Athlete vs Athleticism

Author / John

7 - 9 minute read

Recently, I was included in an exchange on Twitter that spurred some personal thought on what it meant to be athletic.

What is an athlete? How does one define athleticism? Are there great athletes that do not posses great athleticism? And is there a direct correlation between fitness and athleticism?

athleticMerriam-Webster Dictionary defines an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”

The Greeks held the ancient Olympics for hundreds of years to find the person who most represented what it meant to be athletic.  Athletes competed in ancient sporting events such as wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, discus and javelin throws.  They competed naked, showing off their physique proudly and the hard work they put into improving themselves.

pankrationWhat about a superior athlete? I believe this is an individual with excellent physical skills (strength, agility, and endurance), honed over a lifetime, tested and proven victorious in their chosen area in competition.  By my definition, this means an individual who has risen to the top in their respective field in strength, agility, speed and sport. They have cultivated what is needed and risen above everyone else.

But what about athleticism?

Is Tiger Woods athletic because he can hit a ball a long ways? Does it take athleticism to hit a golf ball?

Is Michael Phelps athletic because he can swim faster than his competition? Would you take Phelps in a game of 1 on 1 versus Tony Gonzalez?

Is there a correlation between fitness and athleticism? Just because someone can run farther or endure more, are they necessarily a better athlete?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Fortunately, we know greatness when we see it.  And from this, we can deduce what athleticism is and is not.

Athleticism only really becomes glaring apparent when you force an athlete to move in space as it relates to another competitor, task or obstacle.  As the speed of an athlete and the competition increases, their ability and proficiency to move in space and among those multiple planes of motion becomes very evident. Think of an Olympic gymnast during a high bar routine, an NFL running back making a cut in the open field against a defender, a pole-vaulter sprinting down the track with a long flexible pole, hitting a mark, catapulting her body into the air and manipulating herself over the bar to set a new world record

I believe one needs to demonstrate athleticism.  An athlete will need to show proficiency as it relates to moving in space and among multiple planes of motion. Like a receiver running down the sideline, turning his upper body to catch a ball while his legs work to keep himself in bounds, a goal keeper reading the eyes of a defender and making the proper break to deflect a goal.  Or an Olympic weightlifter pulling him under a bar, receiving in the bottom of the squat, standing up and jerking it overhead.

While many people can move in space, how many can do it in a way that is pleasing to the eye?

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We know athleticism when we see them.  I can go watch my 5-year-old nephew’s soccer game and see who is more athletic on the field.  Not to say all great athletes are born and those kids who were not great athletes today cannot develop the skills and control needed to be a great athlete one day.

I was not a great baseball player, and a half way decent basketball player as a kid.  I was a solid hitter but my reaction time did not allow me to do what I wanted at the plate.  I can say I was not great at sports up until the age of 15, I just seemed a step slow.  It was until I got older and my coordination caught up with my body, my athleticism grew.  Once I was able to train and focus on the craft of playing football, I was considered athletic in the realm of my sport.  I credit this to learning the demands of the game. This translated into little wasted movement, great technique and movement that was pleasing to the eye.

How did I do this?  As I reflect back, the ability to maintain proper posture and position through the dynamic nature of my sport was a huge advantage.  I learned leverages, foot and hand position and how to most utilize my power by bending my knees and moving my feet in space and in relation to other athletes. As a result, I was able to utilize my strength and power and use my explosiveness to my advantage, thus looking athletic.

The true test came when I played against gifted athletes who possessed speed and body control.  These were the days, I had to be perfect or I would end up looking foolish.  I knew going into many games, I had to eliminate mistakes or I would be exposed. Because my margin of error was small, I was fortunate to have made great athletes look un-athletic on more than a few occasions. As I told my brother after each game, “I caught the guy on his off day.” My brother would laugh as guys always seemed to be having off days.

