My Coach Wants Me to Give Up Sprinting; Should I?

Dear Dumb Runner,
Hello! I am 16 years old and have just started running as part of the track team. I have never played a sport in my life before so I have to admit I'm very bad. Right now I am a sprinter, and I've only been to one track meet. The coach really wants me to try distance running, but I don't think I'd be much better there either. I am willing to work hard and I'd really, really like to continue to try sprinting. 

The coach has a philosophy that you are either naturally a sprinter or you are not. I know this must be true to a certain extent but is it reasonable for me to continue to work at it? The coach keeps making comments in front of the team about people who need to switch to distance and it's really discouraging. Should I just do long distance or should I work my butt off until I'm a decent sprinter? 

I believe I can do it, but maybe I'm wasting my time trying.—Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

If sprinting is what you want to do, then that is what you should do. No one else's opinions or agendas or philosophies should enter into the equation. Not even your coach's, with all due respect to him. 

That's the short answer. Here's the longer one:

Teachers and other authority figures wield tremendous influence over the lives of young people. (Did I really just use the phrase young people? Man, I'm old.) Mostly they use this power for good, modeling wisdom, civility, thoughtfulness, compassion, respect, and so on. Sometimes they use it poorly, using their positions to quash creativity (a la my first-grade teacher, who ordered me to stop drawing little pictures on my schoolwork) or to fill their students' heads with bunkum (my high school history teacher, who was also a creationist preacher, telling us that carbon dating was nonsense).

In this case, your coach is using his power poorly.

I'm sure his intentions are good, but he's wrong to be pushing or pressuring you, or any of his athletes, into one discipline or another to fit his own preconceived notions of who is "naturally" suited for what. That goes double for any athlete who's only just starting—and triple for any athlete who's only just starting and has found something she's eager to pursue.

The role of a high school coach is to work with his athletes and to help them develop, not to steer them onto this path or that one against their wishes.  

You aren't a baby. You're 16 years old, and you're doing exactly what 16-year-olds should be doing—trying things out, having fun, following your heart. In any event, you definitely should not be saying things like, I believe I can do it, but maybe I'm wasting my time trying.

What a heartbreaking thing to read!

For what it's worth: I ran track, too, way back in junior high. Hundred-yard dash. I sucked. Worse, I didn't enjoy it. So I quit.

Soon after, in high school, I took up cycling. Gradually I learned that while I was awful at short, intense events like criteriums, I excelled at long, sustained efforts, like centuries. So that's what I did, and it was great fun. After about a dozen years of that, I stumbled into distance running and discovered that I was even better at that.

Today, at age 46, I have done 26 marathons and I still love running. Living as I do in bike-friendly Portland, Oregon, I also use my bike a lot and I love that, too.

The takeaway here, Anonymous, is the word love. Do what you love. The rest, you'll find, has a way of sorting itself out. 

Good luck to you!

Yours Truly,


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