Question: One of the athletes I am coaching now is in the process of deciding what university to attend next year. Her parents would like her to attend a local school, but I would prefer she goes a bit further to a school with a good throwing coach. Parents that are not involved in track and field do not seem to realize that not all throwing programs are on the same level. Do you have any arguments to help convince them of this? -Coach K
I agree that that choosing a school is a decision that needs to be left up to the athlete. The athlete needs to find that school that is the best fit for them. Unfortunately the best fit for the athlete is also not always the best fit for the parents. But, and it might surprise you for me to say this, the best fit for the athlete isn’t always the best coach either. Finding a good fit means looking at more than the school’s proximity or athletics program, but also its academics, the future teammates, the city it is located in, and a variety of other factors to see what environment will allow the athlete to succeed both in sports and in life. While many people online have been quick to criticize the recent decision of American high school champion and world junior championship finalist Rudy Winkler to attend Cornell University next year, I think it is a perfect example of making a holistic choice. This young man had his choice of schools, and rather than choosing a school with a storied tradition or all-star coach, he chose a local school renowned for academics with a young coach. I applaud his decision.
Track and field is not a team sport, it is an individual sport. While a quarterback may not be able to show his skills without good lineman and some receivers, a thrower can develop no matter how good his teammates are. Because of this, I tend to think that the cream will almost always rise to the top; the motivated athletes are the ones that will succeed, no matter where they are coming from. A young coach will not be a hindrance to this type of thrower; only a close-minded coach is. Winkler fits this mold. He is a kid who drives two-hours each way just to work with his high school coach. He’s a kid who has showed more dedication and determination before his 18th birthday than many throwers will show in their lifetime. He understands the hammer and is working hard to learn more about it. He will be good no matter where he is and who he trains with. This is why I am so pleased to see him to choose his school based not just on throwing, but based on academics, location, and other factors.
If you still think I’m crazy, I have a few more examples. Just a few years ago US junior record holder Conor McCullough also spurned offers from the top throwing schools in the country to head to Princeton. In three years there he won a world junior championship, improved his personal best to 75.09m, and was one of just three throwers under 22 to break 75 meters last season. And all this success came amidst wave after wave of off-the-track distractions that would have sidelined any other athlete. Conor was determined to succeed and would have done so anywhere.
I’d like to think I am also an example, at least in the sense of my motivation overcoming obstacles. After my first year of college I transferred from Cal State-Northridge to my hometown University of Washington. Years later I found out that USC coach Dan Lange wanted me to come to USC, but was unable to tell me so at the time due to NCAA restrictions on contacting transfer students. Coach Lange is, in my opinion, one of the top hammer coaches in America. With the benefit of hindsight, I told him I wish I would have done that. Four coaches in five years, plus a failed promise to build an on-campus training facility, had left me frustrated at Washington. He didn’t agree. He felt Washington was the perfect fit for me because what I saw as shortcomings were actually what led to my success. These factors ended up giving me more control over my training and led me to learn more about the hammer in the process. What looked like a bad situation on the outside ended up being the perfect fit for me. Coach Lange was right, I should not have any regrets.
This is not a call for athletes to focus solely on the school’s academic reputation either. As with athletics, reputation is not everything and may not be the best fit for the athlete. Also, like in athletics, I think a good worker will rise to the top whether their degree is from Harvard or even Oregon. Professors might be more knowledgeable at one school, but other factors can lead to more success from a lesser-ranked school. You need to take a holistic approach to making the decision. It’s less where you go, and more what you do when you get there.
Winkler and McCullough already has most of the tools needed for success, both physical and mental. This allowed them to look at other factors when making their decisions, in addition to athletics. But an athlete lacking these tools might instead want to focus more on the throwing program at the school. An athlete who might be in more need of a mentor to teach them about the sport, a motivator to push them, or a coach to give them a does of reality to match an inflated ego. But for all the athletes, it should be a decision they make to fit them best, rather than one their parents make for them.