When I Was a Child

by Russ Ebbets, DC

There is a line in the Bible that reads, “When I was a child I thought like a child.” It goes on and essentially references how change is a critical factor in our personal development as we transition through the phases of life.

In one’s “athletic life” there are also changes that we all master with different levels of success. I have written before on the three general stages an athlete progresses through – fun, commitment and performance based efforts, but even a general awareness of these only minimally prepares one to make the transitions.

Improvement necessitates change. This statement has almost become a cliché. Einstein is credited with stating that one form of insanity is to repeat the same procedures again and again without change and expect to get a different result. To produce a different result necessitates changing one’s approach, which for most is easier said than done.

If all things only grow once life truly becomes a “one shot deal.” To realize our true potential, our growth, our development does not tolerate significant mis-steps. What complicates this whole process is that the vast majority of people live life with a forward view of about 200 yards. A runner will get that. It is about 30 seconds if you are moving fast and maybe two minutes if you’re walking. What happens past those 200 yards depends on a plan, on a belief in the plan and the faith that it can/will happen. But if one’s attention span is the length of a sound byte you can expect about as much future planning and directional thought as that of a windblown plastic bag.

The preferred and hopefully for many, the initial exposure to sport was fun, it was like play. This is where early attempts to organize children’s sports often fall short, especially in activities where the child cannot fathom the rules of the game. It only produces a form of chaos with little lasting learning value.

And chaos, a lack of structure, with little learned presents a poor foundation for future reference, especially for a child. If there is no plan or they fail to see a plan (planned development) the default tendency will be to assume things will be done this way, always, with little attention to design. Using their only point of reference they “think like a child.”

But nothing stays the same. Growth of the body involves weight and height changes, new thought patterns and deeper understandings, taste and preferences changes that can all present with their own set of challenges.

Interestingly one of the most stunning changes for the young athlete is muscle soreness. A child in the fun/play stage rarely gets sore. They are really not trained, they are active until they tire and then they rest. It is a simple participation formula.

Organized competition, with clearly defined quarters, periods or distances presents a new set of “rules” that participation mandates. Other factors such as one’s will to win or succeed can provide the impetus to push past the point of fatigue, to give that extra 10% to succeed. And the price to be paid can be sore muscles.

But the child, thinking like a child, does not anticipate this. There is nothing in their past reference for this “new” situation. And for some this change, this new reality is more than they have bargained for. It becomes easier to back off, take the path of least resistance. One of the reasons often sited why children quit sport as they become adolescents is that it is no longer “fun.” While the pain may be temporary and the pride participation forever, the pain part is never fun.

Another big change the adolescent athlete must adopt is the simple warm-up and warm down. To an experienced adult this is a no-brainer. It is just something one does, but again in their distant past this habit was added to one’s daily workouts and competition prep. The warm-up and warm down become ritualized habits that have health and performance implications; but again, once upon a time there was a day when this was a new behavior, a change that the athlete adopted whether they did so willingly or with some degree of trepidation.

This ability to handle change might be seen as the maturing process. Who would disagree with this? For one, I can think of the “terminally immature.” These individuals, set in their ways, the ways of a child with childish thinking, most would see as an impediment to their progress.

While it is possible these people still may achieve a degree of accomplishment it usually is at great cost. The sporting news and Internet weekly chronicle the missteps of the American celebrity athlete. While to the average/sane/normal reader (if there such a person) the actions and behaviors of said athlete may prove to be equally baffling/entertaining/troubling. And note that these observations are done from afar. No doubt these behaviors are viewed differently from the perspective of a coach, administrator or teammate. This “me first – the heck with you” thought can lose games, ruin seasons and prematurely end careers.

The hindsight of a 20-something and beyond of childhood is that of an idyllic time oftentimes forgetting the tremendous personal changes and challenges of new and different things.

A common sentiment many people share is that upon return to a childhood home or school re-union is the vague feeling of how small everything is. In the interceding years one has grown physically and often one’s world has expanded so that what was once new and intimidating has been reduced to something old and familiar.

Adolescence is a time of growth physically, emotionally, even spiritually. An understanding and developing appreciation for this time of growth can be fostered with the use of appropriate role models and progressive goal setting that will forecast the changes and challenges that are coming.

Change can be intimidating, but with attention to fundamental development it can be both negotiated and managed successfully so that the perspective on one’s career, at the end of the road, is that of satisfaction with one’s efforts as opposed to the feeling that the lack thereof is someone else’s fault.

Russ Ebbets, DC lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the High Peaks STR8 Maps trail guide to the Adirondack 46 High Peaks. Copies are available from PO Box 229, Union Springs, NY 13160. He can be contacted at spinedoctor229@hotmail.com.

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