Running in a straight line does not make someone athletic.  Not to say the person running the straight line is not a great athlete or extremely athletic, it just measures their linear speed.  Change of direction, body control and the ability to match your skills against another of equal or greater skill allows one to prove who is the better athlete and thus demonstrate athleticism. The NFL combine is a great example. While the 40 yard sprint gatherers the crowd, the NFL short shuttle separates the good for the great. Speed in the NFL short shuttle, or 5-10-5, tells the most accurate account of a players ability to play the game.

Being able to work longer and harder than the next athlete does not make you athletic.  But being able to out work an opponent is a component of great athletes and demonstrates certain intangibles that go into the making of great athletes. “Having heart” as it is most commonly referred, is just one element.

Is the world record holder in the 1500 meters run athletic?

I don’t know, lets see what else he can do.

Lets start some dialogue on this topic and let me know what you think.

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Jim G. on October 28, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    “Let’s see what else he can do.” That’s it. Measuring athletes outside their element would be a necessary component of testing athleticism. I think that was one of glassmans key beliefs. They’ve got away from that in my opinion.

    • john on October 28, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      Would it be necessary to test every athlete outside their element? Are there certain sports that take “universal” athleticism? An example is Tony Gonzalez, hands down the best TE in NFL history. He also could have played in the NBA. I have watched in play in college and pick up games with pro NBA players and not just hold his own, but be pretty dominant as those guys aren’t used to someone that physical. What about a 110 hurdler? That takes a certain amount of athleticism and timing. My favorite story is about the Yelena Isinbayeva, the Russian pole vaulter. She was a high level gymnast that grew too tall and picked up pole vaulting at age 16. 6 months of training and she wins the world youth games. First women to clear 5 meters.

  2. dredlocked on October 28, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    I’d put rugby players–specifically flankers and maybe inside/outside centers–into the athleticism conversation. Having to be able to handle the ball, catch, throw, have speed in short space and across open field, change direction, proficiently tackle, and kick, not to mention understanding offensive and defensive strategies and systems, for entires games without subs cover a lot of the testable/comparable skills.

    I think the transferance test is a pretty good indication of “athleticism”. Someone may be well versed in the intricacies of their sport, but is their ability broad enough that they can take the same baseline principles (movement integrtiy, position, strength, speed, body awareness, etc.) and learn to apply them in a different domain, where they haven’t necessarily spent hundreds of hours refining their abilities?

  3. Elew on October 28, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    I’m not sure this transference test can work. What about some of these athletes in football or basketball that can make the game look so fluid and easy, but once you put a bat or club in their hand they couldn’t look more nonathletic?

    I’m not trying to say they aren’t athletic, it’s just something to consider in this discussion. I guess I’m asking the same thing as John, “Would it be necessary to test every athlete outside their element?”. Can you fault an athlete for specializing in their sport, say basketball and not being able look athletic while competing in another sport like trying to hit a 90+ mph fastball or a nasty slider?

    One thing I do know is that I enjoy watching an athlete show ‘greatness’. I’m not a huge fan of Tiger but I root for him to be in contention and do something special every weekend. For these same reasons it was/is special to watch MJ, Bo, Elway, Pedro, Pujols, Bonds, LeBron etc.

  4. Ingo B on October 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    dredlocked took my answer. But I co-sign, especially the 2nd paragraph.

    Please don’t say doing Crossfit makes you an athlete. Mainstream Crossfit boxes are full of folks who otherwise could not play a sport and finally found an outlet that gives them the title they always wish they had. Kind of like the participation trophy of their world. But that’s all they do. Beautiful air squat, but make them sprint, COD, skip even…and they’re lost.

    Also, you know Drywall? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I still kinda am.

  5. Michael FitzGerald on October 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Great discussion to be having. Thanks for writing that.

    One question, where do you feel the winner of the decathlon fits into this? Would he not be able to display that he can excel in multiple events/demands/etc and such display that better than any other athlete? Tough question to answer, but good for debate/learning.

