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.

Mary Cain’s Bombshell

For the last month, I’ve been half-expecting another shoe to drop in the sad story of Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project (NOP)–sad, because, as I wrote previously, Alberto and I had been colleagues and there were many things I respected and admired about him.

But I never dreamed that the shoe was going to come in the manner or direction from which it did.

If you didn’t see it, Mary Cain, once the fastest young woman in America, in an opinion piece in the New York Times accused Alberto of fat-shaming her, trying to force her to lose weight via birth control pills, (illegal) diuretics, public weigh-ins, and other forms of emotional abuse.

It was a devastating article, followed up by confirmation on Twitter by Olympian and former NOP runner Amy Yoder Begley that the same had happened to her toward the end of her career.

You would be hard-pressed to find two more credible sources. Even before Amy’s confirmation, I believed Mary. If it had been sour grapes for not doing well after entering the program, she’d have done it years ago, rather than silently taking abuse for being a washout who couldn’t handle the pressure.

To me, this is far worse than the errors that led to Alberto’s doping ban. In those, he was basically playing the mad scientist, without thinking enough about the consequences and technicalities of the rules.  Here, he screwed up in a very different way.

When the news broke, I spent a lot of time going back over the books he and I wrote together. The publisher’s marketing department insisted that they all be written in Alberto’s first-person voice, even though the contract made me a more-equal contributor. That meant I spent a lot of time rewriting my own ideas as if they were Alberto’s, making it a little hard to sort them back out, today.

What I do know is that there were large parts I wrote in his voice, then submitted for his approval: “This is what you’re saying, unless you disagree.”

For example, he knew very little about master’s running, so I wrote that part. And most of the chapter on injuries was mine, largely because I’d written similar ones for books on bicycling and cross-country skiing.

A friend who is a former pro (not NOP) once told me that male coaches who started out with boys tend to mis-coach women.

That, I suspect describes Alberto. He came out of the male-track culture, then started coaching Galen Rupp and the altitude-house guys. Women, for the most part, came later.

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 will just quit and go away, though there are others, who, like characters in a Shakespearean tragedy, will fall on their swords for a simple “good job”.

So, part of my take on this is that Alberto, however successful he’s been with some women, may not “get” women the way my friend describes.

Until the NYT article, I’d never heard of what felled Mary Cain, RED-S syndrome. When I Googled it, however, I discovered it was the same as female triad, which I’d long known: the nasty trio of eating disorder, loss of menstrual period, and stress fractures from lost bone density.

Mary says she lost her period for three years and had five stress fractures in five different bones.

In my books with Alberto, we warned about that, but now I now wonder how much the warning came from me, rather than him.

Alberto’s target weight for Mary was too light. Not because the charts said so, or because she looked too thin, but because she was losing periods.

For him to ask her to lose weight, and not monitor her periods (or advise her to do so) is…well, I find it hard to find the words.

In one of our books, “we” wrote that ideal weight for female runners is hard to determine. If you weigh too much, you’re slower than you could be, easily hurt, and subject to health problems. If you’re too light, you’re slower than you could be, easily hurt, and subject to different health problems.

Did he not remember that we wrote that? Or didn’t he really believe it?

But the core of Mary’s story is worse. She says she was engaged in cutting.

Nobody would lie about that; the stigma is immense. But when she worked up the nerve to tell Alberto and the group’s sport psychologist, she says, they were too tired, wanted to go to sleep, and blew her off.

I have trouble processing this.

Cutting is a red-flag warning of a serious problem.

When someone you care about tells you of something like that, everything else stops.

I have no training in how to react, specifically, to cutting, and was going to say I have no clue how to react. But I do: listen. Support their courage for talking about it. Make sure they’re not suicidal. Refer them to a trained helper, or assist in finding one. Stay up as late as needed, or at least until you’re about to keel over.

If Alberto didn’t know how to react, I get it. The sports psychology parts of our books were another portion that was mostly my doing.

But how could NOP’s sports psychologist not instantly have gone into “therapist” mode?

“Tell me more.” That’s all you have to say. It’ll open a floodgate.

Clemson, Ostarine, and the Olympics

I am a fan of college football. I went to one football school as an undergrad, another as a grad student, and taught at a third. And while the concussion problem has dampened my enthusiasm a bit, I still appreciate the sport’s athleticism, as well as the chess-game aspects of offense and defense. I even like the intricacies of the rules, in which it appears that someone not only anticipated anything that can possibly happen, but wrote a rule to cover it. As an official in another sport, I can tell you this is not always the case.

But I am very disheartened by what I’m going to call the Clemson doping scandal.

I’m calling it that because as far as I can tell, nobody else does. I can’t find a single news report that even uses the word doping, though I’ll admit I haven’t read everything.

That means the true scandal isn’t that three athletes on the same team (of only 18 or 19 who were even tested) came back positive for a substance called ostarine. The real scandal is that the sports media refuses to call it a scandal.

Continue reading Clemson, Ostarine, and the Olympics