean ages for men and women at 27 and 26 years, respectively. This data suggests that peak performance in athletics occurs early in life, and anything afterwards is not truly “athletic,” because the athlete is no longer at the age of their peak performance. Does this mean that athletic ability is solely determined by age?

Here at Athletic Physical Therapy, we believe that there are certain characteristics that define an athlete — and they don’t include age, ability, performance, or competitiveness.

Let’s explore why we believe these categories don’t determine whether someone qualifies as an athlete.


At our physical therapy clinics, we’ve worked with a 10-year-old hockey player who considered himself an athlete and a 96-year-old lady who played golf two times a week but never thought of herself as an athlete. Even though the 10-year-old wasn’t physically fit for his sport, in his mind he was on his way to becoming a NHL goalie. The 96-year-old woman played golf so she could win some betting money, but she was also serious about eliminating her back pain and increasing her back swing to lengthen her drive. Even though the 10-year-old hockey player was younger and much closer to his peak performance and the 96-year-old woman was far from peak performance, age wasn’t a factor in their athletic ability — determination was.


Despite popular opinion, you don’t have to be coordinated, fit, strong, quick, or powerful to be an athlete. Statistics show that only slightly more than 7% of high school athletes, or about 1 in 13, go on to play a varsity sport in college. Less than 2% of high school athletes go on to play at NCAA Division schools. This proves that physical ability alone doesn’t automatically make someone an athlete. At the same time, just because you don’t play a sport or exercise now doesn’t mean that you can’t become an athlete in the future.


Even though performance is a large part of sports, the ability to perform doesn’t necessarily define an athlete. One of the greatest displays of this truth occurred 30 years ago in 1990 when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. Even though Buster performed better than Mike Tyson that night, Iron Mike is still known as one of the greatest athletes of all time. You don’t have to perform the best all the time to be an athlete.


There are many types of activities you can do that don’t require competition. Backpacking, hiking, billiards, and dancing are physical fitness exercises that require strength, balance, coordination, and endurance, just like competitive sports, but can be done alone. This means that you can be proficient in physical activities without ever competing against anyone else. Despite what you may see on ESPN and other sports networks, athletes don’t have to be competitive.

So, if these categories don’t define an athlete, what does?

We believe there are 4 components that an individual must have to consider themselves an athlete.

At Athletic Physical Therapy, we believe that athletes are individuals engaged in physical activity who have an imaginative, determined, and persevering mindset.


  • The 10-year-old hockey player we mentioned earlier had a great imagination. In his mind, he was himself blocking shots, helping his team win, and in time, rising to infamy and glory. People with athletic mindsets have an imagination that drives them to talk positively to themselves. You’ll hear them say things like, “Come on, you can do better,” or “That’s it, that’s the way.” They do this to enhance their spirit and drive. They use their brain and the power of their imagination to will their bodies to perform in a way that will enhance their training and improve their athletic performance.
  • The 96-year-old woman who wanted to get back on the golf course and compete against her friends displayed the determination of an athlete. Her determination to play golf proved to be more important than her age, ability, and experience level. Individuals that are determined will practice the same movements over and over again. They may make slower progress initially than someone with more ability and coordination, but as they continue, they will achieve their athletic goals.
  • Take a minute and think about what Buster Douglas must have thought about as he heard all those around him telling him that he could never win. He decided to persevere against tremendous odds. No one could tell him he couldn’t do it. His mindset included imagination and determination, but his drive to succeed was primarily based on his ability to overcome great obstacles when everyone doubted him. Perseverance put Buster Douglas in the history books as one of the greatest underdog winners in sports.
  • Athletes are also defined by physical movement and activity. A backpacker, for example, may not be competitive but is certainly physically active, and would qualify as an athlete. Even though the type of physical activity can vary, an athlete must be physically active. In other words, if you don’t have physical activity, you don’t have an athlete.

Here at Athletic Physical Therapy, we believe that anyone can develop an athletic mindset. All you need is imagination, determination, perseverance, and physical activity.

Let us help you discover the athlete in you. Contact us today to learn more about our physical therapy, sports rehabilitation, balance and fall prevention, golf performance, and injury prevention workshops.