Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Crossroads #3: Dear High School Self

In high school, I got really burned out on running. This didn’t happen in skiing- probably because I only did it junior and senior years and was such an underdog coming in that I was able to continue on the up and up trajectory. My burnout in running began when I started to plateau and couldn’t push myself any harder.

This post is primarily fueled by my running burnout experience, but I’ve included some things to make it applicable to skiing as well.

While the title suggests this entry may be exclusively for high schoolers, this is simply not true. This post is for everybody who has raced in the individual sports world. I think most kids start to feel some burnout in high school or at least are aware of its existence. But what breaks my heart is that some kids experience it even earlier than high school:(

Back when I was in high school (I graduated a whopping 15 years ago now) the coaches never talked about the mental aspect of racing. Us kids talked about it subliminally. We were very aware of the mental fortitude required to race and most of us weren’t terribly fond of it. But we had a coach* (see disclaimer below) who gave us the message that talking about it would make us weaker, not stronger. It’s unclear if that was the coach’s true intention, but that’s how we felt.

Hence, I dedicate this post to my high school running teammates- may we no longer suppress our burnout in silence!

None of us wanted to be the weak one that succumbed to the mental pressure but we were all secretly envious of those who quit the sport- and there was a steady stream of attrition. Kids are smart and sometimes we talked about this when the coaches were well out of earshot. But we really didn’t have the resources to help each other out.

In the past year, some teammates have discussed their high school age children’s burnout. I also had a very short, but poignant conversation with one of my teammates (between 300 meter track repeats) that went something like this: my teammate said, “I didn’t like track, well, I liked track practice and all the people, but I didn’t like the meets.”

“True that,” I responded.

I don’t think we were alone. I think the majority of the kids in cross country running and distance track (i.e. from the 400 meter and longer- when we become aware of our own suffering during the event) feel the same way, which inspired this post. I don’t think we like racing against our teammates or friends very much either.

So this is the post where I lay down what I wish I would have known in high school, what I wish the coaches would have believed, and helped me believe, and if I didn’t believe, forced me to follow anyway. Although, as Marit Bjoergen recently said in her Nordic Nation podcast, and Sadie Bjornsen noted in her recent blog, we have to make mistakes ourselves and learn for ourselves. Marit said her coaches urged her to change her training for years, but it wasn’t until she started believing this advice that she herself made a change. And Sadie said it took her a long time to recognize the importance of taking days off.

So if I could go back to high school, here’s the advice I’d give to myself and where I wish the coaches would have stepped in:

#1: This is supposed to be fun

Even those who love racing will tell you at times the work is not fun, but at least 51% of the event needs to be Type 1 fun. That means you look forward to it. If you aren’t looking forward to it, then you need to change something. This is where I think individual plans, even at the high school level, are really important. This may mean some kids need to train more, some less. Some need more intervals and some need more endurance. Some need to cross train more. Some need to race once or even twice weekly, and others do better with less racing. Or perhaps even no racing!

Type 2 fun: rocking the classic race at sections my senior year of high school (this was interval start and I started a few minutes before #31!)

Balancing the Type 2 fun with some Type 1 fun at our annual high school skier dress up day.
 While I come across as hardcore and all about the racing, I think that is largely because I’m a product of the environment and we have a culture that is very focused on winning and a high school sports system that is very competitive as a result. But is winning the most important thing? I would beg to differ. I think high school athletics is about finding something you enjoy, something that can help keep you healthy for your life, something that can help forge friendships, teach you about commitment and prioritization, failure, success, and goals, and having fun all at the same time. I think these are the questions we need to ask ourselves- not did we win or lose, but did we have fun? (My mom has been telling me this for years:) And this is where I think the coaches (and parents) should be having these individual and group meetings with athletes to help determine if they are meeting their goals and if not what needs to change.

Goofing off with life-long friend Kathryn as we kissed our "Pelties" after we both had good races at Mt. Itasca


#2: Mix it up. 

