Planning My Next Life as a High School Athlete

I suspect I’m not the only washed-up old crock who dreams of being reborn and having another chance to play high school sports.

My high school experience in this life wasn’t exactly distinguished or happy. I’m hoping that, with careful planning, I can improve on it next time around.

As a freshman, I ran track for a coach who spent no time – not a hundredth of a second – giving us instructions on technique, or explaining training, or making the slightest effort to motivate us.

Rex Mirich, I hope that in my next life I won”t do anything as foolish as get in his way. Click to enlarge.
Rex Mirich exactly as I remember him. I hope that in my next life I won”t do anything silly, like stand in his way.

I played football for the same coach. As a 14-year-old, 140-lb starter on the JV team, I scrimmaged daily with the varsity – they were short of linemen and used me to fill a hole,  a function I didn’t fill terribly well.

I vividly remember the practices where I faced varsity tackle Rex Mirich. One moment I would see Rex in front of me, then the quarterback and I would find ourselves on our backs looking up at the sky, totally mystified about how it happened. Rex would play for the Raiders, Patriots, and Broncos.

When I return to this planet, what sport will I play? What kind of coach do I want to play for? How will I train? What attitudes will I bring to sports?

These are the kinds of questions I ponder.

A major part of my reason for writing The Joyful Athlete was to answer those questions. I wrote the book, in part, so that I can start my next life with positive ideas about sports implanted in my brain.

When I come back, I want to be prepared to get more out of sports. How can I make it a more thrilling, challenging, high-energy, happy experience?

In my next life, I hope the high school library will have a copy of The Joyful Athlete, so I’ll be able to get a jump start on the answers.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to use my dwindling time wisely.

Coach Tony Holler, Plainfield North High School, Illinois. Coach Holler is a strong advocate for high school athletes playing two sports.
Coach Tony Holler, Plainfield North High School, Illinois. Coach Holler believes high school football players should play two or more sports.

I spend hours cruising the Internet to learn about inspiring coaches and their methods.

I love to meditate on the kinds of sports experiences that can yield the greatest success and happiness for young athletes.

Just yesterday, I ran across an incredibly interesting article by Tony Holler, 10 Reasons to Join the Track Team.

Tony coaches track and field and freshman football at Plainfield North High School in Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago. He also teaches honors chemistry.

In 34 years as a coach, he’s had eight individual state track champions and seven state champion relay teams, which is NTS – not too shabby at all.

What makes me eager to run for Coach Holler, or more likely his grandson, when I’m reborn is the way he thinks about sports.

My track program does not solely focus on the varsity level. We value freshmen and sophomores as much as we value juniors and seniors. One of our previous athletic directors believed freshmen should play their football games on the practice field, not the game field. He repeatedly told people, “No freshman ever won a scholarship.” He didn’t last long.

Should we minimize the freshmen experience? Why should athletics exist for the benefit of upperclassmen? Should we focus on scholarships with a laser-like intensity?

Do we minimize freshmen academically while we glorify seniors? Maybe I’m old school, but athletics should be a classroom, not a revenue-driven exercise in greed. Every kid should have a good experience, not just the gifted.

When I ran track as a high school freshman, our coach was a former college football lineman who spent his time at practices hanging out with the big guys – the junior and senior weights men. They got a hundred percent of his attention.

Sewell, Chile, at 7,000' in the Andes where I spent some of the happiest years of my youth. Click to enlarge.
Sewell, Chile, at 7,000′ in the Andes, where I spent some of my happiest years as a boy. Click to enlarge.

I’ll admit I was a piss-poor runner. Our family had recently moved to Arizona from a mining camp in the Chilean Andes, where our main sports were skiing and hiking in the mountain valleys behind the town.

When it came to track, I didn’t have a clue – I couldn’t imagine what happiness a kid could possibly get out of running, or why I should take it seriously for any reason at all.

I ran because I thought my dad would be proud of me if I played football (really bad idea), and I’d heard that the football players were expected to come out for track to get fit for the coming season.

When Coach wasn’t looking, my buddy Bruce and I would walk around the track, wisecracking. As a result, when Coach entered us in a mile race at a large high school in Tucson, I found myself increasingly far behind the rest of the runners.

Bruce did pretty well. When I dropped, he was 300 yards ahead of me. Bruce knew what he was doing. He regularly rode his bike or ran and walked 10 miles to school over hilly desert roads.

On one lap, I heard my embarrassed coach sheepishly tell another coach, “Well, I just have them run track to get them fit for football.” As a result of my non-training, I was gassed after three laps and dropped out. Coach screamed at me in front of the crowd, “You’re the first person to quit at San Manuel High School!”