    • john on October 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      To win the Olympic decathlon you need to be both a great athlete and extremely athletic. The 10 events require a wide range of skills, speed and specialization from the participants. First Day: 100 meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meter run. Second Day: 110 meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, 1500 meter run
      The events force the athletes to compete in multiple planes of motion like pole vault, high jump, hurdles, discus and shot put. And give them ample chances to demonstrate their athleticism by clearing hurdles and manipulating their bodies over a bar on the pole vault and the high jump. The shot put and discus are very technical as well. The 100 and 400 demonstrate speed and the 1500 is just a grinder.

      But can you say the winner is the best athlete in the world? No. Maybe the best all around athlete that is competing at these 10 events.

      What if a greatest athlete choose to specialize?

      I think CrossFit has the right idea. Open it up to everyone in the world, see who shows up to compete and that person has claim to be the fittest man in the world. Based on CF’s definition of fitness it works.

      But how could you use the same format to find the greatest athlete in the world? Using the definition of an athlete as, “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”

      Do we already have it? The NFL or NBA MVP?

      All good questions and fun to ponder.

  6. Chad Hobbs on October 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    To John’s point on TG. Look at all these tight ends in the NFL killing it that have basketball backgrounds. You have 6’4″-6’8″ guys that were “tweeners” (bball term we use for guys that are slightly undersized for there position or not quite skilled enough to go further) but are now pickin up Football with minimal experience and doing very well. Examples include Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas (1 year of football experience before NFL), etc… My teammate in college never played a down of football in his life but was asked by the Jaguars to try out at tight end because he was a 6’6″ 240lb freak ATHLETE.

  7. Cody on October 28, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I do believe that some sports have transferable universal applications. If you look at the best multi sport athletes I think of: Thorpe, Jackson, Sanders. They all have one sport in common…
    What I will say about the games is I agree that to be the “fittest on earth” you can have no chinks in your armour. Things like the agility cones, broad jump, clean and jerk ladder are all valid (and exciting to watch… For me) I believe more events of that nature should be included in the games. Maybe a 100m sprint, mile run, powerlifting total, oly total, high jump or box jump, throw in some long stuff, a couple couplets, a chipper and you just found the ones who posess the most athleticism.

  8. Geoff Aucoin on October 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    For years I’ve put folks that played sports into three categories; athletically-inclined, athletic, and athletes.

    The athletically-inclined love to play sports. They are not very good at these sports but they enjoy it. They do not have the physical skills to do well but they do have the heart. For them it’s fun but they won’t go anywhere with it.

    Athletic people are better at sports because they have better physical tools and, if they have the heart, they can be more successful at sport but they still have to work hard. These folks could get sport scholarships with enough effort but may not have success beyond the lower collegiate level.

    Athletes are the people that are simply physically gifted specimens, they don’t have a problem picking up new skills/sports, they move very well and they have the physical attributes that help them be successful at sports with less effort than others. Combined with heart, these people can go as far as they want in their chosen sport as long as they work hard and stay healthy.

    Now that I’ve been involved with coaching for many years I now wonder if within this category do you have do decide if because someone is the best at their chosen sport are they on the same level as one in another? Is Phelps an ‘athlete’ by my old definition or is he more on the ‘athletic’ side due to the different demands of his sport? I don’t seem him doing well at basketball to be honest, even though he is tall with big hands and feet. To me, swimming has a lower ‘athletic’ component than football, although it does require incredible specific physical conditioning. One the flip side (unintentional swimming joke) Gonzalez would definitely be in the ‘athlete’ category every day of the week and twice on Sunday but can he swim well? I’d bet he’s not a great swimmer but could probably pick it up faster than someone with a lower skill set. Football players, to me, are the pinnacle of ‘athlete’ due to their incredible array of physical skills and attributes that are put on display in multiple facets of their sport.

