When your coach is a bully, running is tough. Especially if you’re a shy, quiet freshman who has always had a lot of respect for authority figures or an adult with the pressure of a shoe contract.
The New York Times reported new details of what Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project was pushing his athletes to do, it opened up a new discussion on twitter about coaches who are bullies.
I know what it’s like.
My high school cross country and track coach was a bully. He knew how to train athletes and had successful programs, certainly, but he also was loud, bullish, manipulative and intimidating.
“You’re not running fast enough”
While a freshman in cross country, I was the fastest runner on our very small team. I often ran with my fellow teammates, especially on easy days, because that’s who I had to run with.
I was the only girl on the team to qualify for the state championships. In the week before the state meet, I ran with my coach. He told me I was running too slow, that I spent too much time with my other teammates and that I should turn around. I offered to run faster, but he said “no, turn around.”
I did because I didn’t know what else to do. I contemplated running around the track in defiance, but I was so hurt and confused I went back to the girls’ locker room and attempted to do homework. Instead, I fought off tears and wondered what he expected of me.
When I later left the locker room, he acted like nothing had happened. He never acknowledged the incident again.
The confusion from that day still feels fresh. What on Earth did he want from me? If he was trying to goad me into running faster, it didn’t work. I don’t work like that. Tell me what you want from me; don’t play games.
Too much medication and not enough healing
My freshman year of track, I got stress fractures up and down both shins. As I dealt with the pain, my family doctor prescribed me a strong NSAID, Lodine (which now makes me think “are you kidding me? Tell the kid to take Motrin and rest.”). My coach loved it. He seemed happy my doctor prescribed heavy medication. The medication put me to sleep in geometry, and I stopped taking it after a few days.
One year, a teammate of mine was dealing with a serious back injury before the cross country season even started. She took a lot of ibuprofen to deal with it instead of resting and healing. He encouraged it. She never had a healthy season of cross country or track.
I was appalled that he would encourage athletes push through significant pain rather than take the time to fully heal.
Mad at athletes who rested
Along with that, I saw multiple instances when he was upset with athletes for not pushing through the pain of an injury or him being frustrated when athletes with injuries were struggling.
“It’s the end of the season, everyone has something that hurts.”
Yeah, a lot of athletes get to the end of a long season feeling a little beat up. These are 15 and 16-year-old kids. Their healthy and longevity must come first, and a good coach should help teach them that.
Injuries impact our ability to compete at our best levels. That’s something no coach can change.
Taking asthma medication like AlSal
After the Propublica/BBC report published in 2015, Lauren Fleshman shared a story about how Salazar instructed her to take the medication differently than the doctor prescribed.
That’s exactly what my coach told me to do.
While I’m not sure if it’s wrong, it’s a fascinating example of a coach instructing an athlete to do something different from a medical professional.
Mad instead of coaching
Being comfortable being uncomfortable was tough for me to learn. I struggled with this during high school. It didn’t help that spring and mid-distances are not my strong suit.
He was frustrated with me that I didn’t push hard enough during the middle miles and meters of races. He was right. I didn’t. But that’s part of the natural learning curve of running (I later taught myself how to be comfortable with discomfort). A coach needs to help athletes get to that next level, not just get mad and shut down. Teaching toughness is hard, but it is possible. It takes practice and time. And not getting angry at the athlete for not understanding what he’s trying to say. At the time, I had no idea what he meant when he said I was too comfortable out there. Racing sure seemed to hurt to me. Getting angry isn’t coaching, it’s just being an asshole.
I felt a lot of shame from that. I didn’t know what he wanted from me, I only knew I was failing.
I remember my senior year of cross country I’d had a particularly tough race.
As many of us do, I needed to step away and take a breather, so I attempted that as I walked over to the starting line to cheer on the boys’ team. It was a short walk alone so I could shake off the disappointment of letting my team down and letting myself down. I was not there to mope or pout, just to collect myself.
This coach runs up to me, snaps “next time I see you, that expression had better be off your face” and runs off. Fuck you, man. I’d shown during the past three years that I was a positive teammate and a role model of persistence. I deserved a few minutes to myself to handle a bad day.
It wasn’t all bad; that’s usually how it goes. I had a lot of success and learned a ton about running. I also learned a lot about how not to behave.
Many times during my high school running years I felt uncomfortable with his behaviors. By my senior year, I learned to ignore it and do what was right for me. I’m proud that I stood up for myself and took time off when I needed it to heal. That worked well on one more than one occasion. For instance, one track season I had some tendonitis, but I spent a few days on the bike and then finished my season healthy and fast.
I was glad to get out of that program when I graduated. Running alone these past 11 years has been such a gift.
This is not something I’ve written about before, although I have alluded to my experiences in a few tweets. If I then had the courage and fortitude I do now, I would’ve pushed back more. I wouldn’t have let him bully me, and I would’ve stood up for my fellow athletes. By sharing my experiences, I hope I can encourage other athletes to share theirs and push back against a culture of bullies.
Why do coaches think they can behave like that? Why do we allow them to? We accept their hot tempers because they succeed. I understand coaches will get frustrated with their athletes, but yelling at them, pushing them around and shaming them are not acceptable ways of making progress.
My experiences are not rare and certainly not limited to high schoolers. This happens to adults, too. This is not OK. I want especially young athletes to know they don’t need to put up with it. You are worth more than that.