This is why, when I hear Tony Holler talk about actually teaching freshmen athletes, I get a little emotional.

Over the years, when I’ve finished a marathon or 50-miler in a state of grace and joy, I have sometimes turned inward and sent a cheery message into the distant past: “How about them apples, Coach?”

When I come back to this planet or some other, what sport will I play? Probably not football. But it will be a team sport, where there will be a potential for camaraderie, and where young people can develop qualities of loyalty, respect, inner toughness, and where they can learn the joy of sacrificing their egos to achieve mutually held goals.

I’ll probably run cross-country. If I’m reborn with an entirely different body and mentality, I’d love to play water polo. And I’ll surely run track.

Tony Holler:

Unlike the ball-sports, track teams are not breeding grounds for jealousy and pettiness. Your spot on the team will be based on measured performance, not based on the opinion of your coach. Every kid that’s ever sat the bench in a ball-sport has secretly hoped that a teammate would screw up. In track, we cheer for everyone, even our opponents. Track is not a zero-sum game. Your success is not based on your opponent’s failure.

But here’s the biggest reason I’ll look for a coach like Tony:

“We need to keep our athletes happy. Happy athletes are the best recruiters.”

Holler’s ideas seem to mirror the coaching philosophy of Bill Aris, whose boys’ and girls’ teams swept the 2014 Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), and Mike Scannell, coach of Grant Fisher, who won the Footlocker individual cross-country national championships in 2013 and 2014.

Both coaches are focused on training that aims to help each athlete stay enthusiastic and improve at his or her own level. Bill Aris revealed that he spends 80 percent of his time not planning workouts, but getting to know and motivate each runner. For this alone, my admiration for him is boundless.

Bill Aris. Other coaches look for complexity in his success. But his methods are simple.
Bill Aris. Other coaches look for complexity in his success. But his method is simple: take care of the individual athlete.

That’s the kind of coach I’d like to run for – someone who helps his athletes understand what they can get out of the sport, and how they can get there, starting where they are.

It works brilliantly. Over the years, Aris has had few superstar athletes on his teams. His genius is helping moderately talented kids realize their potential. At the 2014 NXN, his Fayetteville-Manlius boys placed 8, 14, 15, 19, 55. The F-M girls placed 11, 12, 13, 14, 20.

(I wrote about Aris earlier; see Bill Aris’s Truth: How Heartfelt Running Makes Champions.)

Under Mike Scannell’s guidance, Grant Fisher ran just 50 miles a week and did no speedwork, while preparing to run a 4:02.3 mile and win Footlocker twice.

Scannell’s focus, like Aris’s, is on finding out what’s best for the individual runner – Scannell says his goal is to send his runners home after each practice smiling, and never, ever burned-out. See Smartest Training Ever of a High School Runner? — Thoughts on Grant Fisher and Mike Scannell.

In his 10 Reasons… article, Tony presents some interesting college recruiting stats to support his belief that high school athletes should play two sports. Although the numbers are from football, they’re valid for other sports as well.

In recent years, we’ve seen a surprising number of elite high school distance runners who’ve been multi-sport athletes.

  • Age-group champion triathlete Lukas Verzbicas ran a sub-4:00 mile while in high school.
  • Jordan Hasay swam competitively until her high school junior year.
  • Allie Ostrander, who won the 2014 Nike Cross Nationals and made it look easy, is a four-sport athlete in track/cross-country, basketball, and soccer.
  • Grant Fisher, the current top high school distance runner in the U.S., played soccer until his senior year.
  • Alexa Efraimson, who won 1500m bronze at the 2013 IAAF World Youth Games, does long sets of hurdle mobility drills, medicine ball work, and calisthenics to build overall athleticism and explosiveness.
  • Katie Rainsberger, who placed sixth at NXN in 2013, is a year-round runner and soccer player. Katie’s mother, Lisa, the last American woman to win the Boston marathon (1984), says, “You don’t have to be linear to be great. You don’t have to focus only on running. You have to become an athlete. The progress in running will come from that.”
  • Elise Cranny, now at Stanford, was the number-one high school distance recruit in the U.S. Cranny played soccer in high school.
  • Briana Gess won the New Jersey state high school cross country championships as a 15-year-old freshman. Briana plays basketball. The runner-up was Josette Norris, a basketball player who ran a 4:41 1600m as a junior.
  • 1984 Olympic marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson grew up as a skier.

I particularly savored Holler’s comment that football may be dead in 50 years.

I wouldn’t mind. I say, let’s replace it with a game that doesn’t risk crippling players for life, that involves more kids, and that isn’t a sport played for 11 minutes as a filler in a 3-hour product-hawking marathon.

