Don’t Worry Mary Cain, We’re All Headcases Until We Turn 25

That girl in black is getting burned! Photo via the New York Times.

Someone call Alicia Keys and tell her to change the lyrics to her smash hit because Mary Cain IS ON FIRE. The 16 year-old running sensation is a true prodigy as she has smashed three national high school indoor track records so far in 2013.

There was the 4:16 1500 meters en route to breaking Debbie Heald’s 41 year-old mile record in 4:32. Then there was the 2 mile record in 9:38 at the New Balance Boston Indoor Games on February 2nd. And just this past weekend, she broke her own mile record, running a 4:28 at the Millrose Games to finish second in a field with professional runners.

There is no doubt that the future looks bright for Cain, but many are watching with a careful eye. A recent Runner’s World article briefly outlined some theories as to why many high school phenoms never live up to the high expectations set early on in their careers, or lack thereof as many end up burned out, injured, or as the stereotype goes, become “headcases”. Headcase is such a harsh word. And as both a runner and a licensed mental health professional, I’m here to delve into the issue with an educated approach.

A little history

English: Alberto Salazar, taken in Eugene
Alberto Salazar, taken in Eugene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Cain continues to dominate, more major news sources cover her successes. In every interview, she comes across as down to earth, and more importantly, a teenager. But truth is, she isn’t your typical teenager in the world of running. She chose to leave her high school team and run independently, competing in the 2012 US Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 800 meters. Then in the fall of 2012, Alberto Salazar (famed coach of Galen Rupp, another former teen prodigy turned Olympic silver medalist) took Cain under his wing. So far, the rest has been history. In the making. Given Alberto’s careful and long-term approach with Galen, the odds of Cain following in his footsteps are still high, despite the risks involved with being a teenage prodigy.

It’s not just about athletic development

The science now says that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. Before reading any further, take a step back if you are older than 25 and see if that applies to you. At 25, I was still making dumb decisions. I was chasing unavailable men. And like a teenager, I still thought I knew everything. You could call me a headcase, I’ll own up to it. But I’m blaming it on the brain. The point is, it is quite possible that many teen prodigies struggle to carry their success with them into adulthood because their physical talent isn’t in line with their brain development. And the brain is the home of our emotions, feelings, and ability to see the bigger picture. Add a traumatic life event or a rough home life to the mix and it becomes even harder to keep the brain development up to par with the talent development. For Cain, though, it appears that she is blessed with both a running talent and strong mind, even if it’s still not fully developed.

Human brain - anterior-inferior view
Human brain, a blessing and a curse?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not all running prodigies are failures

Has anyone ever heard of Allyson Felix? At age 18, she was a 2004 Olympic silver medalist. She then went on to run and pick up  more medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Then there’s Alan Webb. Some would argue that he did burn out. But there’s no denying he continued onto success post-high school when he ran an American record in the mile that still stands to this day. Webb has had some ups and downs as of late, but with a new coach, he’s looking to move up in distance and re-test his limits.

And while we are on the topic of failure, why is one considered a failure if they take a different route with their running? Caitlin Chock is a well-respected and loved writer on the sport of running and a freelance artist (you can read our interview with Chock here). Melody Fairchild is a mountain running racer who focuses on promoting a holistic approach to running and life. She’s also a 2:44 marathoner. I wouldn’t call any of this failure!

Not all prodigies are runners

Child prodigies are everywhere. Music, medicine, business, the movies. One doesn’t have to look too far to find the list of child actors who may have went down a different, and sometimes not-so-successful path. Often times, the media likes to place blame on pushy parents, dirty agents, and the risks of being thrown into temptations – such as drugs and alcohol – at an early age. Add in the brain development theory and you have a teen prodigy at risk of becoming a burnout nine times out of ten.

Tiger Beat
Whatever happened to … ? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other 10%

When risk factors are low, long-term success in the respective field is higher. It is most helpful when the gifted teen is surrounded by a supportive and understanding social network. A good mentor can go a long way as they can be there to help the gifted teen understand the bigger picture when the going gets tough. It appears that Mary Cain is in good hands with Salazar. Yes, she may just have a 10% chance of extending her career well into her twenties and thirties with medal after medal, but there’s something about her that gives us all hope that she’ll be one to defy those odds. Whatever that is, it’s going to give her success. It all just depends on how you want to define it.

What are your thoughts on running prodigies? Do you think Mary Cain is the real deal?


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I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. So what’s my excuse? (sorry couldn’t resist)

    This whole prodigy thing is interesting. I really like this concept of expanding our definitions of success. The LetsRun Mboard definition is a little ridiculously narrow. What if Mary finds she doesn’t want to be a pro-runner when the time comes? What if she wants to go through a party phase? What if her knee blows out? I’d hate to be pigeon-holed into something when I was 16. God only knows what I’d be doing – a professional cool person?

    1. Very good points. It does appear though that she truly loves running and I think that can go a long way versus maybe someone who happens to be amazingly talented and then thrown into it because of that. Not that that is the case with others but it’s to be considered amongst all of the other things.

  2. From what I have heard about Cain, she’s doing very well in school and is likely going to college. Not just a college for running, but a college for an education. My sources are saying that she would go Ivy League as she has the smarts and her family has the money. And if the school’s coach is smart, they’d let her train her own way if she elects to compete with the team…

    I feel that in terms of opportunities, she is more mature than some of the other names mentioned in this article as she recognizes she is more blessed than just being a runner. I’m not meaning to diss Felxi or Webb, but they had higher priority in running than it appears that Cain does right now.

    1. Thanks for the inside info Maserda! Very good points about being well rounded. She definitely seems to have the maturity factor going for her (particularly as it relates to running). Add that with her teenage charm and you have a winner!

  3. It is my hope that Mary pursues her college degree first & foremost & not be drawn into the world of professional running. There is no need to turn pro. Compete in college level races & have fun. Don’t go to the world stage. Get coaching at the collegiate level. I have seen too many burnout. Then when you leave the sport you can go coach.

    1. I definitely think going to college is important. Allyson Felix did go to college but chose to compete professionally. The critique of forgoing NCAA competition is that there won’t be much competition for her. But Jordan Hasay is an excellent example of consistency, stability, and collegiete success.