What Defines an Athlete...And How to Become One
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
As always, there is a dictionary definition. According to Merriam-Webster an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” Per usual, the dictionary definition is only part of the story.
Notice how our friends a Merriam-Webster use the plural of “exercises, sports, or games.” In those multiple settings, we are told the athlete must demonstrate “physical strength, agility, or stamina.” My definition is a little more exacting: an athlete is someone who can control their body movements in order to complete any given physical task with a baseline degree of efficiency and effectiveness. In other words, an athlete is someone who can in short-order decide on the body movement required for a task, adjust their movements accordingly, and compete in that task successfully in a variety of environments.
How do you become an athlete? Get out and play! During early childhood development we learn to problem solve in both our mental and physical skills. According to the Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), our bodies are programmed to attempt and complete a task in the most efficient way we know how(3). As we develop or learn new skills, we must be able to complete tasks against a variety of constraints.
Over-focusing on one sport is detrimental to the development of the true athlete. Some people may believe that in order for their child to get a sports scholarship they must focus on one sport starting as young as possible. Although that may be the case for a small percentage of athletes, for the vast majority it is not true. For example, according to Tracking Football, when the Eagles played the Patriots in the 2018 Super Bowl, it was reported that 102 out of 106 of players on those rosters played multiple sports in high school. That is just 4% of the players on the roster who didn't play two or more sports! What is even more interesting is that about 31% of the players in the Super Bowl player 3 sports.
There’s a reason for that diversity of athletic experience. Without making this a blog about the Dynamic Systems Theory, there are a few tenets of the theory worth describing here. The DST identifies 3 types of constraints that are manipulated (purposefully or not); task, environment, and organism or individual.
Essentially task constraints are those constraints placed on the individual during the completion of the task, like only using one hand to catch a ball. Environmental constraints are those constraints outside the control of the participant, like completing a task on a dry surface versus a wet, slippery surface. Finally, an individual constraint is a constraint that is a result of the participant themselves, like a previous injury or disability(2). Just as with any skill, the more ways we know how to solve a problem the better we become at the given skill and complete the task against those various constraints.
This is the foundation of athletic development, in my opinion. The better we are at movement problem solving in general, the greater advantage we have during any specific athletic competition. One of the issues with today’s young athletes is early specialization. When we specialize early (only experiencing one sport and its demands) year-round, we limit the amount or variety of constraints we must solve.
In addition to movement and coordination development (and ultimately performance), participating in a variety of sports and experiencing different constraints may aid in injury prevention (overuse and overtraining) and burnout. In fact, athletes who participate in multiple sports have fewer instances of injuries and play sports longer those young athletes who specialize in one sport(1).
This is not to say that athletes who specialize early can’t earn a scholarship and become an
outstanding college or professional player. In fact, at some point athletes will have to focus on one sport in order to develop the skill necessary. However, if we care about our youth athletes and their development (physically, emotionally, and mentally) then we need to get away from one-sport, year-round participation and move back to seasonal sports participation at a young age.
That does not mean they have to play multiple sports. However, if they are focusing on one sport, it is our job as performance coaches to ensure that they are getting the appropriate amount of time away from the sport competition and being exposed to a variety of training. This allows the athlete to recover mentally and physically from the sport, while also developing a wide array of skills.
Athleticism, boiled down, is a general ability to react to physically-demanding situations—get out and challenge yourself!
(1) Brenner, J. S. (2019). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245.
(2) Colombo-Dougovito, Andrew M. (2016). The Role of Dynamic Systems Theory in Motor Development Research: How Does Theory Inform Practice and What Are the Potential Implications for Autism Spectrum Disorder? International Journal on Disability and Human Development, 16(2), 141-155.
(3) Darrah, J., & Bartlett, D. (1995). Dynamic systems theory and management of children with cerebral palsy: Unresolved issues. Infants & Young Children: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Early Childhood Interventions, 8(1), 52-59.
(4) How Many Football Players on Super Bowl Lii Team Rosters Played Multiple Sports in High School? Brian Spilbeler - https://www.trackingfootball.com/blog/many-football-players-super-bowl-lii-team-rosters-played-multiple-sports-high-school/