We are all born with various levels of ability. Height, speed, injury resilience, jumping ability, strength, coordination, etc.
These are all traits that can be improved (except height lol), but we all know everyone has a different floor of where they start. You probably have a certain set of abilities that you excel at in comparison to many of your peers.
For those of you who are rather talented with very high levels of a few or many of those it can be easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re working hard when you’re not. This story is for those of you who are better than most of your peers in your sport or just athletically. You only find the hard competition at the higher levels. Those of you who have big dreams to compete.
This is longer than usual. But a fun ride!
Many of the athletes I coach have the natural talented & trained skill to compete in college at a high level, or even professionally. Some of you are really talented and skilled at your adult club sport and take it quite seriously.
Your base level abilities, or even just prior training over the years can get you on teams you didn’t train for, win small medals you hardly practiced for, and run times that make all of your friends bewildered at but aren’t your best.
A long training history of several years can slow the rate of your loss of abilities drastically. The less time you’ve been in great shape and trained, the faster you’ll lose it. The longer the, slower.
Don’t let this fool you into thinking you’re in shape for the next level competitors.
I learned this the hard way in 2019 getting embarrassed playing professional ultimate frisbee relying on an 11 year track history but not training in the 2 years leading up. Don’t tell my teammates, but I stopped really training hard once I moved back to Pittsburgh at started GHP at 24, 2 years before trying out. I was in amazing shape the year I moved back.
I’ll tell you a story about myself. For some of you this may sound like praise, but for the talented kids or the adults with regrets, you’ll certainly understand. My pride now is in you winning. This is about
As a kid, I was generally the fast kid on the block. I lived in 7 neighborhoods as a kid & teenager, I was always the 1-2 fastest kids of the people in that area over 40m or half a mile. When I started running track in high school, after a underwhelming freshman campaign, I broke out & I medaled at several invitationals in the 300 hurdles & 200m dash, got my fair share of 1st places, and WPIAL championship appearances the next 3 years.
Being fast was my thing.
Please don’t ask about me blowing my chance to go to states as a senior stepping on top of a hurdle (or 2) while still running a PR time and missing states by just a few places.
It’s still a tender spot 11 years later (kidding….kind of).
Fast forward after 2 unremarkable years of college track (a lot to unpack there), I took up ultimate frisbee in graduate school in Austin Texas. I caught on to the sport well and was a rather talented newbie. Most people coming into that sport don’t have a college sprinting background so in my mid 20s I was a threat in local play and leagues. Not many could outrun or keep up with me. I fared well against a number of serious club players, athletically.
And I learned the basics quickly. My other ability is that I can catch on to new things quickly. I like to think I adapt to change very fast, at least it seems compared to others. I would locally dominate the average players athletically in leagues and pickup with the exception of the really serious college & club players my age who really knew the sport well.
I thought I was THAT DUDE and that I didn’t have to work that hard to step it up.
After 2 years of starting this business and learning to play better, but not really “training”, I ended up making a professional ultimate team in 2019 at the old age of 27 because I was fast, could play defense, & had a lot of upside. The Pittsburgh Thunderbirds.
But I was NOT in shape at all. Endurance-wise, even speed wise, jumping wise - my vertical had dropped 2in since grad school. I ran an 11.6 100m in grad school (my fastest ever). I could barely compete with my HS all star sprinter who came to me running 12.6 as a freshman on a good day.
I took my fitness for granted for the 2 years leading up to that. I did strength training from 2017-19 and was strong, but I only really ran seriously during the preseason of HS track to encourage (and show off to) my HS sprinters.
Now you are like, “Well Coach Donald, I exercise. I do my core exercises at home. I do some squats at the gym a lil bit. I go run around my neighborhood sometimes.”
Kid, so was I. I didn’t say I was watching TV all day. But working out and TRAINING are not at all the same. You are only training if you are chasing metrics to improve. Randomly doing hills and push ups is not training.
This is about being talented at your best, not being in shape compared to regular people.
Back to the story.
Yes I made the team, played, got better, and acquired some stats. But I was getting embarrassed at practice. Not in a way that made people go “oooooo!” (although I had those moments too). By my coach’s metric, I was one of the most improved actually.
Good mechanics and an understanding of game flow can make up for a lack of athleticism and fitness at the non elite level (ie. practice and less important games)
I was embarrassed because players who were not as athletic as me were in much better shape so I struggled to outshine them physically. I didn’t get playing time because I came in at the bottom and was literally not in shape enough to overwhelmingly show I should play more. I practiced on par with and at times, especially late in the season, often better than the bottom half of the roster.
It’s worth noting that the best players were 4 years younger than with more than twice the experience, that did play a role. But great athleticism with fitness always has a seat at the table. Always.
Once you’re labelled a certain way, it’s hard to escape it. And I wasn’t at the time fast enough, long winded enough, and skilled enough to consistently show off.
Fitness & real training happens in the off season, not in season.
Let that be a lesson in itself to you.
The best players on the team were giving me THE RUN AROUND week in and week out. Made me think of my freshman year of high school in track. At my best fitness and training at 24, I would’ve fared much better. Old man reflections, I know.
Wait until you’re washed.
A year later after actually training, I earned a spot fair and square and did well, until, that $%@# virus appeared.
And even during the shutdown as I decided to run more to manage stress, I discovered I could barely run a 7min mile and tapped at 26min for a 5k. Most of you runners reading this can right now run faster than that. You’re shocked or laughing at me. I could not run repeat 400s any faster than 1:25. I nearly threw up in Feb 2019 after running a 3:30 800m during what was supposed to be a 3x800m.
I didn’t finish the workout.
My entire ego collapsed in April. As a college sprinter my junior year, I still was able to run a 21min 5k without training for it.
So I decided to actually work my tail off. Over the course of the year, I ran 20min 3mi during a test run, finished a half marathon, later ran an official 21min full 5k, beat a teammate in 200m repeats who was KILLING ME the year before, and am currently, alongside many of you, pulling 6 back to back 800m runs in 3:10 or better.
Yay. A comeback. Go me.
I don’t want you to have to come back.
Not because of you taking your abilities for granted.
Wrapping up. As a decently talented athlete, it’s VERY EASY to think you are in shape when you are not. We all have a “base fitness & ability” that comes from genetics and years of previous training.
Don’t let your abilities compared to others less talented fool you into thinking you don’t have to work hard.
You do. Consistently. Year after year. Month after month. Week after week.
You must be uncomfortable training. Your hard days must be hard.
Your recovery must be serious.
It should hurt. Not injury hurt, but try your best hurt. Muscles ache. Heart & lungs pained.
Some days you yell. Some days you cry. Each day you push.
Half heartedness doesn’t get you to the next level. I learned this the hard way. And Father Time doesn’t give do overs.
You are in or nearing prime competition years. Many of you are receiving, or will receive college offers. Some of you have the potential to be professional athletes.
You are better than most of your peers by nature. That’s dangerous territory. Your nature can fool others, but don’t let it fool you.
Always keep striving to be better. And you’ll avoid having a comeback story that was preventable.