A Tale of Two High School Coaches

Ah, high school in the 90’s.

I know there’s been a lot of personal sharing here on SR lately, but with the 40th anniversary of Title IX this week, Salty asked me to share my experience as a young female athlete. If nothing else, I hope it motivates you to support a young woman in your life, whether in sports, academics, the arts or any other pursuit.

When I was fourteen I spent the entire summer working toward running three miles just so I could join my high school cross-country team. I had never been athletic before and was absolutely terrified to go to the first practice but thankfully my big sister put me in the car and made me go.

I was by far the slowest runner on the team and even had trouble keeping up with the other girls on warm-ups; my big, work-my-butt-off goal that year was to run a 5k in under 30 minutes, where the next slowest girl was easily logging 28:xx at the beginning of the season. There was no way I was competitive, I wasn’t going to win the team any trophies and I could barely fit in the largest uniform, but I had one incredible thing going for me: my coach, Patrick.

Patrick was an amazing high school coach. He cheered hard and made sure to be in the desolate spots on race courses to help us when things got toughest. When I showed up at my first race and was excited that I ran a 15 minute mile he celebrated with me because he could see what so many other people couldn’t: I might not have been fast, but I was working as hard as anyone on the team. That first year I never did break 30 minutes, but I kept working through the winter, through track season and all summer long, knowing I had someone who really believed in me, knowing I had a partner who was as invested in my success as I was.

Goofing off with the seniors.  My freshman year I really felt like part of the team!

When I showed up to practice sophomore year I discovered Patrick had left for a different school, and the track coaches Mr. Y. and Ms. Z had taken over. I was sad but nonetheless approached my workouts with the same zeal as before, running my first race of that season in 26:32. Patrick was there on the sidelines for his team and when he saw me he was so surprised at my fast pace he started jumping up and down and screaming his lungs off! He met me at the finish and gave me a big hug.

It was great, but it made me realize something about our new coaches … I wasn’t getting any of that support. In fact, I was pretty much being ignored. Several new runners had joined our team and they were really fast. Mr. Y. spent his breath on those runners, not on the tail end of the pack. And whether she meant to or not, Ms. Z always seemed annoyed with my very presence. It made me feel terrible, to the point of tears.

I still look happy in my sophomore XC badge photo

Things changed for me after that. I became embarrassed and withdrawn, which only made things worse when I never had a partner for stretching and nobody to chat with in the locker room. I tried hard to hide the difficulty of our team warm-ups, but I often just didn’t feel like part of the team anyway so I’d fall behind. I wanted really bad to make friends with my teammates but I felt so different, separated by my lack of speed. This wonderful thing that had been the best part of a miserable adolescence had become just as lonely and miserable as everything else.

My junior year I was as slow as I had been my first year, and sometimes slower. My depression had gotten pretty bad by this time and I had gained weight and had a lot of anxiety about wearing those ugly blue shorts with the slits up the sides. I started the year off with a terrible car accident, missing our first race and it made me feel bad because I loved running so much. The coaches were even more distant with me. They barely talked to me, and if I had to talk to them they acted like I was bothering them. The alienation got worse but my heart told me I needed to hang on, especially since I felt like I was going crazy with all the sadness inside me. I knew cross-country was the one good thing going for me in high school but it really hurt that my one good thing was so lonely.

By by junior year my XC badge facial expression pretty much summed up my feelings.

When track started up I finally got angry. I quit early on (because of the coaches) and ran on my own instead. I didn’t like their piddly little 800s anyway–I wanted mileage! I wanted to get that feeling back from when Patrick was jumping up and down for me, being my biggest fan. I wanted it really bad and if they wouldn’t give it to me then I was going to give it to myself! So I went back my senior year. I stopped caring so much about what anyone else thought and just enjoyed running. I even got back to my fast(ish) sophomore year glory! On both the boys’ and girls’ teams I was the only runner in the class of 1999 who ran all four years, and at the little award ceremony at the end of the season they gave me a three-year runner award.

*record scratch* WHAT?

They said my junior year didn’t count because I’d missed races (I missed two – one because of the car accident and one because of a conflicting mandatory school event), even though I’d gotten a three-year patch then and even though nobody had communicated any of this to me. After treating a teenaged girl like she was worthless for years they had the audacity to say she didn’t count, but not the courage to say it to her face. I was not only sad, I was furious! I even fought it with the athletic director but somehow, mind-bogglingly, I lost.

This is where I started. Who knows what I could have been with the right mentorship?

I’m still angry about it to this day. I often wonder what could have been for me if Patrick had stuck around, or if our new coach had been supportive of me. Would I have lost more of the weight that was such a huge part of my introversion and depression? Would I have broken 25:00, or run more races outside of school, maybe even continued into college instead of quitting and turning to a party lifestyle? I’ve found such happiness and peace from running now that I’m older; maybe I would have found it back then?

It’s futile to wonder what could have been, of course, but it’s also important to me that today’s coaches understand the profound effects they can have on their athletes’ entire lives. If Mr. Y had been the cross-country coach my freshman year I almost certainly would have quit and maybe never run again. As it is, I lacked the guidance necessary to thrive and reach my potential as a high school athlete, despite an intense passion for my sport and a dream of running in college. The only reason I didn’t pursue that dream is that I believed I wasn’t good enough.

