Artists and Athletes: Are They Really that Different?

Several months ago, I was sitting across from a student and his dad at parent-teacher conferences. I was urging the student to sign up for art the following semester, as he had shown some very impressive skills. However, I was stunned when his dad spoke up and said, “Well, you know, it’s hard to get these sports guys to sign up for those classes.”

I didn’t get it. Last I checked, practice happened after school. I would know since I have to be ready to coach my volleyball and basketball teams after class. So why was it so challenging for this student to choose both art and sports?

student painting of swimmer

Art and athletics are often viewed at opposite ends of the spectrum. But, are athletes and artists really that different?

Today we are going to hear from an artist and former athlete to help solve this mystery.

Artist Hillary Werth was a heptathlete at UCLA and a member of the US National Bobsled Team. Although some people find it difficult to draw the connection between athletics and sports, for Hillary, it’s fairly easy. Both of her parents were professional athletes and artists. As she explains, “Art and athletics are literally in my DNA.”

Hillary Werth
Photo credit: Adam Reynolds Photography

Two Worlds At Odds?

For most of our students, the idea that these two worlds can find balance seems odd. Most often students are forced to choose which outlet to pursue. Although Hillary grew up in a household where both were embraced, there were times she was questioned by her peers. She says, “I always felt the need to prove myself because others didn’t understand my creative and athletic brain. When I realized I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, I started to succeed.” Because our students are heavily influenced by their peers, it’s important to teach them that choosing both is okay.

In fact, I’d argue that being an athlete makes for a more enriched, well-rounded art experience.

Sculpture by Hillary Werth
Sculpture by Hillary Werth

Striking Similarities

There are many common parallels between art and athletics. Hillary shares that her experience as an athlete has everything to do with the way she creates her art and runs her business. Both artists and athletes share a common trait in their pursuit of excellence and in their will for mastery. When asked about the similarities between the two Hillary said, “The passion that it takes to be an athlete or an artist are one and the same. I can find similarities from one of my athletic performances to a painting I did from start to finish.”

Painting by Hillary Werth
Painting by Hillary Werth

Both making art and engaging in athletics take hard work, practice, and drive. Both pursuits are rigorous. I often liken practicing an athletic skill to refining an art skill. A basketball player isn’t going to perfect their free throw shooting without practice. The same goes for an artist looking to get better at drawing.

Bringing Athletics into the Art Room

One of the best ways to break the imaginary divide of athletes and artists is to fuse them together. Why not create opportunities for sports to exist within the art room? If an art student is interested in athletics, let them incorporate that experience into their art making! Creating a self-portrait might not sound exciting to some, but creating a portrait of a favorite basketball player can be a game changer.

student work showing basketball player

Allowing opportunities to bring different worlds together will encourage more authentic experiences. Check out these athletes who have incorporated both into their lives!

There will probably come a time when students will have to decide if they want to dedicate more time to a sport or to their art. As Hillary described her own experience, “One always had to take priority depending on what I was trying to accomplish at the time. Neither one defines me, but they are equally a part of who I am.” With that, let’s encourage our students to explore their artistic and athletic sides to discover their best selves!

For more on Hillary’s art endeavors, you can view her work at Hillary Werth Art and follow along on Instagram: @HillaryWerthArt.

What traits do you think artists and athletes share?

How do you reach students that show a great interest in sports?

Abby Schukei

Abby is a middle school art teacher in Omaha, NE. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.

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  • karen culbreth

    good article. My son got a scholarship to Alfred U. for basketball and majored in art! He is still painting today.

    • Abby Schukei

      That’s fantastic! Thanks for sharing!

      • Henry Sanchez

        I am an elementary art teacher and I have kids who say they love PE but not art, Now I can read this to them and make them think about what they said!

  • Elizabeth Schmelzer

    I will never forget when my college professor found out that I was a cheerleader and friend in class was a football player. He actually gave us the silent treatment for about a week. It was incredible to me someone who was supposed to be helping me open my understanding of the world, could be caught up in such a limited way of thinking.
    As a high school art teacher, I am always looking to make connections with my student athletes. I believe they both bring a different perspective to the classroom but also help to advocate and enrich my classes.

    • Abby Schukei

      I can relate to that to some extent. For the first three years of college I was pre-dentistry and art. My professor couldn’t understand why I was “wasting” all this time in the science field. It turns out it made me more intuitive and a better artist! Keep up the good work of enriching the arts into your student athletes, it will make all the difference in the world!

  • Katie Swan

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I was in the track team with Hillary at UCLA as a thrower. I am also a ceramic artist and I’m writing my personal statement for grad school on the similarities as well. This article is great and uplifting. I’m an educator too and love when you can weave the two together. I’m totally interested in exploring this concept more. Thanks again!

    -katie swan
    http://Www.katieswanceramics.com
    @katieswanceramics

    • Abby Schukei

      Thanks for reading, Katie!

  • Vicky Siegel

    My son plays college football and is majoring in a graphics art program. He recently got to design the decal for their helmets! My daughter plays college soccer and is majoring in art therapy!

    • Abby Schukei

      That’s very cool! I love to see when the two worlds combine. Looks like you’ve fostered a great love of both athletics and art in your family, something I’d love to see more often! Thanks for sharing.

  • Leigh Ann Simpson

    I played college volleyball and majored in Art Education. My main Art professor was thrilled to have another artist athlete. She had played field hockey and majored in Art. One thing Ms. Stichweh told me was that both creating art and playing sports have in common is movement – sometimes gross motor, and sometimes fine motor. Good article, thanks!

    • Abby Schukei

      So true! We do a huge motion unit in my classroom and we ALWAYS start out with athletes as our first subject. On a side note, interesting to see your professor with the last name “Stichweh,” that’s a name of relation to me! Thanks for sharing, Leigh!

  • Abby Fliehler

    I love this article! The passion for improvement and the need for a challenge is what drive athletes and artists! I was a college track athlete and studio art major and now am a college track coach and elementary art teacher (and a painter and photographer when I have time). This article makes me think of the state of flow that we talk about a lot in art-creativity and focus…this happens in sports as well. I really never placed the two things together in this way before and I love how you highlighted this. The ability to focus for hours on a drawing or painting definitely helped make me a better middle distance/distance runner but that flow state, when everything is going right-that feeling is the same in a great race and when you’re making a great piece of art. And the work ethic I learned from training helps make me push myself as an artist. So cool to think about the different connections!

    • Abby Schukei

      Thank you, Abby! Looks like we’ve got a lot of artist-athletes out there. You’re so right, the connection between the two disciplines are almost one in the same, something we certainly need to continue to share with our students!