Have our young athletes gone soft?

This September, when the Olympic flame flares against the Australian sky, a few scholastic coaches will, for a moment at least, imagine a former athlete proudly standing with our United States team. Then, more sadly, they will realize again that something so grand never could have occurred - not because of a failure to achieve but because of a failure to try.

I can sympathize. As my high school track and cross-country coaching seasons accumulate, so do my number of "lost runners." These are kids who will never know how good they could have been as competitive runners, who didn't stick it out long enough or never trained hard enough to realize their potential. Each year, more of them make my long Who-Might-Have-Been list.

Some of them quit running after the first sweltering days of late-summer practices. Others quietly disappeared amid the cold March rains. Some took their leave, amazingly, with only weeks remaining in a winter schedule. Others stuck out a season of running the long miles, but never returned the following year.

They said they were injured. They said they were too busy with other commitments. They said they were told by family, doctors, or friends not to punish themselves. They said running was just no fun.

In truth, I've come to believe, most of them found the sport's demands too stiff. The challenge of "doing something hard" has grown less and less attractive to kids today.

We've taught children the value of ease over comfort. Kickin' back, hanging out, and chillin' are considered purposeful activities. This is a society where parents drive kids 400 meters to school. Our cultural preoccupation with ease is intense, despite Nike ads to the contrary.

Kids have also been taught to value participation over performance. Once, performing well in a sport was the goal of most athletics, and disciplined practice was the means. Now, for many, participating is the ultimate aim.

In track, we say there's a difference between running a race and racing. One requires Woody Allen's directive: just showing up. The other means you've sweated and sacrificed to be in a position to give it your all for a few moments of excellence. What's too often lost is the invaluable experience of attempting something "in depth," where commitment, discipline, and sacrifice are required.

Some of my lost runners were disappointed to learn that our sport was not all adrenaline rushes and flowing along "free as the wind." They discovered running could be hard - just plain hard - and that it didn't always feel good.

We have twisted the relationship between "feeling good" and performing. Where the gradual acquisition of skills and the mastery of a sport's fundamentals once provided the sense of accomplishment that allowed athletes to feel good about themselves, now we seem to think that athletics must start with feelings.

In this weird reversal, kids must be "having fun" in order to learn a game, and stick with it. A coach's demands or criticisms supposedly destroy an athlete's "interest" or damage his or her fragile "self-esteem," and therefore must be muted.

Too many parents want their kids to excel without any pain or failure.

Coaches that demand high levels of discipline and dedication from their athletes are frequently criticized for asking too much. Often, their only defense is a winning program.

Many believe that today's young athletes are superior to any previous, by dint of improved training and better sports technology. You can't, however, make that case with schoolboy runners.

In the sport of running, the clock is coldly objective. In a commentary a couple years ago, Marc Bloom, editor of the cross-country magazine Harrier, compared different generations of schoolboy distance runners, and offered these facts:

*Only three high school boys have ever broken 4 minutes in the mile. The first was Jim Ryan in 1965. The last was Marty Liquori in 1967.

*Of the 30 fastest boys' two-mile performances, none have come in the past decade.

Legendary American middle-distance runner Steve Prefontaine *ran an 8:41.5 record two-mile in 1969. Only two runners have since exceeded that, both in the 1970s.

Mr. Bloom went on to suggest that various social circumstances (mass- media enticements, family breakdowns, etc.) now compete with, or dilute, young runners' commitments to their sport.

Ed Bowes, cross-country coach at Bishop Loghlin High School in Brooklyn and organizer of the Manhattan Invitational X-C Meet, was more blunt. Noting the dwindling number of runners competing at a high level, he says simply: "Too many kids today are soft."

My own experience with lost runners tells me that many kids do not now appreciate what it means to struggle at an endeavor, to put their head down and, with the encouraging support of parents, relatives, and friends, achieve something meaningful.

I'm afraid that my lost runners may never learn The Secret. The Secret that can never be taught, but only "discovered" by the athlete willing to make the sacrifices and take the chances. The Secret is this: There is inner pride, quiet joy, and a personal victory in any struggle, regardless of outcome.

A corny, old-fashioned concept perhaps, but one that has always produced true champions. And not just the champions that stand on winners' podiums.

This fall, only a few scholastic coaches may bemoan lost Olympians. Many more, like me, will recall other athletes who, if not Olympics bound, might still have achieved individual greatness - had they tried. It is those lost athletes that haunt us. As much as anything, we wanted them to understand that doing something hard - and sacrificing to do it well - is always a

*Jim Vermeulen is a teacher and coach in the West Genesee School District of New York. He edited the book "Mountain Journeys: Stories of Climbers and Their Climbs" (Overlook Press, 1989). A version of this article originally appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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