Recently, I received an email from a reader seeking advice on how she could improve her chances of receiving a college athletic scholarship. She first wanted to know if I knew of any private coaches who could help improve her times (she is a track athlete).
As a former collegiate athlete, I frequently get asked questions like these. And, as that former college athlete who barely made it out of the sport before complete and utter disdain for it settled in, my answer to these inquiries is always the same.
And it comes in question form: “Are you having fun?”
When I meet young athletes who want nothing more than to make it to the next level, I see much of the same thing. Each is talented, each has determination and drive, each has that competitive spirit and a love for the sport he or she is involved in.
Unfortunately, in most cases, there is one key ingredient that is missing: fun.
When I posed this question to the young reader, I was met with this response: “I used to like running a lot, but now it's just all about winning, so it's hard to stay motivated.”
My heart sank and I was immediately taken back to that very same spot I was in 15 years ago when I was a junior in high school with those same goals. What was once a sport that began with me running alongside my dad in my Chuck Taylor knockoffs was now filled with stress and nerves. It was all about winning.
The fun was gone and running was now a job.
Having barely survived four years of college burnout, I have often looked back and wondered what I could have done differently so that I would have had a better experience. I have come up with five tips to help potential college athletes to enjoy their sport.
1. Don’t focus on the “W.” As much fun as winning is, when you make it the focus the fun gets lost in the mix. If you love what you’re doing, and have fun doing it, things will fall into place. And when the win happens it will be that much more enjoyable.
2. Take a break. Sometimes a break — whether it is for a day, a week or a season — is just what you need to rekindle the love for your sport. And take it from me: Muscling through it can often make it worse.
3. Run at the back of the pack. Very few athletes can go hard every day, and if they do, I can guarantee they aren’t smiling. On recovery days, hang in the back of the pack. Take that time to get to know other people on the team. Some of my best memories and most lasting friendships were made when I decided to take it easy. I wasn’t worried where I was on the team and I just enjoyed it.
4. Remember where it all began. For all athletes there was a time when their sport was fun. It could be playing slamball with their brothers, diving for glow sticks at the community pool or laughing at Dad’s silly noises while on a run. By revisiting where it all began, athletes will be able to remember the good times and then move forward with more good times ahead.
5. Smile ... a lot. I have this belief that smiling makes you perform better. In a recent race, I tested this theory. I found that when I smiled, my posture was better, my lungs opened up, I was light on my feet and I didn’t hurt. Guess what? I won that race with one of my fastest times. Try it. I promise it will make a difference.
Finally, sports were created for the purpose of having fun, making that the essential ingredient. So to those potential college athletes, and all athletes everywhere, I will ask you this:
Are you having fun?