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The role of parents in developing athletes

I've been thinking a lot lately about the role parents play in the development of athletes.  As a coach, one question I am frequently asked is at what age should kids begin training?  My response usually depends on who is asking - the kid or the parent.  If the parent is wondering it is probably too early.  If the kid is chomping at the bit and excited to talk training, then it is probably fine to begin as long as the emphasis is on having fun and making gradual, incremental improvements rather than simply winning.

In my experience I'd say there isn't one right or wrong age to begin training, but an emphasis should always be placed on being outside and living an active life from a very early age.  Then when the time comes to train specifically for a particular event or discipline, the underlying strength and endurance will already be there because the body has been preparing itself for years.

Backpacking with my brother, Thomas Rivers Puzey, and my dad, Kim Puzey, in the sanctuary of Southern Utah.
Paradoxically, when training and competition are pushed on kids to fulfill a parent's or coach's needs or dreams the long term result generally doesn't turn out as well.  Particularly in endurance sports, the ones who are still competing after high school and college are most often not the ones who have been doing it their whole lives and/or had immediate success.  Rather than falling in love with the sweet taste of victory right off the bat, those of us who are still running fell in love with the road to improvement and the incremental little victories that came along the way.  It is generally these people enjoying the sport into their golden years.  

As a coach, my goal is to prepare my athletes for long term success, meaning I hope they not only enjoy the sports of cross country and track for the few years I am their coach in high school.  My hope is that they realize the existential nature of running and will continue to do it because they want to do it for the rest of their lives due to the priceless intrinsic benefits it brings.

As I reflect on my own life, I wonder what it was that led me to want to run and what it was that keeps me running.  Interestingly, many of these same factors also apply to my wife who is also still running and has no plans to stop.  

Both Jen and I agree that the number one factor that led us to run and keep running is the individual nature of the sport. We both come from relatively large families and we are both older than most of our siblings.  Consequently, resources weren't plentiful and we were taught the importance of work, responsibility, and individual accountability from a very young age.  Our parents are not athletes and never were.  None of them participated in organized sports.  None of them signed us up for sports so that they could feel busy, important, or fulfilled.  In fact, had we not begged our parents to sign us up for soccer, basketball, field hockey, and eventually track and cross country they probably wouldn't have even thought to enroll us.  

Rather than an emphasis on sports, in our homes we received an emphasis on learning and accountability.  Jen learned to read when she was three years old.  She was an ideal child and liked to sit quietly for hours reading and memorizing.  Conversely, I learned to ride my bike when I was three.  If my parents had money or health insurance I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD and been put on a heavy prescription of Ritalin.  Instead they gave me nature's drug by permitting me to roam the high plains of eastern New Mexico.  Though my home was filled with books, the only reading I cared to do as a youngster was about snakes and lizards.  I still can't read fantasy literature because for all intents and purposes my childhood was idyllic.  I never needed or wanted to escape through a wardrobe or any other means to another reality.  With my brother, Tommy, and friend, Jesus, we dug holes, rode bikes, threw rocks, caught reptiles (even the occasional rattler), built cages for our new pets, caught their food, watched them eat, built forts, and made fires.  There weren't a lot of rules other than be home by dark, don't cross 21st Street, if you kill something eat it, and if you catch something you have to feed it. Through these experiences I learned a lot.  If I didn't know something, then I'd read about it.  

Shortly after learning to ride a bike, my dad and I started building ramps to see how high I could get.
That bike became the vehicle to countless adventures through the desert wonderland of New Mexico.
The TV was rarely on aside from the 30 minutes in which my dad was watching the news.  We didn't have cable, a VCR, computer, or a video game console.  We had a typewriter, and we all knew that its purpose was for work - thesis after thesis, a voluminous journal, all culminating in a dense dissertation.  

Neither Jen nor I were signed up for little league anything until we reached the age of eight.  Even after being signed up, our parents were never our coaches and to be quite honest, they never really got into the games.  Despite attending most of them, they didn't yell at refs, bad mouth our coaches, or talk about the games after they were over.  Our post game talks usually consisted of "Good job!  Did you tell your coach or the team mom thank you?" In my case there was usually a bit of chastising about my poor attitude.  "If you are going to play with a scowl on your face and a bad attitude then you shouldn't be playing at all!  This is supposed to be fun!"  No talk of stats or strategy.  What happened at practice or the game stayed at practice or the game and then it was over and off to the next thing - usually a paper route, a lawn that needed to be mowed, or homework.  

By the time we started running we had already played other sports for years.  Despite relative success at other disciplines, we both really liked the individual nature of running.  Neither of us experienced immediate success in running, but we both enjoyed the fact that we were 100% responsible for our own progress and performances.  One thing that I believe is challenging for people who play, coach, or have been around other team sports is that there are so many other variables and stats that someone else can be blamed for a team loss and no one really has to take personal accountability for their own mistakes.  In running, neither is true.  The clock doesn't lie.  You either showed up or you didn't.  You either responded to the competition or you didn't.  You either put in the necessary training or you didn't.  Some crumble under such pressure, but as a microcosm of life, Jen and I found running to be so appealing that we were all-in from day one.  We gradually worked our way up day by day, week by week, year by year until  we were relatively competitive at the high school level and then through the same process tried to compete at the highest level we could in college and beyond.  

After hiking up to Mary Jane Falls near Mt. Charleston outside Las Vegas, NV we found and explored a cave.
To be fair, we were both fortunate to have loving, caring coaches who patiently taught us to love the sport and encouraged us to challenge our own limitations.  Along the way, we were supported by our parents to the extent that they were able, but they were never the kind to show up to our races with splits and race plan in tow.  Not once did they try to discuss training, strategy, or anything else related to running.  They tolerated endless weekends of Chariots of Fire, Fire on the Track, and Endurance.  They hosted team dinners and were always willing to feed our teammates when we'd show up unannounced for lunch. 

