What does it take to be a champion?

There is a certain discussion people like to engage in that always seems to raise emotions: what is an athlete? At the extremes there are no arguments; there's no uncertainty about pro soccer players, just like there's no uncertainty about couch potatoes. But somewhere in the middle a line is drawn in the sand, separating those worthy of the title "athlete" and those that fall short.

Surely that line is arbitrary, since most can't define exactly where it is or why it's there. An athlete should be engaged in a "sport" at a high enough level, right? But what sports qualify? A weightlifter is an athlete, right? What about a golfer? A pool player? Or a chess player? Is a certain amount of physical prowess required before bestowing the coveted title of athlete?

Not that this will put the question to rest, but I do have a definition for the term "athlete" that highlights some more important components. In my eyes, an athlete is anyone in dedicated training for a sport with intent to compete. The important point is dedication, and it is that which decouples the "athlete" from the "athletic." It is also the point that allows anybody to be an athlete.

On a much stricter level, the same thing distances champions from the rest of the field. We are not all born with the same levels of talent, strength, and speed, but there are fewer people who rank far ahead of the curve than we are willing to believe. It's so easy to look at a winner and think, "I could never be that. That person was lucky to be born so talented." It's easy to assume that Olympians have some magic combination of talent and hand-eye coordination that sets them apart from mere mortals, but that's almost never the case. In reality, dedication is always, always, always more important.

Especially in a sport like weightlifting, the winners are the ones who combine an aptitude for the sport with time, focus, and a relentless pursuit of improvement. These are not just hollow words; a would-be contestant must understand and choose to follow through in order to succeed. Time means hours and hours, every week, often every day or multiple times a day, spent in the gym (or on the field) and spent preparing. You wake up in the morning and you take your vitamins, you eat a healthy breakfast, you drink water, you do whatever you need to do be ready to do whatever it is you will have to do. Maybe you have a morning workout, so you travel, possibly far away, and prepare to turn your mind away from the hassles of your daily life and focus. You spend an hour, two hours, maybe more, pouring your heart out, making every repetition, set, and movement count. You are exhausted, you are in pain, and still you decide every time you lift the bar that you are going to do it right. When you finish, you take your cooldown seriously, doing the exercises you need to do to enhance your core strength or rehab your nagging injury. You stretch, every time, doing more than just going through the motions. Every single thing you do is purposeful and done seriously, without trying to make it go by as fast as possible. When you finish, you ice what needs to be iced, and you make sure you eat and drink to stay healthy and hydrated. You give your body all the tools it needs to recover, because you know recovery is as important as training.

After your workout, maybe you go to work or class. You should have a life outside of training! But instead of going home afterwards, you might go back for another workout. Same routine, focusing completely on every rep. You are prepared because you ate right, stretched, worked on your posture, drank water, etc., all day, even at your job. You can spend another two hours pushing yourself to your limits. You are ready to do everything correctly and without holding back. When it's over, you eat healthy again, and you stretch, stay hydrated, and rest. You sacrifice; perhaps you don't go with your coworkers to McDonalds so you can eat your chicken and broccoli. Perhaps you don't go out drinking late Saturday night or out to dinner every night with your significant other.

And you don't just do this one day and stop because you're tired and your body aches. You do it again the next day, and the day after that. You follow a periodization schedule that has some weeks and months much harder than others. You don't quit or get disappointed when things don't go as planned and you fall short of your expectations. When an injury presents itself, you take the necessary time off, and you also diligently seek the fastest and most effective way to rehabilitate. You take that weakness that hurt you, the area in which your body gave out, and you make it stronger than it ever was so that it instead becomes one of your strengths.

It's not just enough to train hard, either. You must seek out the best, most effective methods of training, you must be willing to work on areas in which you are weak, and you must be unwaveringly committed to perfecting technique. Take the opportunity while you have it; how many people say, "if I only knew then what I know now?" Don't be satisfied with getting something right one time out of ten; learn to do everything correctly and consistently. You don't get infinite chances at competition time, so work the odds in your favor.

All of these things are difficult, and it is no small feat to accomplish them. The major point is that they are all within your power! Do you want to be a champion? This is what it means. You can do it, you just have to choose to do it.

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