Motivation and Humiliation

The Alberto Salazar/Mary Cain story is very much a moving target, as was revealed today in Sport’s Illustrated’s detailed feature.

What I want to do here is address a small piece of it. In a prior post, I wrote:

“A friend … once told me that male coaches who started out with boys tend to mis-coach women….With guys, my friend says, it’s possible to motivate by humiliation. With women, she says (after admitting it’s a stereotype), that simply doesn’t work.”

Most people agreed, but I also got feedback suggesting that humiliation isn’t the optimum motivator for boys either.

Let me start by saying that I concur. What my friend (and I) were saying was simply that boys can be motivated in that manner.

I know, because it happened to me.

I was short and through most of my youth, pretty lean. In grade school, when they made us line up in order of height for school photos, I always knew my place: back of the line. At age 16, my first driver’s license listed me at 5’1”, 103 pounds.

Among other things, this makes you bully bait. But it also made for hell in PE classes.

Not that coaches were always the ones responsible for this. Boys are good enough at humiliating each other without adult assistance. But there was one PE teacher I feared and very much disliked. I’ll call him Coach Clark, but that wasn’t his name.

At 103 pounds, I simply didn’t want to do blacking drills with real football-sized people. I was also useless at basketball. I would have been good at wrestling if there had been anyone my size.

In track, everything was about sprinting, and when the Good Lord handed out fast twitch, I must have been out on a long, slow jog. I was good at tennis, but you were only allowed to play it in PE by graduating into it from things I was never good enough to graduate from. I loved bicycling, but in those days that wasn’t considered a sport. Once you were old enough to drive, you were supposed to give it up.

Bottom line: I really hated PE.

But whenever I got a chance, I also really dug in my heels. In wrestling, for example, nobody ever pinned me, even though they always outweighed me by 20-30 percent. One particularly vivid memory was in 8th grade, when my best friend wanted to practice on the front lawn. That was OK at first, but all he really wanted to do, I quickly realized, was to pin me, which he’d never managed to do in PE. Or at least make me call “uncle.”

All I had to do was tap out of this unfair competition, but I refused for what seemed an eternity. Then, my mother, who knew what was up, came out and called a halt to it.

I didn’t discover distance running until I was 24, but I suspect it’s the same for those who ran in high school. In fact, when I share these stories with other male runners, I find that for guys who do well at distance running, mine is a common story. I may not be able to flatten you in football, but that does not mean I’m a wimp.

Ultimately, this led me to the sport I love, so I’m not complaining. But for years, every time I PRed or won an age-group medal, I wanted to pump the sky and shout, “Take that, Coach Clark!”

Decades later, my mother told me that Coach Clark once told her, long after I’d grown up, that I was one of the toughest kids he’d ever worked with. You could’ve bowled me over with a feather. Because whatever school of coaching he came from wasn’t one that allowed him to say such a thing to me.

The relevance to Alberto?

First, my experience, and the degree to which it resonates with other distance-running men confirms that boys can indeed be motivated—even if not ideally so—in this manner.

Secondly, Alberto is very close to my age and would have grown up in the same type of boy-culture I experienced. He has also said he tried to treat men and women identically (even regarding weight, which is an enormous mistake in and of itself). So it is likely that this played a role in what Sports Illustrated is now calling the “toxic culture” of the Nike Oregon Project.

But really, all I’m saying is that my female friend knew what she was talking about.

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