However, the greatest way in which they supported us is that they let running be our thing.  It wasn't about them.  It was about us.  Our performances (whether good or bad) were a reflection on us and our preparations and our desires, not them.  They weren't the ones waking up early to put in the miles and they didn't find the need to take credit or feel shame for our performances.

Our parents usually weren't the ones paying for our shoes or the camps we attended and if they did they were either birthday or Christmas presents.  They also made it very clear that despite the early emphasis on education they weren't going to be paying our college tuition.  This inspired us to do well in school, save the money we earned, and do our best in extracurricular activities. This is primarily why we chose to attend the college we did - it was the best education we could get at the price we could afford.  It was what led us to walk on to our college cross country teams and eventually earn athletic scholarships.  It is what continues to lead us to push ourselves educationally and athletically.

In addition to letting running be our thing, our parents also assured us that they loved us unconditionally.  Neither of us were perfect and our competitive focus on excellence assuredly wasn't easy to live with.  However, they never once withheld their love or treated us as more or less than their own flesh and blood depending on a race performance or report card.

My son, Cairo, exploring the shores of Henry Hagg Lake after crewing for his dad in the 50K.

One experience that is seared into my heart that motivates me to want to be the kind of parent mine were to me occurred at the end of my senior year in high school.  I had slowly worked my way from being the last guy on JV as a freshman to being one of our top distance runners as a senior.  I had worked hard and hoped that I could qualify for the state track meet.  However, in order to do that I would have to place top two in our conference meet and I would have to do it at altitude in Bend, OR.  The good thing about having Bend in our conference is that there were always good athletes to raise the level of competition.  The bad thing about having the Bend schools in our conference was that you usually had to be a DI runner just to advance to the state meet.  That year Bend High School was ranked 5th or 6th in the nation in Cross Country.  They perfect scored the conference meet and then put their top five guys in the top 15 at the state meet.  I felt like Daniel in the Lions Den.  In order for me to qualify for state I would have to beat at least two of three guys.  Two were already planning to run at the University of Oregon and Northern Arizona.  If one of them was having a bad day, I would have to beat the guy who went on to win the state XC meet the year after we graduated.

I went in thinking I had a chance of qualifying and knowing that most of my college running prospects hung on my ability to qualify for and compete at the state meet.  This was a BIG year in Oregon for running and guys had been talking about going for Pre's record of 8:09 at the state meet. I knew that if I could just get into that race I could get pulled to a BIG PR.  I just had to get there.

The race started out as expected and the top four ran together for the first mile.  I competed to the best of my ability, but unfortunately ended up placing forth behind the aforementioned formidable competitors.  Consequently, I didn't qualify for the state track meet.

I was absolutely crestfallen.  Everything I had worked for, everything I had hoped for, everything I was planning for was over.  I was numb and the my world was spinning out of control.  I had done everything I could to prepare for that day and still failed.  I had not qualified for the state meet and consequently would not even be able to walk-on at some of the schools I had hoped to run for.  After a few minutes of fumbling for my trainers and warm-ups I began cooling down.

As I finished up my cool down and was headed to my bag I ran into my dad.  This was not who I wanted to see at this time. I was ashamed and assumed he would be too. I was afraid he wouldn't understand.  I worried that he would feel that he had wasted his hard earned money driving down there, staying in a hotel, and eating out just to see his son place fourth.

I tried not to make eye contact with him. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

He tried to hug me.  I pushed him away.  Through rare tears, I cried, "I'm sorry!"

He pulled me close and explained something to me that I will never forget.

"Jake - I love you.  It doesn't matter to me how fast you are or how many races you win or how good of a student you are or what other awards you win.  If you want to run fast and win races and get good grades that is fine, but it will not change the fact or the amount that I love you.  All that matters to me is that you know I am proud of you and that I love you."

When I think of the role I need to play in my own kids' lives I remember this and the many other lessons my parents taught me.

The next time I am asked what role parents should play in developing athletes I will recommend:

  1. Promote and encourage an active, adventurous lifestyle outdoors.  
  2. Teach kids to work and to be personally accountable for their own actions.
  3. Don't sign them up for sports until they want to do it.
  4. Teach them that sports are supposed to be fun.
  5. Let the coach coach.
  6. Let their sport be their thing.  
  7. Love them unconditionally.

If kids grow up outside, knowing they are loved by someone who teaches them to work, be responsible, and not make excuses, the successes in school, sports, and life will take care of themselves.

My son, Cairo, running up the hill at the 2013 Tough Rhino Mud Run.
Epilogue: Both Jen and her brother, David, were the valedictorians of their large high school in Las Vegas, NV and received academic scholarships to the universities of their choice.  Pretty good for the daughter of an immigrant father who moved to the U.S. not knowing any English and a mother who only completed a semester of college.

Of my parents' six children, five have attended college and all five received academic scholarships.  Three of the five received athletic scholarships.

Much of the emphasis on sports, particularly in small towns, is an emphasis on earning a college scholarship and eventually making it to the big leagues.  In most cases I have witnessed as both an athlete and coach, the kids who have a balanced foundation in academics, ethics, and athletics usually get more total scholarship money and stay in school longer than the ones whose parents emphasize sports at all costs.   Their lives end up being more fulfilling and if they do make it to the ranks of professionals they figure out how to make it work rather than burn out and fade away.