Last year, when I was running the New York City Marathon, picking up the pace for my 26th-mile kick along Central Park South, my high school coach's voice was in my head. I imagined him coaching me to the finish, daring me to victory, and pumping his fist at the end of each race. That voice helped me run faster, and I finished in under four hours. I'm not sure I've ever been so proud of myself.
It's been 14 years since I eagerly awaited my first day of winter track practice in 2003, but the lessons my coach taught me over my seasons on the team feel as fresh and crisp as if it were yesterday, and his voice isn't in my head just when I'm running—it's in my head when I'm taking on other challenges in life, too. Here are the 12 most important life lessons I learned from my high school track coach:
Set new goals every year.
My coach made each year feel special, new, and full of possibility—anything was possible with hard work and smart training. Every season I set specific goals for myself: Most years I achieved them; one year I didn't. But the ability to pick specific goals, give myself 12 weeks to train and improve, have a bad race, and try again and eventually accomplish those goals has stayed with me. I deeply believe in the ability to achieve my goals because of my success in high school track. Now, in my adult life, I do the same thing with every new season. I set goals, I try, I fail, I reroute, I accomplish.
Never miss practice.
Consistency is key. If you put in the training, and you put in the hours, you will get better. Our coach counted each and every one of our practice days, and at the end of the season, he would share the attendance records and give awards to team members who attended the most practices. This system allowed him to reward participants, not just the stars of the team. He'd have serious talks with anyone skipping workouts or not living up to their potential. I never missed a workout: We'd run through snow, rain, and chilly winter days, and I only got stronger and better with time.
Run through the finish line.
You never know when someone could beat you at the final tape, so don't get cocky and slow down in the very last seconds. Run proudly through the finish line and revel in your own personal strength and victory. Have no regrets. Now, I celebrate finishing errands, submitting work assignments by the deadline, or closing the deal in a high-stakes sales meeting. You ran through the finish line, and you didn't give up.
Everyone can be a captain.
We didn't elect captains to our winter track team because our coach said that the right leaders emerge during the season. There wasn't a hierarchy, everyone played their own part and most of the seniors found a way to lead in their own natural way. Now, this plays out well for group projects, brainstorm sessions, or delegation of work duties. How can you play to everyone's natural strengths?
Taking advice can be really hard, especially if you have an independent streak like me. But insight from a coach is truly priceless. Coaches see your weaknesses and your strengths; good coaches gently remind you of both in the moments when you need to hear it the most.
Finish what you started.
You might as well finish what you started, so be smart at what you choose to begin. I quickly realized in my early years, that long distance was the right fit for me, so I chose the longer races, like the mile, 2-mile and 4-by-800 relay as my specialty. Sprinting? High jumps? Not a chance! Cater to your strengths, choose your pursuits wisely, and once you're in, give it your all.
Take a rest between seasons.
You'll come back stronger; I promise. This one was really hard for me. I'd eagerly ask my coach every year if I could compete in cross-country finals on Saturday and start track season on Monday. But he'd always make me take a solid week off and away from the team, with zero exercise. This one was hard for me. Learning how to rest is not easy, but it's so essential to avoiding both injury and burnout.
Remember you always have more to give.
Your body is stronger than you think. Smart coaches are able to tell you when you have more to give, even when you can't see it for yourself. My coach could tell when I was able to dig a little deeper. Sure, I'd want to throw up after certain races, but I have no regrets from not trying my hardest.
Trust your training.
There comes to a certain point in the season when enough is enough. Your hard training practices are over, and you have to trust your training, taper, and peak for your key races. This is where the mind comes in strong, and trusting yourself, and your coach, is the best way to get yourself to the starting line, or in today's adult world: to the public speaking podium, to the job interview, or to that awkward first date.
Make others feel special.
Great coaches make their athletes feel special. My coach signed me up for invite-only meets, drove me to premier races in New York City, and went the extra mile making me feel like my goals were worth it. He believed in me, and therefore, I believed in myself. Going out of your way to make someone feel special—a friend, your partner, a family member or a colleague and tell them you believe in them. This is one of the greatest acts of kindness.
It's tough, and that's what makes it great.
Running is hard. So many sports are hard. Life is hard. But as my coach always said, "Being tough is what makes it great. If it was easy, everyone would do it." Remember, you're on your own journey, pursuing your own unique life adventure and overcoming your own hurdles, and it's not easy. But at the end of the day, it sure is great.
When it's hard, try to laugh.
A little humor can ease up any hard practice and make it fun. For my coach, it was his self-deprecating jokes that had us in tears during chilly interval workouts. So crack a joke when the going gets rough, because we could all use a little bit more laughter in our lives.
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