Mark Gillett

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Are You An Athlete?

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Street Child Sierra Leone

Each year I provide media for a few races or events around the world. Some of them long and arduous some short and powerful and as the sporting leisure world, or more accurately the business of leisure pursuits, grows I find my self hearing the word athlete along with elite and high performance, being banded around so freely that I was beginning to feel I didn’t understand the definition anymore.. So! On my run today as it was buzzing around in my head I thought I would look it up when I got home and write my thoughts on what an athlete is….

On googling the definition of athlete it threw up a few more complications than I expected. It is obviously related to sport but remains a little fluffy and open to abuse. My version I believe is much clearer! To me its very cut and dried. Firstly, sport is a competitive activity requiring skill and an athlete is someone who is trained (not on the way to being trained) and training in a competitive physical sport or activity working to increase their level of high performance. Performance is clearly performing in the arena of the sport we are in training for. We cant measure true performance only in training.  The training involves constant improvement in physical, mental and nutritional areas and should be intensive. The performance should eventually reflect the improvement in training. Clear?Street Child Sierra Leone

If I go on 4 weekly runs and cycle my bike around the city with a couple of gym sessions a week and maybe some boxercise in Hyde Park or perhaps that other crazy mindless activity of spinning, it does not make me an athlete. It makes me a recreational fitness freak, a fit person, not a fat person, or a person fitter than most splodges that walk down the high street. It makes me someone who cares about my health or wellbeing but certainly not an athlete. You might have athletic looks and an athletic build but thats where it stops. Still clear?? Things change when I begin to compete and train intensively for improvement in the competitive arena. Anything else is recreational. This for me is critical as only in the real sporting arena can you build your athletic mind. A vital part of being a true athlete.

I have been an athlete in two arenas in my life. Tennis and running. Both took a long time and a lot of effort reach a point where I could really call my self a tennis player or a runner. And to me you only stand a chance of reaching those titles when you begin to compete. If I train for tennis 20 hours a week and never compete I am not a tennis player. I just practice or train or hit balls across a net. If I play the odd sunday morning 3 sets, I am still not a player. To play tennis I must compete in minimum club level matches and tournaments to experience what the sport is all about. If I jog or run 5 times a week without ever running in some local races, or perhaps cross country events I am not a runner. I merely move faster than walking pace in order to keep healthy. Only when I start running in races do I see my real level. And believe me its not funny when you enter your first cross country and a 75 year racing snake beats you across the line. And just for the record, boxercise in the park does not make me an athlete either!!

So what am I?

I am an “ex athlete” in the same way that someone who is no longer in the army is “ex army”. Or a banker who now runs a cafe is an ex banker or cafe owner.

Why is this important?

I believe its important to be true to yourself and true to your profession if you coach. I see a lot coaches who purport to be high performance athletes but have not played a competitive game since the age of 17 or 18 when they left school. And for many they never got anywhere near competing in the first place. I see gym instructors calling themselves athletes when in reality they are fitness instructors and not athletes. Maybe they are excellent motivators with a diploma or degree in physiology but they are not experienced athletes. They have never experienced coming from behind to achieve victory or seen the trophy being snatched away at the last minute. The true athlete or ex athlete will have experienced all this as well as read the books. Street Child Sierra LeoneThe athlete will have learnt from thousands of hours of coaching, training and competing, how to battle to the last. Learnt from the feedback for their next performance. They will have won and glorified in it as well as lost and felt humiliated, and felt their world was about to end. They carry with them a knowledge of what being an athlete really is. They will have trained tirelessly for that goal of winning even if they never win.

Its important to me as I still coach outside of sport. I know what it takes to reach certain levels of performance. I know what it feels like to have the trophy snatched away at the last minute and to suffer nerves so great that the muscles in my arm will barely let me swing the racket. I know what it feels like to have all eyes on me having just served a double fault at match point. I know that to lose concentration for just a few seconds can result in a disaster lasting many minutes in your head. And most of all that I have learnt how to control those emotions but also that I can’t control every situation. I know pretty much the calorie and the nutritional value of just about everything that goes into my mouth. I know how certain foods will make me feel when I perform. I know what will happen if I over train or under train. I know how my performance will change if my weight changes by only a couple of pounds in either direction and that this is different for different sports. And I know how my belief and confidence will strengthen if I train smarter. I know this because I have experienced it and not just read about it. I have won and I have failed miserably.

Are you an athlete and does it really matter?Emma Buller

Well, this is up to you to decide and only you really. There is nothing wrong with being a fitness nut and not an athlete but there is something wrong with pretending or just flirting with the idea of being an athlete. Training to a goal is useful. Competing in sport is one of the most character building things we can do. It does not have to be high level but competing teaches us so much of what we are going to experience in our lives and, conversely, if you come to sport later in life, some of your life experiences will have a direct impact in how well you compete.

Equally it is fine to take part in activity for the sole reason of feeling good about yourself or to get that beach bod that has eluded you for so many years. All the reasons are valid.

I am currently an ex athlete and I am on the verge of training again but cant decide what for.. Whatever it is it will probably take me another 4-6 years to get to where I want to be and I will decide in the next few weeks what I will train for. Right now I am quite fit but my belly bounces a bit when I run, I get out of breath after a big hill and I’m ok on a bike. I need the competitive challenge again!

There are a number of great fun events to train for to get started. A first marathon or half marathon is a good target. But just completing a marathon will not lift you to that status of athlete but it will get you on the way and help in the beach bod department. Another great start is a charity race like the one I have just returned form in Sierra Leone, the Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon. This way you get to improve your physical being, help with a charity project and get to walk the beach at the end. The images in this article are all from that race which had a real mix of athletes and non athletes. But all had a great week in Sierra Leone.

I know some great races around the world so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want some advice.

Here are a few more images from Sierra Leone.

I’d like to thank Gambia Bird for supporting my flight as well as the charity and really are the airline to fly to West Africa.

Written by markgillett

May 30, 2014 at 4:32 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Love this. Wonderful words and beautiful photos.

    Run Colby Run

    May 31, 2014 at 1:34 am

  2. Hey Mark,

    I am setting plans for MdS ’15 and thought to ask you about the best organizations to raise awareness and funds. My preference is to partner with an organization who is making an impact and any finds raised goes directly to clients served. One group I am considering is Facing Africa. Do you know of others? What organization(s) do you recommend?

    Thank you,


    Georgia Stansell

    August 19, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    • Hi Georgia, Yes Facing Africa is a good one. I know the man who set it up and they do really good stuff. I would go with that unless you have a personal one close to your heart??



      August 26, 2014 at 2:14 pm

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