    So what happens when we compare athletes that have achieved high levels of success in their sports? Nothing really. Different sports require different athletes just like different jobs require different people with different skills. Do we compare a good doctor to a good engineer? This is where CrossFit blurred the lines to make the journeyman athletic person into a CrossFit-specific ‘athlete’. Did they do it to try and legitimize their own ‘sport of fitness’ or just to make for good conversation, who knows, but at the end of the day (a phrase I dislike) it doesn’t actually matter because there will never be a definitive answer to a topic that has so many undefined aspects.

  9. dang3rtown on October 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Love this conversation, one we’ve had before.
    To me, athleticism is not something that can be quantified or even defined (the dictionary’s version is ok but lacking something). Often times over the course of a game or match, the better athlete will lose due to strategic errors or luck. One thing is sure though, with a great athlete you will see them do something no one else on the field can do. I think it is best displayed one on one, movement and reaction. The ability to make your body do what it needs to do to win the moment.

    As far as nature versus nurture, there is no doubt that some people are born with more. I also have no doubt that athleticism can be developed. As a kid I was a decent athlete but nothing special. My dad would take me to a park to pass the rugby ball around and he would have me practice change of direction while sprinting. Just a basic cut back, off of both feet equally. From the age of 8 or 9 I would run around in fields cutting back and forth as hard as I could. I thought it was fun. I was obsessive about practicing athletic movements. By the time I was in high school I had become an “athlete”. I’m pretty sure genetics had a lot to do with it but I’m not sure which genetics. Was it the genes that made up my physical body or the genes that gave me an obsessive personality and run around in zig zags all over the place?
    In the end I was never a top tier athlete but I think I came close enough to understand that 99% of the “pure athletes” out there aren’t as naturally gifted as you might think or at least not in the way you think (the 1% are Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson). Defining an athlete is impossible but you sure as hell know it when you see it.

  10. Damian on October 29, 2013 at 5:30 am

    I think in this day and age of specialisation it is extremely difficult to compare athletes across different sports, maybe just admire those that are at the peak of their sport. In saying that, here in Australia we’ve had a few examples of guys who are just born to play sports. Similar to your story regarding Tony Gonzalez, right off the bat I can pick 2 guys who epitomise everything you are saying about athleticism John. Sonny Bill Williams has played rugby union for the all blacks and was a superstar, is a two time premiership winning rugby league player and one of the best players in the game at the moment and has also carved a nice career in professional boxing. If he was American he’d be in the NFL…no doubt. The other is Israel folau, an Aussie with Tongan background whose played for Australia in league and union and also played 2 seasons in the top flight of AFL where whilst he never mastered the game, physically he more than held his own.

  11. Travis Jewett on October 29, 2013 at 6:52 am

    I think one of the big points as well John mentions in his article, athleticism is also pleasing to the eye when observed by an outsider who knows nothing or little about the event they are watching. I thought it was interesting watching the last Olympics and the CrossFit Games with my kids. My oldest, who is 8, would say things during gymnastics like, “oh, that didn’t look very good,” or, “wow, that was really something.” During the CrossFit games I remember watching the finals and with Frohning, my kids were like, “He makes that look so easy!” They would see someone else and say “That guy is struggling,” or “I don’t think he is going to get that, or make it to the end.”
    This also plays into the virtuosity concept Glassman discusses frequently. It is an old engineering concept as well, if it looks right, it flies right. If even a child can comment on how pleasing to the eye something looks, athleticism is being displayed.

  12. Georg on October 29, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Everybody seems to define an athlete as somebody who is physically big and strong. What does it take to play in the NFL? Well I don`t know but obviously you have to be big and strong otherwise you`ll get crushed. How much skill do you really need to play in the NFL compared to a rugby player who has to run, tackle, pass, kick etc. for 90 min or any other athlete that isn`t specialised in position? What about soccer players? Aren`t they athletes in their own right. Just look at Lionel Messi. One of the greatest soccer players. Isn`t he an athlete in his own right although he only is 170cm tall and probably doesn`t weigh more than 70 kg? Can you really compare athletes from differen`t sports and judge as to who is more of an athlete. I guess to play any sports at the top you need to be an athlete and you need a certain amount of athleticism. Obviously chess and minigolf don`t count.