Coaches, parents, and anyone else who deals with young athletes, please know that everything you say and do can affect their entire lives! It’s so important that we all work together to encourage young women in sport, because it’s so easy for them to get the wrong message. I’m lucky that I at least had a good coach experience to help offset my bad ones, but I know there are kids out there who are quitting every day because they don’t believe they can ever be good enough, especially girls, who are twice as likely than boys to quit sports in their teens.

I wish those coaches could see me now–not to show them how fast I can run, but to show them that they didn’t count. They lost and Patrick won, because he taught me to believe in myself and others! Not only am I faster than I ever would have dreamed back in high school, but I’m a runner who supports other runners and encourages them to be their best. I’m a runner who wears ugly shorts with pride, who loves track workouts and shouts a happy greeting to difficult hills, who wears silly socks just to make people smile, who jumps up and down cheering like a crazy person for people she doesn’t even know. I’m a runner who has succeeded just by knowing I can be great at any pace, and I will always thank my first coach for that!

What were your high school coaches like in running or other sports? Did you have to fight to stay positive in a competitive environment?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. I can so relate to this. I went out for track my freshman year at the urging of one of my best friends. I was one of the youngest people in my class and was pretty small too. Somehow I got put into hurdles and shorter distances. I wasn’t the fastest girl by any stretch and I wasn’t particularly good at hurdles. Not only did my coach fail to encourage me, one of the assistant coaches thought it was fun to tell me how awful I was. It was said to me in a joking manner and I responded in kind, but it still pierced deep. I did not run again after that track season until I was 24 years old and discovered he was wrong. I lost 10+ years of running due to a crappy coach. Now, I coach young girls and make a point to encourage every single one. Everyone has their own strengths and I think a coach fails if he or she cannot find them and celebrate them in each runner.

    1. YES! Girls on the Run is an awesome organization, and I really wish I’d had something like that when I was young! I’m so proud of the work that you do (when my job ends I’m going to try to get my background check done so I can volunteer with the New York chapter)!

      Can you please please please write a post about the work GOTR does for young women runners and your experience as a coach for them? 🙂

      1. It is coming, I promise. I am just having a hard time because it means SO much to me that I want to get it right. Soon…. Very soon.

  2. Great post! I did a double take when I saw your high school photo, then I recognized you and it’s so good to hear you’re doing well and back into running. I was a freshman when you were a senior.

    I also had Ms. Z my freshman thru junior years, and I wasn’t particularly quick, so I know how you feel! I quit running my senior year, I couldn’t handle the “tough” coaching style they adopted, they weren’t even particularly encouraging to the fast girls.

    I got back into running a few years ago and also have worked through a knee injury (with the help of yoga and taking it slowly, one mile at a time), and I’ve run the Cleveland half marathon the last 3 years, as well as the Cincinnati this past year, and countless 5 and 10k’s during the rest of the season.

    Anyway, glad to hear you’re doing well and wish you the best!

    1. I’m not surprised Barb. I know there were several girls who quit cross-country too. It’s a total shame, since there were so many awesome young women at our high school who had such potential! I believe those coaches are even still there, which makes me feel really bad for the hundreds of students who might be in the same position as us.

      Anyway, I’m so glad to hear that you’ve found your love for running too! Congratulations on your half marathons!

  3. I could do several posts on “the many coaches of E.” It takes a special kind of coach to successfully coach young women, fast and not so fast alike. I like Patrick’s approach. I have seen too many coaches these days that are only enthusiastic about their top runners, neglecting to see that many of their back of the packers could be solid runners in their own right with the correct attention. At a minimum a little pat on the back or enthusiasm for improvement and hard work would be nice.

    Your story about missing two meets and not getting a 4 year badge is ludicrous. Shame on the athletic director and your coaches!

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Cinnamon. High school is such an impressionable time. I don’t think many coaches realize the impact they have on their athletes. It seems too often, a majoirty of the energy and resources are put into a few stars. But anyone can coach a star! It is much harder to coach and develop a novice athlete!

    I love to hear about coaches like Patrick, who encourage and build up all their athletes. I think it is a true testament to their gifts as coaches, mentors and people.

  5. Thanks for sharing this story. Coaches do influence our lives. I hope your story inspires many of them. I know your big sis from HS. She was/is awesome. I was deprived of a defensive MVP award for missing too many practices, only becuase I was playing 2 sports at the same time! I argued with my soccer coach who said it was not his decision, but the athletic director’s choice. I requested to be a co-MVP. I am all about sharing. That did not happen. I have the imaginary award in my brain, but that memory still stings.Catholic schools are famous for their outdated unis, polyester anyone? I wore sexy spandex under my short shorts. I suspect more money is spent on the boys teams. I sent a donation to my HS earlier this week and requested that 100% of it goes to the women’s sports teams. I am a huge supporter of keep her in the game and of Title IX.

    Make sure you add your photo to the power of IX mosaic on ESPN W.


    Hugs from the Nati- HJ