What’s The Difference Between an ATHLETE and a PLAYER? (Learn Here)

Athlete is a more general word that can be used to describe a person involved in sports or physical activities.
Player is more specific, it’s used for games or sports that you “play” against another person or team.

Athlete vs Player

During the Olympic games, we hear the word athlete used a lot. The news talks about people competing from countries all over the world. Another word we often hear is player. One of my private students here in Japan asked me:

“What’s the difference between an athlete and a player?”

It’s a good question and I thought maybe other people studying English have the same question so I’d like to answer it in this blog post. I hope it’s helpful for you!

The Difference between an ATHLETE and a PLAYER

The meaning of these two words is similar, but there is a subtle difference.
subtle – not very obvious or easy to notice

Please check out the definitions below with pronunciation links from Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries


     Click for pronunciation
athlete – a person who competes in sports

Canada’s Olympic athletes marched together for the opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver winter games.

Canada's Olympic athletes marched together

Click for pronunciation
player – a person who takes part in a game or sport. A tennis/rugby/chess, player etc.

The two chess players were very focused on the game, always thinking 5 moves ahead.

Chess players need great concentration.

What’s the difference?

Athlete is a more general word that can be used to describe a person involved in sports or physical activities.
Player is more specific, it’s used for games or sports that you “play” against another person or team. (You can also play a game against a computer) Play is used for sports with a ball. We also play hockey (hockey uses a puck) and badminton (badminton uses a shuttlecock).

Here are some Olympic examples to highlight the difference.

All the participants in the Olympic games are called athletes. The Olympics also has teams with players

Players are in a competition where you get a goal or point against another player or team of players.

Some events are not measured by goals. They can be:

Measured by time 
(the fastest runner or skater for example)

Measured by distance
(the highest or the longest jump for example)

Scored by judges (gymnastics, snowboard half-pipe for example)

The participants in these events are usually called athletes, not players.

A player can also be an athlete

Lionel Messi is considered one of the best soccer players to ever play. He is a famous athlete known around the world.

…but not all athletes are players.

Rock climbers are athletes but we don’t call them players.

In the same way, we wouldn’t say that a video game player is always an athlete.

Athlete and player

The word athlete has an adjective form that is very common and you have probably heard before.
athletic adjective physically strong, fit and active

Darryl plays rugby, soccer, and he is on the track team. He is very athletic.

How to use the verbs PLAY, DO, and GO

*For many sports or activities we call the participants by their sport name + er. The same way someone who washes windows is a window washer, someone who snowboards is a snowboarder, someone who skates is a skater etc.

Check out my updated Root Word Method post to learn more about the suffix er.

Athlete Vs. Player Video

2 thoughts on “What’s The Difference Between an ATHLETE and a PLAYER? (Learn Here)”

  1. Pingback: How to use the verbs PLAY, DO, and GO (2021) - World English Blog

  2. Pingback: Do you have Confusing English questions? (Get Answers!)

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