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Ryan Carlyle

What does it mean to be an athlete?

By Ryan K. Carlyle

Member of the 2016 Team USA's 12 player squad for the Rio Olympic Games

There is a 0.00001% (approximately 560 US summer Olympians + 230 US winter Olympians / 8 million high school athletes) chance of becoming an Olympian in the United States. It takes what feels like a lifetime to hit that target and when you do, you can't believe how fast it happened. In reality all athletic careers are remarkably short lived, but career end do not equal the feeling and identity of being an athlete. That identity is life-long.

The athlete identity is unique in its profundity and scope. It can be assigned early in life, at the first glimpse of hand-eye coordination, and cultivated by parents, coaches, friend groups, routines, to a role that follows the child from their career as a 4-year-old tee-ball prodigy through to the cliche high school social structures, and finally, for some, as a professional.

The deep ties in society between an athletes performance, "winning," and a person's assigned value can sometimes create an identity crisis within an athlete. "Are you a winning athlete or a losing athlete?" you may be asked. And, how does that reflect on your self-worth? What do you do when the winning is over, you've run your last race, or you've played your last game? 

Through many years of working with mental coaches, reading self help books, speaking with other athletes (current and retired), routinely meeting with sports psychologists, and ultimately getting sick of feeling incredibly depressed and lost trying to understand this complex identity, I have finally learned how to hold these things in tension. I no longer identify with prestigious titles, with awards or with results and I now identify with my personal characteristics that made those things a by product of WHO I AM. 

I may not always be a rugby player or an athlete. I won’t always be fast or strong. I won’t always be tested against metrics to decide if I can even call myself “fast” or “strong.” Regardless, I will always have these qualities and my character that made me a world class rugby player. These characteristics require zero talent. They are essentially basic principles for success that can be learned at a very young age and practiced everyday for the rest of our lives. For 10 years professionally and for a lifetime before that, I put these principles to practice towards being an athlete. I can now transfer them to ANYTHING I want and EVERYWHERE I go.

Ryan Carlyle on the Ruby pitch

Be Disciplined and Make Sacrifices

As we grow up, life and its experiences broaden. We are provided with more options and with that comes the responsibility of our choices. As an athlete, we have to turn away from a lot of socializing that will or might hinder our performance. I’ve missed countless weddings, newborn babies, birthdays, graduation parties, and funerals. Not because I wanted to not participate in any of those things, but because I knew the outcome of participating NEVER outweighed the outcome of a top performance. If you want to succeed you have to understand the responsibility of your choices. You have to learn to make the choices that will directly and indirectly positively affect your progress towards your goal.

Be Coachable

Being coachable comes with being okay with vulnerability. You have to be open to criticism and able to interpret the feedback into a process to get better. We cannot control the delivery of feedback. Let me repeat that: We cannot control the delivery of feedback. There are terrible coaches out there. There are terrible managers and terrible bosses. A coachable person has the ability to receive poorly delivered messages and comprehend the underlying message.

Have Work Ethic

Okay this one isn’t as easy as the rest, I’ll admit. This one comes down to your core values and your ability to stay focused and persistent in your pursuit. It’s your ability to feel reward without seeing it. It’s doing the thankless jobs. Many people think you have to love what you do in order to be willing to work hard for it. That’s not true, if you learn to embrace the process, dedicate yourself, and watch your hard work turn into success, you’ll love what you did. People don’t love hard work, people love success. Work ethic brings success.

Have a Good Attitude

Having a good attitude is not only a great way to maximize your talents, but also a way to make up for what you don’t have (yet). No one will ever fault you for having a good attitude. A good attitude is a great coping method. Thinking positively brings optimism and hope into your life. It’s easier to avoid anxiety with a great attitude.

Have Passion

Passion is the energy that keeps us feeling full. It’s what keeps us doing our thing and keeps us excited for what’s next and in anticipation of more. Passion is a powerful force in accomplishing anything you set your mind to. Passion is meant to be expressed. Passionate people are enjoyable to be around and to learn from. I’m passionate about working out, I’m passionate about cooking, I’m passionate about hanging out with my partner, I’m passionate about reading. I’m passionate about hearing of people living their best life. I’m passionate about writing this so that you can understand what you’re passionate about. 

Do Extra

Extra is taking the trash out when you know the janitor is coming later, but it’s full now. Extra is If you have the work ethic, energy and passion then doing extra will just come along with it. If you’re part of a team, you should know how your job directly affects the progress of the team. Therefore, you should know that if you do more to help others and more to progress the team, then you will get more in return--whether its help from others when YOU need it, or whether its more positive results in your performance.

Accept Responsibility

In rugby, there is a popular quote out of the book “Legacy” by James Kerr. That is “Sweep the Shed.” Its New Zealand’s team cultural mantra that no individual is bigger than the team and everyone is responsible for the smallest details. No job, including cleaning the locker room or sweeping the shed is beneath you. Taking responsibility is crucially important to building trust with others. Take responsibility for your own actions and accept responsibility by moving beyond yourself to help people or situations around you that call for assistance. 

Have Energy 

This comes down to taking care of yourself. Eat clean, get enough rest, drink a lot of water and exercise. When our energy is high, working hard and staying positive gets easier. Energy is contagious and it empowers people in a positive way – be that power. Have the energy to go the extra mile. 


Be On Time

Being on time (which in most cases really means being early) shows that you value and respect what you’re showing up for and the people you are meeting. It’s a display of your ability to plan and prioritize. It shows that you care. If you’re willing to be late, are you going somewhere you truly want to be? Do you respect and care for the people you’re willing to show up late for? Being on time also allows you the time to stay calm, stay focused on what you’re arriving for. You know when people say “actions speak louder than words?” Yeah, this is one of those actions.

Be Prepared

Being prepared simply means thinking ahead. Not too far ahead, we always want to stay present in our mindset, but we should pay attention to the details and have a strong sense of awareness. Whether it's a business meeting or a training session, we have the ability to consider and look into what questions might be asked, what assignments were due, or what the weather might be like. 

Apply Effort

I’ve heard people try to argue work ethic and effort are the same. I completely disagree. Work ethic is your desire – effort is how hard you work. Leadership speaker Rory Vaden says, “Success is never owned; it is only rented -- and the rent is due every day.” You can’t give effort only when you feel like it and expect results. Champions give maximum effort every day of their life, even when they don’t feel like it. Even when they are tired, even when their bank account is empty--Champions will always pay their rent. 

Present positive Body Language

I am a huge believer in the mind-body relationship. Our thoughts can dictate how we feel, but our body language can dictate our thoughts. When I get nervous or tired I immediately adjust my posture. In an interview I sit up tall, lean forward, make eye contact, and smile. On the rugby field I wouldn’t DARE slouch or lean on my knees--a tell tale sign of weakness or fatigue. Mental toughness requires good body language. This is the perfect time to “fake it ‘til you make it.” No one can read our thoughts; they can only see our body language. Head up, encourage others, clap, and smile. 

Have a reason Why

During my hardest training sessions for the Olympics, I saw mental images of me sitting on my living room floor as a little girl watching the US Women’s Soccer team win the 1999 World Cup. As a 9 year old, I had decided I was going to be a professional athlete and a champion of sport. As a 28 year old gasping for air in the final minutes of a 90minute conditioning session, I was able to see that little girl and be proud of how tired I feel, and be excited to feel as tired and sore tomorrow because I was doing it; I was becoming a champion. Having a reason why is what keeps you going when you’ve got nothing else left in your tank and no one around to fuel you up.