I’ve told the story countless times about how I ended up a runner. My mom had put me in sport after sport, so the story goes, and my soccer coach pulled her aside. “Ms. English,” he said, “your son is a terrible soccer player, but outruns everyone on the field. Perhaps he is a runner.”I always tell this story to get the chuckle that invariably comes when the coach says that I was a terrible player. This is likely true. I’m one of the least coordinated people that I know. In fact, I often refer to myself as a “big dumb engine” — turn me on and I just go. But there is another side to that story that I’ve never really talked about. Another response my mom could have had was, “well, is he having fun?”
It occurs to me that we are often so focused on being “good” at things like sports that we forget that we can do them just for the sake of having fun. At the young age of six years old, should it have mattered that I was terrible at playing soccer? Should it have mattered that I might excel at running? What if I loved the game of soccer and hated running? Should we always be in search of the things in which we are most competitive?
I’ve noticed a bit of language that I key in to related to this these days. When I’m talking to runners and triathletes, they often use the word “should” — as in “should I run another marathon?”, “should I try to qualify for Boston?” “should I do another Ironman?” What underlies these questions is a sort of obligation. ‘Should’ implies there is a some reason or duty there. ‘Should’ could be interchanged with “must” pretty easily.
I think a better question, the one that I often ask in return now is “what do you WANT to do?” Rather than ‘should’, I think the most important part of the equation is what you, the person making the choice, ‘wants’ to do. Rather than trying to see if something fits in your life, your job, or with what other people will think is cool, you as an athlete need to decide if this is something you ‘want’ to do. If it is, then you will figure out a way to organize your life in ways that will allow it to happen.
There was a line in a movie, I don’t recall which one, when someone asked “how they have the time” to do something and the person responded, “I don’t have the time, I make the time.” I see this as a good way to think about what I’m talking about here. Many athletes are concerned about “finding the time” for their training, because it is time that takes them away from their spouse. But the bottom line is that it is a balance. If you as a person as doing something that you “want” to do, then you are likely more fulfilled, more happy and a more joyous person. This makes you a better partner in the time that you are together. This is why it is so important that the equation is “want” rather than “should”. ‘Want’ makes us happy. I’m not sure what ‘should’ does for us.
I heard someone this weekend at a race proclaim, “I had the second fastest T2 (bike/run transition) time!” He was elated that he had found something that he was best at. On the one hand, I could say that this made me smile to think that everyone can find something they are good at. But on the other hand, the question I really wanted to ask him was “did you have fun today?” because that’s what really matters.
Taking us back to the story with my mom and soccer, it’s important that we try to unravel our programming on this issue. It could be that from a very early age, you’ve been programmed, like I have, to only look at sport through the most competitive lens. Let’s work together to move into a space of what we ‘want’ to do rather than what we ‘should’ do and make sure we are having fun.
Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
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