What it takes
I was a sports-athlete for many years. I played international and Division l basketball in college, and then coached athletes at the high school and collegiate levels. I was the first University of Michigan’s women’s basketball coach (Team #1) and the photo above captures the celebration of our 50-year reunion at Crisler Arena in November 2022.
More recently, I coached my grandkids’ rec basketball team. Now that was a real challenge!
My experience laid the foundation for me to live an “athletic lifestyle” and I still identify as an athlete. I play “competitive golf” (at least that’s what my group of “older” golfers call what we do on Tuesdays and Fridays at Radrick Farms Golf Course. My wife calls it “a good walk spoiled.”) I also participate in other activities as if I were an athlete. I direct all the skills and attributes I learned as an athlete and coach to try and achieve my goals. These attributes go far beyond what happens on any playing surface. They can help you, too.
What is an athlete?
In high school, I could answer this question without even thinking about it. People on sports teams were “athletes,” while the rest were just “exercisers,” you know, regular people who worked out now and then.
As a kinesiology professor of movement science, my definition of an athlete changed. I studied the exercise physiology of young and old elite athletes as well as subjects who “just worked out for health.”
The term “athlete” is confusing and loaded with stereotypes that impact our understanding of what it means to be and live as an athlete. In some circles, the term athlete connotes “brawn over brains.” In others, it connotes attributes like determination, confidence, genetic endowment, and an intense drive to succeed. I taught an introductory health class in the School of Music, Theater, and Dance for opera singers, string and percussion players, modern dancers, and an aspiring conductor. [WOW, I didn’t know you could do that!] To my surprise, these students reminded me of the many sport-athletes I had played with or coached. It was hard to identify disparities between those who perform at Crisler Arena and those who perform at Hill Auditorium.
So, is a concert pianist an athlete? How about a golfer? Does a mountain climber identify as an athlete?
The dictionary defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” The Urban Dictionary entry is more inclusive and democratic: “An individual who participates in sports. Characterized by dedication, focus, intelligence, and work ethic.”
I also reviewed the PubMed-indexed papers using the key term “athlete” to find how researchers define the term. As of January 2023, “athlete” appears in more than 300,000 research titles with dozens of descriptors such as recreational, amateur, master, competitive, high-level, elite, female, male, etc. This interpretation of the term “athlete” is even more complex and confusing.
The “athletic lifestyle” does not confuse
Being an athlete transcends what the public sees (competition, final scores, trophies, awards, TV exposure, money, fame, etc.). Easily observable emblems are just the tip of the athlete-iceberg. The unseen aspect fully defines the breadth, scope, and understanding of what determines an athlete. I compare the hidden elements of an iceberg to the meaning of an “athletic lifestyle.” It’s what defines an athlete in the broadest sense.
All successful athletes exhibit surprisingly similar attributes and make similar lifestyle choices. Moreover, these attributes and choices can be applied to everyone who wants to achieve their goals, whether on the football field, the concert stage, or even trying to “health ourselves.”
Use the athletic lifestyle to ‘health yourself’
Over the years, I’ve tried to distill what it is about the athletic lifestyle that enhances life’s health journey. As former director of the Weight Control Clinic and the Advanced Fitness Training Center, I’ve counseled hundreds of individuals wanting to change habits and achieve goals. I’m struck by the similarities in lifestyle choices between the successful performance-athletes I coached on the court and the successful health-athletes with whom I continue to interact.
Here are the top five attributes I’ve identified to help health-athletes seeking to better themselves, achieve their goals, and maintain a long and healthy life, regardless of starting point. Living an athletic lifestyle can be attained by everyone irrespective of age, situation, or position in life. It’s a choice, and the rewards can be significant.
1. Determine goals often; change as needed
As a coach, I used to set goals for each season, each game, and even each practice. We would discuss what is and what is not possible for each individual and as a team. We wrote down our goals and changed them regularly. Then, we framed them in a step-by-step fashion, such that the achievement of one goal would make it possible to move on to the next.
In the health arena: Just like the sports-performance arena, goal-setting enables tangible checkpoints to ensure you know what to do and how to do it. It’s a process, a journey that everyone can learn. It starts with being realistic, seeking advice from an experienced professional (i.e., a health-care provider, life coach), and establishing realistic, achievable goals with realistic, achievable timelines.