I got the 11-minute stat from a Quartz article, An average NFL game: more than 100 commercials and just 11 minutes of play:

The 11 minutes of action was famously calculated a few years ago by the Wall Street Journal. Its analysis found that an average NFL broadcast spent more time on replays (17 minutes) than live play. The plurality of time (75 minutes) was spent watching players, coaches, and referees essentially loiter on the field.

An average play in the NFL lasts just four seconds.

Of course, watching football on TV is hardly just about the game; there are plenty of advertisements to show people, too. The average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. The Journal’s analysis found that commercials took up about an hour, or one-third, of the game.

Have you ever watched flag football played by NFL-caliber athletes? It’s a fantastic game.

I’m touching on ancient history here. During a long run in San Francisco in 1971, I passed the Marina Green, next to San Francisco Bay, and stopped to watch the championship game of the long-defunct SF city flag football league.

You don’t have to be a Megatron or lack talent to play flag football. Army-Navy game, 2008. Click to enlarge.
You don’t have to be a Megatron — or lack talent — to play flag football. Army-Navy game, 2008. Click to enlarge.

It was completely awesome – a game played with tremendous speed and skill, with greatly reduced risk of injury.

A spectator told me that many of the players had NFL talent but were too small to be drafted.

It had none of the subtle subtext that accompanies every football game: “Our sport is kind of slow because it’s terribly violent and there’s a risk that on any play we may be injured. So we don’t actually play a lot.”

If football playing time was managed like soccer or basketball, the field would be littered with broken bodies.

Make no mistake, Tony Holler is mainly a football guy, and his primary interest in track is the sprints. Nevertheless, though my heart belongs to the distances, I found his articles terrifically interesting, well-written, thoughtful and inspiring. I’m grateful to him for sharing his insider’s view of important issues in football and track.

Holler cares about his athletes – and that’s the inspiring part, whether he’s talking about sprinters or football players.

Here’s a snippet from a Holler article with the intriguing title “13 Things That Confuse Slow People.” Drawing on data from elite Division I football programs including Alabama, Auburn, and Baylor, he demonstrates that the major predictors of a high school athlete’s prospects in college and the NFL are not size and brute strength, but speed and athleticism.

That’s why he believes football players should run track, and why they should ignore coaches and athletic directors who try to get them to specialize.

Why do Athletic Directors fail as leaders?  They shrug their shoulders and consistently allow coaches to directly or indirectly encourage specialization at the cost of kids.  When will we put kids first?…. Elite football players run track or play basketball. — Tony Holler

This is why NCAA football teams recruit sprinters. Nick Chubb, Georgia Bulldogs. Click to enlarge.
This is why elite NCAA football programs recruit sprinters: for speed and athleticism. Nick Chubb (right), Georgia Bulldogs. Click to enlarge.

We hear the same tired anti-cross-training propaganda in distance running: to become a better runner, you must focus on running.

Yet elite athletes like Lukas Verzbicas, Jordan Hasay, Stephanie Jenks, Elise Cranny, Grant Fisher, and Allie Ostrander show that it isn’t true.

Playing a second sport can give young runners a tremendous advantage.

  • Cycling builds the main running muscles, the quads, without stressing the rest of the body.
  • Swimming builds aerobic power without the stress of weight-bearing exercise.
  • As a result, a runner can train more, with less recovery. (See my previous article, “What Runners Don’t Want,” and a Runner’s World article, “Cross Training to the Top.”)

When I come back next time, I guess I’ll be a triathlete who runs track and cross-country.

If two sports are good — why not five?


Here are some articles by Tony Holler that I think you’ll enjoy:

10 Reasons to Join the Track Team

13 Things That Confuse Slow People

Speed Kills

Kapri’s Quest For Speed

Sprint-Based Football

Baylor Recruits Multi-Sport Athletes.”

How 12 Coaches Impacted My Career



6 thoughts on “Planning My Next Life as a High School Athlete”

  1. Dear George,

    Thank you for sending me this fun and energized article! Never being an athlete myself, I would not have gravitated to this subject. However, I was athletic, acrobatics was something that came natural to me. But alas, karma did not lend a hand in this direction. Still as I was reading I felt very inspired. Remembering my youth and the enthusiasm I felt with physical accomplishment.
    “The Joyful Athlete” there you go! By the way my next “Recovery” Program is entitled “Joyful Recovery” Great minds think a like!! There is something very noble about this article and given the light flair of “when I come back” what kind of sport do I want to play, made it fun to keep reading.
    Thank you George!

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