What Is Athleticism, And How Do We Test It? 10 Critical Components

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Most of us probably have a notion of what athleticism is—or we can at least identify an activity or sport that requires a lot of athleticism for success—but actually defining athleticism can be challenging. 

Coming up with a succinct athleticism definition isn’t necessarily difficult—we can use the dictionary to come up with the denotation of the term—but measuring athleticism by fully understanding what athleticism encompasses in a practical sense is challenging.

So, what is athleticism? 

In this article, we will discuss what athleticism entails, the qualities and traits that athleticism encompasses, and how to measure or test yours.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Athleticism?
  • Qualities and Characteristics that Define Athleticism
  • How to Measure Athleticism

Let’s jump in!

Two people in a gym smiling and flexing their biceps, showing athleticism.

What Is Athleticism?

Although it will become clear that defining athleticism is quite challenging from a practical perspective, let’s at least kick things off with a basic athleticism definition and then tease it apart with more scrutiny from there.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, athleticism is defined as “Athletic ability: the combination of qualities (such as speed, strength, and agility) that are characteristic of an athlete.”

Embedded right in the athleticism definition is the phrase “combination of qualities.”

This speaks to the fact that there is no single trait that defines someone as athletic; rather, athleticism can be thought of as the composite of numerous physical (and arguably mental) components of fitness and sport that help an athlete be successful.

But what are the traits or qualities that encompass athleticism? Although certain traits are rather uncontested—such as strength and speed—there isn’t actually an established list.

Let’s consider some of the commonly-cited important factors that determine athletic success and are associated with a high degree of athleticism.

A person running accross a bridge.

Qualities and Characteristics that Define Athleticism

Here are some of the most important factors that determine athletic success in different sports:

#1: Strength

Strength refers to your ability to create force. Strength can be thought of in absolute or in relative terms. 

In terms of absolute strength, this can involve how much weight you can lift (squat, bench, deadlift, etc.).

With relative strength, what is your strength-to-weight ratio? For example, how many pull-ups can you do? This type of strength is really important in sports like wrestling and gymnastics.

A person doing a yoga pose on a rock.

#2: Speed 

Speed is how fast you can move. With many sports, this means how fast can you run from point A to point B at a maximal effort.

In sports like cycling, swimming, or rowing, your speed is how fast you can move your body in that exercise at maximal effort.

#3: Power

Power is the ability to generate a maximum amount of force in a minimal amount of time. It can be thought of as strength divided by speed or explosiveness.

#4: Aerobic Capacity

Aerobic capacity refers to your VO2 max or the maximal amount of oxygen you can take in and use to generate energy during exercise.

A silhouette of a person hiking.

#5: Aerobic Endurance

Aerobic endurance refers to how long you can sustain continuous aerobic exercise before fatiguing. 

#6: Anaerobic Capacity 

Your anaerobic capacity is the maximal amount of work you can perform at a near-maximal effort before exhaustion.

#7: Local Muscular Endurance

Local muscular endurance refers to the ability of your muscles to continue contracting and doing work for an extended period of time. 

For example, if you can only do five push-ups before your arms fatigue, your muscular endurance in your triceps and pectoral muscles is poorer than an athlete who can bang out 50 push-ups without stopping.

#8: Agility

Agility refers to your ability to quickly and precisely change direction and be nimble on your feet in a coordinated and seamless manner. It can involve balance and coordination, or these may be considered separate components of athleticism.

A gymnast on a balance beam.

#9: Flexibility and Mobility

Flexibility refers to your permissible range of motion, and mobility refers to the usable range of motion in your joints and muscles.

#10: Focus, Determination, and Mental Strength

Mental resilience and your ability to stay focused, calm, and competitive under pressure can also be an important component of athleticism.

Since there’s no single, universally agreed-upon list of the components of fitness or athletic traits that define or fall under the umbrella of athleticism, it’s common to see additional traits such as stability and even body composition.

The main point to keep in mind is that there are a lot of different athletic traits that together coalesce to determine how athletic someone is or how much “athleticism” they possess.

Most importantly, the degree to which all of the potential components factor into how successful you’ll be at a given sport depends upon the physiological demands of the sport (and arguably the mental needs as well).

For example, a marathon runner and a sprinter can be equally successful in their respective sports and display athleticism.

A person riding a bike.

However, the needs for each of these athletes to be successful vary significantly. 

The marathon runner needs much more aerobic capacity and cardiovascular endurance, and muscular endurance, while the sprinter needs more power, speed, and strength.

Agility is quite low on the totem pole or hierarchy of needs for either of these athletes but is quite important for sports like tennis, soccer, gymnastics, basketball, and squash.

A trait like flexibility is supremely important for a gymnast, ice skater, or dancer but is much less of a determinant of success in a sport such as baseball (though all sports and physical activities require enough flexibility to support mobility and movement economy for the movement patterns).

When considering what defines someone as possessing a high degree of athleticism, he or she should demonstrate an overall balance in each of the various elements or a high performance relative to others in every attribute—strength, power, speed, agility, aerobic capacity, etc.

This type of person might be described as an all-around athlete, meaning he or she could perform well in any sport once the rules and techniques were mastered. The fitness and physical traits for success would already be there.

A person swimming.

However, for athletes who compete or participate in a specific sport, the relative importance of certain athletic traits and skills is higher than others for success.

Essentially, you can make a hierarchy of the athletic qualities or traits that encompass athleticism for any given sport. 

This would essentially look like a ranking of how necessary or how important each component is to succeed in the sport.

Besides being an interesting exercise and a fascinating way to compare the demands of different sports, creating this type of hierarchy can be helpful for you to guide training and conditioning. 

For example, if strength, speed, and power are the most important athletic traits for your sport, you should spend most of your training time in these areas.

If you’re particularly deficient in one area, such as speed, you can devote more training time to that aspect (for example, doing sprint training).

In this situation, it can also be helpful to incorporate exercises that combine several of these key qualities. For example, you might do speed training with resistance, such as sprinting with a parachute, hill sprints, and sled pushes to develop explosive power and speed, and strength and speed, at once.

A person doing a bicep curl.

How to Measure Athleticism

Because there are quite a few physical qualities that defined athleticism, such as strength, aerobic fitness, agility, and power, as well as a general nebulous definition with no absolute list of the specific qualities covered therein, there is no single fitness test to measure athleticism.

Certain batteries, such as the Athletic Ability Assessment, have been developed, but many of these are criticized in one way or another for neglecting important components. 

Because athleticism encompasses numerous traits pertinent to physical fitness, a battery of tests is necessary to measure it properly. Then, some type of composite score such as an index or rating from these various tests has to be calculated by creating some type of formula for a “composite score of athleticism.

Of course, because athleticism is poorly defined, and each of the traits (speed, power, endurance, etc.) can be measured in various ways, developing a standardized framework for measuring it seems pretty ambitious at this point.

A person doing a push up.

Here are a few possible ways to measure the components of athleticism we defined: 

  • Strength: Max bench press or squat (1RM)
  • Speed: 55-meter dash
  • Power: Vertical jump, broad jump
  • Aerobic Capacity: VO2 max
  • Aerobic Endurance: Graded treadmill tests to exhaustion
  • Anaerobic Capacity: Wingate Anaerobic Test on a cycle ergometer
  • Local Muscular Endurance: Push-up test
  • Agility: Illinois Agility Test, Agility T Test
  • Flexibility and Mobility: Sit-and-reach test

What traits do you think are important components of athleticism? How do you stack up?

If you want to begin to challenge your athletic ability, try out some of our fun 30-day fitness challenges!

A person smiling flexing their bicep.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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