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Bettering Yourself as an Athlete and in Life: The Powerful Connections

There’s a Fortune article from 2017 that I think about a lot titled What Do 65% of the Most Powerful Women Have in Common? Sports. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this connection between success in life and being involved in competitive sports and often they seem surprised.

Many people look at sports and athlete life as being separate from the rest of life. But, in truth, they are very intertwined.

Further, competitive athletic pursuits are often seen as something to do only in our youth. But this really doesn’t need to be the case at all: there’s a lifetime of learning and development that can come from continuing to avidly pursue sports.

So, let’s take a look at why both of these assumptions might be cutting you off from some powerful, meaningful experiences and growth.

What Does It Mean to Be an Athlete?

First, let’s get clear on what “being an athlete” means in this context. While the term athlete can mean many different things to different people, here I am using it to refer to the pursuit of sports in a meaningful way.

It means some measure of dedication to improving at a sport and participating in competition. It doesn’t mean you have to be “the best,” strongest, fastest, or on the A Team. You don’t have to have loads of experience or look a certain way (despite the impression you get from mainstream media). You do not have to be young or have played sports as a kid.

In my experience, people can be very limiting in how they define being an athlete, and oftentimes, that means they’d never use that title for themselves. But cutting yourself off from this identity can make you feel like you don’t belong. Like being an athlete is for other people, not you, and as such, you won't benefit in the way you see others benefitting.

You may think, for instance, that this article couldn’t apply to you. But indeed it could, and maybe it does already. Definitions and identity matter. And “athlete” is not an exclusive club.

Why Training and Competing Matter, at Any Age?

A very common misconception is that somehow meaningful sports competition is only for younger people who are serious in their sport. This is just not true. You can benefit from sports at any level and at any age. Let's consider how.

You can always work on strength and endurance. Your mental game can get better. You can develop better skills. Maybe you learn how to approach competition with less anxiety or work on better strategies for outwitting your competition. You can develop better nutrition habits and improve your ability to listen to your body. You may develop greater wisdom and know-how to share with other people on your team or in your club.

There’s also always value in challenging your body and mind, regardless of where you are on your life or sports journey. It’s good for your health physically, and it helps keep you sharp mentally.

When you’re training and competing, you learn self-discipline as well as how to work with others in stressful situations. You learn about motivation and dedication. You learn how to set a goal and take the measured steps to reach it. And you can learn how to win and lose, succeed and fail gracefully and respectfully.

The athletic life can also give you renewed self-respect and confidence, especially in your body. In a world focused on appearance, sports can provide a way of appreciating simply what your body and mind can do. It can give you a sense of body ownership and self-pride that may be lacking if all you’re focused on is looking a certain way.

Developing this sense of pride about what your body is capable of can also have a way of shifting how you feel about the way you look. It can flip the script: instead of doing an activity to appreciate the way you look, you appreciate the way you look because you can do a certain beloved activity.

Developing this sort of ownership over how you feel about your body’s appearance can be very powerful.

Sports Competition: Great Practice for Facing Life Challenges

As you may be putting together already, there are a lot of very direct crossovers between sports pursuits and life pursuits.

Goal setting and achievement is a big one. So many things we do in life revolve around meeting a goal. Whether it’s acing a test or aiming for a promotion or landing a particular job, life is filled with situations where we want something to be more or better than it is today.

Training for a race or competition is no different. It requires the same skills of breaking down the steps to your goal in manageable pieces. Learning how to overcome unforeseen challenges. Developing discipline and persistence. The list goes on.

Furthermore, sports competition is really not fundamentally different from any other peak performance. Whether you need to give a speech or presentation, do well on the test you studied so hard for, or nail a job interview, at heart, you need to show up prepared and able to do something challenging.

Sports competitions are very similar. Sports is a way to practice what aiming for peak performance feels like.

You Can Learn a Lot about Yourself through Your Athletic Pursuits

Your athletic life is a great place of self-discovery. It’s also a fantastic place for self-improvement.

Because athletic pursuits are regularly about pushing your boundaries or asking more from yourself than you may normally in other parts of life, you are likely going to bump up against your self-limiting behaviors.

It’s an opportunity to see what comes up when you’re asking the most of yourself.

Maybe you have habit of psyching yourself out and could use some practice in better self-talk. Maybe you freeze up in clutch situations and would benefit from learning some breathing and relaxation techniques. Or perhaps you struggle with sticking with a training program or become impatient with how slow progress can be, and you need to learn strategies for consistency and patience.

Whatever it might be that you learn about yourself in your athletic pursuits, it’s very likely to be knowledge you’ll benefit from in your day to day. And as you improve in those realms in your sports life, be mindful of how you are improving in similar ways in your daily life.

The Positive Feedback Loop

The more you begin to recognize the benefits being an athlete brings to your regular life, the more you'll feel empowered by those skills and the more they will benefit you.

For instance, if you've noticed that you're really proud of yourself for cutting back on negative self-talk during training, remember that when negative thinking pops in at work. Remembering how you learned to overcome that in your sport will give you the confidence to know you can do the same in these other circumstances.

Or, when you're feeling like you just can't return one more email but you know you must, remember how you were able to give it your all in the final miles of the marathon or last minutes of the game. Just knowing you can conjure up that extra bit of strength because you've done it before will make it all the more possible for you to plow through those emails. And as you keep practicing those skills in these varied circumstances, you'll continue to improve.

Embracing how much being an athlete can contribute to you getting the best out of yourself in all life's circumstances can bring a whole new level of enjoyment and satisfaction to all your challenging and goal-oriented endeavors.

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