Why All Athletes are Artists

Change the way you think about your time as an athlete.

I was an athlete, not an artist. My extra-curricular contribution was on the basketball court and baseball field, not in the studio wielding a paintbrush.

This is how I thought for my entire athletic career. Despite flashes of artistic ability, I thought of myself as an athlete and it stayed that way until the day I retired from baseball.

Then, I struggled. And struggled. And struggled.

I couldn’t let go of my self-identification as an athlete.

If I wasn’t an athlete, who was I?

This question led me to a realization.

This realization has been solidified as I’ve accepted the end of my career and moved on. In fact, I believe that it’s been a major key in any forward progress I’ve made in my life after sports.

A GIF of DJ Khaled saying "Major Key Alert"

That realization not only helped me to better understand my work as an athlete but also helps me to do better work today.

What is the realization, you ask?

Let me tell you…

All Athletes are Artists

Artists are people with a genius for finding a new answer, a new connection, or a new way of getting things done.

Seth Godin, Linchpin[efn_note]Linchpin is outstanding. If you want to do anything remarkable in life, it should be on your 2019 reading list.[/efn_note]

We must expand our definition of an artist.

The artist isn’t only someone who is masterful with a paintbrush or who can tell a compelling story through their words.

No, all it takes to be an artist is to solve interesting problems.

That’s all? Sounds hard.

You’re 100% right.

Solving interesting problems is a unique skill — one that you’ve been solving since you first picked up the bat, dribbled the basketball, or shot a puck on net.

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    The athlete is a highly skilled artist

    When artistry is about problem-solving, the athlete gets included. Every movement is a highly-calculated decision based on external stimuli.

    I might get some disagreements here from “real artists”, but I think all of these (and more) qualify as artistic moments:

    • Throwing a high-pressure 3-2 fastball on the black for a strikeout
    • Hitting a 92 MPH slider from Noah Syndergaard
    • Steph Curry maneuvering his way through traffic and nailing a 3-pointer from 35 feet away
    • Patrick Mahomes dishing out no-look passes in an NFL game

    Athletes are constantly solving interesting problems. They’re dealing with a rapidly changing environment and coming up with creative solutions that are then showcased in front of everyone watching.

    I wish I would have understood this while I was playing. I think this is key to helping athletes detach from their athletic identities and allow them to move on to the next phase of their lives.

    Say it with me:

    All athletes are artists.

    All Former Athletes Are Artists, Too

    For you and me — former athletes — thinking of ourselves as artists (creative problem-solvers) helps us move on from sports.

    Many athletes have a hard time transitioning out of sports because they’ve never thought of themselves as anything other than an athlete. They were the star pitcher, the stud basketball player, or the #1 golfer on the team and couldn’t move past that status in their mind.

    After their athletic career ended, they are stuck living in the past because they’ve only ever thought of themselves as an athlete — someone who plays sports.

    But, if we expand our minds and begin to think of ourselves as artists, we will open up a world of opportunity in our life after sports.

    No more will you face the depression that comes from no longer being an athlete.

    No more will you doubt your ability to contribute in a meaningful way in the world.

    Instead of being stuck trying to move on from your athletic identity, you will look for the next way to solve interesting problems.

    You can contribute again, and understanding yourself as a creative, problem-solving artist is a key to living your best life after sports.

    Now That You’re An Artist…

    Acceptance of yourself as artist is the first step.

    I would expect a lot of athletes to denounce this right away if it weren’t for the new definition of artist: creative problem-solvers.

    For me, this was key to helping me self-identify as a writer.

    When I made this connection that athletes are artists, I could fight back against The Resistance and begin to do the important work of a writer: write.

    You’ll go through plenty of moments where you feel like this. Where the performance is subpar, the words don’t come (or worse, they do and no one reads it), the video edit doesn’t look right, or you’re not connecting with potential customers on sales calls.