 I don’t have many regrets in life, but I do kinda wish I would have done some different track events. I know I was headstrong even back in high school and would’ve been resistant to running anything but the 3200 meters, but I would have appreciated had my coaches noted that I was miserable and running slow and would have encouraged me to run some shorter distances or maybe even do some field events. Well, actually, one coach did one time and he made me run the mile in sub 7 minutes before I was allowed to double and run the 2 mile in the same meet. I met the challenge but wish in hindsight he would’ve made the challenge more difficult for me or had me run the 200 meter at some really fast pace instead. I wouldn’t have been very good at sprinting or field events, but I wasn’t good at distance either and perhaps I could have done longer warm-ups and maybe even have gone for some neighborhood runs which I loved back then and still love. There is no point in being miserable.

Trying to stay with the pack on the track my junior year of high school (I'm 3rd from the back); this photo was probably taken on the first lap

And dropped from the pack, running a lonely, miserable 3200.

This may seem a little more difficult to achieve in a high school ski race, but there are many variations on a theme other than a 5 km skate or classic. To keep things fresh, athletes could “handicap” themselves- for example, do a skate race without poles or double pole only for classic. This could be done at an individual level or the whole team could do this. The point is to learn about strengths and weaknesses and take some pressure off always having to perform to a certain standard. In term of skiing race format, the team sprint is not just for elite athletes anymore and seems to be gaining lots of momentum, at least in Minnesota! Mixing it up also goes for training (including intervals) and doing different sports. I’ve specifically given some racing examples but the same goes for training, too. Try to think of different exercises and variations on a theme. On Vakava when doing intervals we often stipulate that the first interval is striding only, the second kick double pole, the third double pole only, and the fourth whatever technique we want. This keeps things fresh.

#3: Athletics don’t end with high school. 

 Physical activity is good for us- not just in high school, but for the remainder of our lives as well. We need to cultivate sports as a lifelong activity. Fortunately in the endurance world, there are plenty of opportunities for us to keep active- whether that be on our own, as a tour, part of a training group, or racing. Too often in high school I felt like my teammates were so burned out, myself included, we just didn’t want to push ourselves so hard ever again. And so we quit. I think we need to change the culture, look back at the previous two points, to something that is more sustainable. We talk about moderation and sustainability in diet, and we need to do this in sport, too. And again, it’s individual and may even change over time for any one individual. We want to model for our high schoolers how to have a lifelong healthy lifestyle. We don’t want them to be so burned out they give up.

Racing citizen races with the U of M Nordic Ski Club in college
But still having some fun with indoor rollerskiing:) Photo: the one and only Jordan Hart

I was so burned out on running after high school that I didn’t want to do any races for years. It took me well over 10 years to want to actually “race” in running again. And in the past few years I’ve been loving it but part of what I love is that since I was never that great of a runner in high school, arguably because I was so burned out, I’m about as fast now as I was then but I have such better control over my training and racing that I’m not burned out and feel I’m less likely to burn out. The point here is, maybe high school isn’t this athlete’s time for a given distance or sport. Maybe it’s later in their life and that’s OK because it will give them some focus and purpose down the road.

#4: Just because you start at an early age (elementary school) doesn’t mean that a) you will do it forever or b) that you will be successful on the national or international stage.

After college, I moved to upstate New York and remember vehemently attempting to argue this point with one zealous dad. He believed that because he had a bunch of 9 year olds heavily involved with skiing, that these kids were going to make it to the Olympics. I tried to tell him about all the kids in Minnesota who raced in high school and quit the sport thereafter. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m guessing there is somewhere around a 90% attrition rate in regard to racing. The reasons for this are numerous and certainly minimal snow and expense are large factors (compared to recreational running per se) but there is also a large burnout component. Anyone who keeps racing after high school likely has a good grasp on the above 3 points, and if not, is probably struggling with burnout.

#5: Go back and read #1.


In my experience, rigid training and racing schedules lead to burnout and I think the best way to combat this is by first talking about it, second by making more individualized plans, and third to think about not just high school goals, but long term goals as well. I think if we’re doing this athletes, athlete supporters, and coaches will all feel more fulfilled and get better enjoyment out of our sports and life.

Some high school shenanigans! After years of playing in pep band for the football, basketball, and hockey players I thought the skiers should get some recognition!

*Disclaimer: I’m referencing one particular running coach who gave us the impression that the mental aspect of racing was a completely taboo subject that should never be discussed.

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