Start by setting detailed, long-range goals (desired optimum body weight, dietary and food choices, increasing strength and flexibility). Then set short-term goals that place you on the path to long-term success. Be specific about your choices for the activity: when, where, and with whom you will do it. This is no easy task, and making modifications daily becomes the norm as situations change. I recommend keeping a journal so you can review and modify goals quickly. Keeping a journal is a real life-changer as it forces intention and attention.
2. Set intentions daily
By setting intentions every day, you enter the realm of precision. You have a plan with stated goals and behaviors. Every day, the sports-athlete must identify what to improve, on and off the field. I used to encourage my players to write their goals every morning so they could track their progress. Then, players would come to practice with a clear intention to work on rebounding, defensive movement, or dribbling with their weak hand. For the first 30 minutes of every practice, each player worked with a coach or partner, practicing individual skills.
In the health arena: Spend a few moments every morning setting your intentions for the day. Write down what you intend to eat, how much, and when. It helps you focus when shopping and preparing meals. It permits you to take charge rather than being controlled by convenience or circumstances. When setting intentions become a habit, you quickly find yourself making better choices.
3. Failure isn’t failure … it’s called practice
Failure happens to performance-athletes all the time. It is inevitable. Failure represents an opportunity to learn how to improve. Being able to reflect on how and why the failure occurred allows us to analyze and chart a course of action (practice) to reduce failures in the future.
In the health arena: It is difficult to change health habits, particularly regarding the foods we consume and the type and amount of physical activity we prefer. During early childhood, we develop habits that are now etched into our epigenetic nature. (See the Health Yourself column Nature vs. nurture? It’s both.) Many people give up when they realize these habits are extremely resistant to change. Here’s where perfect practice with small successes can yield long-term successes. Practice is perseverance, and perseverance builds success.
4. Develop time-management skills: Urgent and important are not the same
The performance-athlete must be able to balance life’s many activities efficiently. Time-management skills like prioritizing, planning, and scheduling activities are essential. As a coach, I would routinely have each player check in with a counselor to ensure they were prepared to complete all their assignments. At the beginning of the season, we also had two sessions with a time-management expert to explore and practice the necessary skills student-athletes need to succeed. We often used the Eisenhower Matrix, named for Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States (1953-61).
In the health arena: The 2×2 matrix pictured here illustrates a four-category tool with two columns and two rows. This matrix enables prioritizing goals by categorizing tasks according to urgency and importance. Depending on which category a particular activity falls into, strategies exist for how best to deal with each one. Activities in the “urgent and important” category (green box) should be completed immediately. Activities that are “not urgent but important” (blue box) can be scheduled for a later date. Activities in the “urgent and not important” section (red box) can be delegated to someone else, if possible. Lastly, activities in the “not urgent and not important” category (grey box) can be deleted.
5. Be self-accountable
Performance-athletes learn to take responsibility for their actions and ownership of the consequences. Watching competitive sports, you may notice that when a player makes a mistake — flubbing a pass, for example — the player often points to themself and acknowledges, “Sorry, my bad.” They take responsibility and move on to the next play.
In the health arena: It’s important to acknowledge when flubs occur. You might miss a workout, or eat and drink a little too much during the holidays. Taking responsibility and not making too big a deal about it helps you get back on track toward success. Just think how long it takes to learn new behaviors, how much practice is required to learn new skills, and how much effort it takes to master new movement patterns. It takes optimism and fortitude to change behaviors and achieve goals. You can do it!
The athletic lifestyle centers on skills and behaviors to enhance continuous improvement. We all can live an athletic lifestyle and develop habits that carry over to all life’s journeys. It’s defined by seeking continuous improvement in all we do.
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Paul Scott - 1999
Prof. Katch always offers insight and expertise on topics that are relevant to a healthier life. Thanks!
I loved this article a great deal. It makes our individual attempts to be athletic doable and accessible.
Gary Schneider - 1968
What an interesting choice of topic. You’ve done a masterful job here of helping us distill our needs and intentions as we move through our lives, be it athletically or otherwise.