    But once you accept that you are an artist, a world of opportunity opens to you. You’ll have to fight The Resistance at every turn, but that’s the nature of improvement. Any time you seek to improve some aspect of your life, The Resistance will try to dissuade you from whatever you’re doing.

    There are two main things that you should do when you realize that you are an artist.

    1. Turn Pro

    In Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro, he discusses the difference between amateurs and professionals.

    The main takeaway from this is simple: Amateurs give excuses for why they can’t do something. Professionals look past those excuses and forge ahead.

    I’d like to say that it’s a subtle change that can be done by flipping one switch in your mind, but that’s not true. Instead, it’s a complete overhaul of the mindset behind your life.

    When you turn pro, everything changes.

    The Professional (Not Professional) Pitcher

    I might get some slack for this, but I consider myself to have been a professional baseball pitcher even though I never threw a professional pitch.

    Even though it might sound crazy, I stick to that.

    I wasn’t a professional pitcher by the standards of those who make decisions for the MLB teams.

    No, I decided to turn pro. It was an internal reality well before the 2017 MLB Draft came and deemed me not worthy.

    My work habits were like those of professionals, and I had the mindset of a professional.

    My days were designed around training. I wasn’t trying to “squeeze in” baseball. Instead, baseball was the non-negotiable thing in my life. I had a 2-5 hour block taken out of each training day and then took care of business outside of the training arena with nutrition, hydration, education, and sleep. At some point, I decided to go all-in.

    This was the day I turned pro.

    Maybe you were the same way. I hope so.

    Resistance and Turning Pro

    In your life after sports, you’ll undoubtedly feel like an amateur.

    I felt very amateurish my first day at the place I currently work. I work in sales and discovered quickly that I didn’t know the first thing about selling meat snack products to grocery stores.

    I had the same experience when I started a vlog, podcast, and this website.

    Who am I to do this work?

    That question still tries to talk to me each morning when I wake up to write.

    This is The Resistance. When you get these doubts, you can rest assured that you are doing meaningful work.

    Once you discover something worth turning pro in, you have a choice to make. That choice is whether you will continue to be the amateur with infinite excuses or you will burn the ships, decide that there is no going back, and turn pro.

    I hope you make the right decision.

    When you turn pro, you’re putting a stake in the ground to fight back against The Resistance. The professional makes a declaration that this is who they are, and they’re going to see it through. They’re going to do the work.

    2. Do The Work

    Turning pro is the first step to the life you want to live. After that comes the daily process of doing the work.

    When Tiger Woods mulled over turning pro after his 3rd straight US Amateur championship, he had a lucrative Nike sponsorship awaiting him. This kid would go from a Stanford-educated golf phenom to a worldwide sensation seemingly overnight.

    His life was going to change the moment he turned pro, but he wasn’t going to be Tiger Woods, the man who transcended golf, just because he looked out at the Greater Milwaukee Open media and said, “I guess…hello world.”

    Even though he was already one of the most talented golfers in the world, Tiger had to do the work if he would step into the fullness of his potential.

    And did he ever do the work.

    Wielding a golf club, Tiger Woods was (and is) one of the finest artists this world has ever seen.

    You — an artist in your own right — have the opportunity to turn pro and then do the work.

    Each day, the professional shows up. The professional does what he says he’s going to do.

    Will you do the same? Or will you remain an amateur?

    It’s Your Turn

    You have been gifted with the opportunity to turn pro. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

    Remember those old NCAA commercials?

    This one?

    You have the opportunity to turn pro in work that matters.

    Will you take it?

    To Help: I’ve created a how-to guide around the topic of going pro. In it, I go deeper, taking you 3 steps further than we went in this article.

    All you need to do is fill in your first name and email below and I’ll send it to your inbox right away.

    1. We should collaborate.

      Former NCAA Athlete who dealt with the same identity crisis as described. While I was reading, I began thinking of the old NCAA commercial and actually paused a few minutes before noticing that you had actually included it. At that moment, it definitely seemed meant for me to cross paths with your article, even if it’s just to say, your perspective is on target, good job!

      – The Artist

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