    John, you ask if the world record holder in the 1600 meters run is athletic.
    Why not? Why does he have to do anything else? He want`s to be the world record holder. Why should he train for anything else? If you wan`t to mix and mingle you do Crossfit. You do Crossfit to become good at Crossfit? If you wan`t to be good at a certain sport you Specialise. Period. I don`t know where Tiger Woods or any other athlete would benefit from doing 100 burpees. Do you?

  13. Emily C on October 29, 2013 at 11:06 am

    @Geoff Aucoin:

    I respectfully disagree with your comments about swimming. Here’s why. Swimming is great in the fact that it involves 4 different strokes as well as both endurance and sprinting. While most specify in either endurance or sprinting, typical practices encompass both (as well as all 4 strokes) thus exposing each swimmer to all facets. While a good portion of a swimmers life is spent in the pool, strength training is also involved in workouts thus exposing them to that realm (I realize, for the most part, all sports have some type of weightlifting program. Just explaining.)
    In swimming, one must have great body awareness and coordination (especially with butterfly and breaststroke as the arms and legs don’t move simultaneously) as well as enough strength and power to get off the blocks & wall, kick, stroke, etc.
    While I’m not saying someone like a Tony Gonzalez couldn’t be a good swimmer, I’ve seen athletes from other realms of the sports world try to swim and most look like a fish out of water (pun intended) either because a) they can’t figure out how to float so their legs sink to the bottom of a pool like a rock, b) can’t figure out how to kick and stroke at the same time/breath properly (i.e. turning the head to the side when swimming freestyle instead of lifting the entire head out of the water thus breathing forward and not to the side), and/or c) don’t have enough endurance to hold their breath underwater.

    This is just something that I’ve come across when watching various athletes try to swim. I am by no means saying that swimmers are the most athletic people out there but I disagree that swimming has a “lower athletic component.”

  14. Emily C on October 29, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Forgot to add this. I agree with @dang3rtown that defining an athlete is hard, yet is very obvious when you see one. Wish it was easy to define. But if it was, I would’ve had to have found something else to do over my lunch break.

  15. Drywall on October 29, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I wanted some proper 1V1 and instead I got a well reasoned, thoughtful response from someone with expertise on the subject matter. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before…

    Great post. Definitely added some clarity in my mind as far as what’s happening when someone passes the “eye test.”

  16. Daz on October 29, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Great discussion.
    I’d vote for the Decathlon to have a ‘man v man’ event somehow. All the best athletes I’ve ever seen have played a sport where they’re competing directly against another human with an object eg, ball or stick.

    So not only are they trying to control themselves in time & space, confuse/defeat or disguise their intention against their opponent, but they are also trying to maintain or gain possession of something. All of which not only requires physical prowess but decision making, either conscious or intuitive. Its requires the ‘full package’ for success.

    Maybe the Decathletes could have a type of round robin Pankration or something, could be interesting.

    The Elite tend to be elite at any sport. Currently I train Pip Malone who went to her first CF games this year after spending 10months training in earnest for it. Before that she represented Australia in Power Gymnastics, Trampoline and Canoe Slalom. I’d bet any money that she has a genetic disposition and discipline to excel in any sport. The same can be said for many more professional athletes in the NFL, Super Rugby etc etc.

    So far as the CrossFit Games. As it becomes more established and professional more athletes that find themselves in other sports will take it on. Obviously earning a living is the key to attracting athletes to CF. And when that happens records and performances will tumble.

  17. dredlocked on October 30, 2013 at 8:36 am

    @Georg: To me, being top in your sport means that you have mastered a specific set of skills (sometimes narrowly defined, i.e. sprinting, sometimes encompassing many areas, i.e. examples mentioned above) in comparison to other people. That doesn’t take anything away from your accomplishment, but I think there is a difference between mastering a set of skills and having general abilities that allow you to move between different activities that will test various things.

    Someone who is a top-level sprinter at, say, 100m is really good at that specific activity. Has this person honed in on a specific activity and worked through movement patterns, strength, coordination, reaction time, etc. to master this task? Yes. Does that indicate he or she possess athleticism? We don’t know, we only can confirm that they can cover 100m at an elite pace. As John writes about the question of a 1,600m runner’s athleticism: I don’t know, lets see what else he can do.

    If this 100m sprint could not dribble a basketball, hit a golf ball, throw a baseball, tread water in a pool, swing a tennis racket well, or accurately pass a soccer ball would they be an athlete? Personally, I would say no. But do those things matter to them if their goal (WAYTF) is to win a gold medal in the 100m? No.

    Another question I’d throw into the mix to think about: if you are the top in your sport, but your competition sucks, how do we view your success at your sport/activity?

  18. Chris on October 30, 2013 at 8:55 am

    I believe fitness and athleticism lie on different planes but there is a line of intersection. Athleticism is god given. It is very difficult to attain a high level of athleticism through hard work alone. Sub 10 second 100 meter dashes are not built in the gym or on the track. They are built by God. This is true of most athletic traits. It is hard to define athleticism but I know it when I see it. Athletes move differently in space, they have burst and fluidity. When you and I see them in action we use words like gifted or freak. We don’t say “that guy must really work hard”. To me (I don’t really care how crossfit defines it) fitness is about survival. Fitness is fundamentally all about your ability to SURVIVE and THRIVE in your environment. Different environments require different types of FITNESS. There is a reason why east and west Africans have significantly different amounts of fast twitch muscle fiber – their ancestors had very different environmental challenges. The intersection point, where fitness meets survival, is where evolution reveals itself. The physical traits of the gifted, the athletic, were developed through evolution, through the process of survival of the fittest. They have these genes, or a subset, in spades. Sprinters are not good Endurance athletes and Endurance athletes are not good Sprinters – evolution is a greedy process. Evolution does not share. It gives you what you need and ONLY what you need. Evolution is the very example of efficiency. This is the problem with crossfit’s definition and test of fitness. By testing across a very wide spectrum of competing “fitness” attributes (although I would argue it has become predominantly endurance based) they are fighting AGAINST the very will and intention of evolution. We will never see a world class sprinter crowned crossfit games champ (he has WAY too much of THIS and WAY to little of THAT) no matter how much money is involved. Viewed in this light, the fittest on earth, by crossfit’s definition, is decidedly (and in a VERY weird way) , dare I say, average.

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  20. marc on November 6, 2013 at 8:57 am

    who the heck ever did a 1600m run?! 🙂 Maybe 1500m if they are on a track ; maybe 1609m if they are running a mile but…

  21. Jon K. on November 14, 2013 at 8:28 am

    I saw this debate on The four letter network the other day, who is the greatest wide receiver of all time Jerry Rice or Calvin Johnson, Jr. Calvin possess skill, of course, but his natural abilities(size, stength, leaping ability, speed,etc.) set him apart from the rest of the field. Jerry Rice was much less genetically gifted but was a technical master, he ran perfect routes, devoloped amazing hands though hard work and knew the game inside and out. Megatron has more natural ability but both men spent years working their games to the elite level. Athletism is natural ability at any and all sports. While an athlete is an individual that dedicates time, effort and focus to an athletic persist. Athletism doesn’t necessarily make you an athlete and lack of it, doesn’t keep you from being one. Do Work.

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  24. Don on March 23, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Just look at the show “Shaq Vs” and you can see a great athlete fail at other sports. I think each athlete should be ranked and judged based on their performance in their particular sport.

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