Students urged to overcome anxieties, enjoy sports
August 11, 2022
Marathon icon Bill Rodgers and All-American runners Waverly Neer ’11 and Rebeka Stowe told about 300 middle school and high school athletes attending a motivational session at Culver Academies on Tuesday that it is normal to be nervous and have doubts before competing.
Rodgers, a four-time Boston Marathon winner, told the students he used advice given to him by his grandfather before a race in Hartford, Connecticut, when he was young as motivation throughout his life.
“He said, ‘Just give it a try’, ” Rodgers said. “That’s what I did when I became a marathoner.”
Rodgers said those words became a mantra for him, repeating “Just give it a try” when he needed to calm himself.
“It’s really simple, but it worked,” he said. “So, think of something that means a lot to you.”
Those words helped Rodgers become the dominant runner during the golden age of U.S. men’s marathoning, competing head-to-head with 1972 Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter. Rodgers won the Boston Marathon three straight times from 1978 to 1980, setting an American record in 1979 with a time of 2:09.27. He also won the New York City Marathon four straight times from 1976 to 1979. In 1975, 1977 and 1979 Track & Field News ranked Rodgers the No. 1 marathoner in the world.
Rodgers told the students that he had his failures as well, usually because he started too fast. Rodgers dropped out of the Boston Marathon in his first attempt in 1973.
Neer, a six-time All-America runner at Columbia and Oregon and a four-time Indiana state champion at Culver, and Rebeka Stowe, a Big 12 steeplechase champion at Kansas, an Olympic trials finalist and a Nike coach in New York City, told the students they also had prerace routines they used before competing.
Neer said she dealt with nerves by repeatedly counting to six in her head. She said she’d do it for up to 15 minutes before a race to take her mind off other things.
“For me it’s just a centering experience, like a mantra,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, but it has historically helped me. It shuts down the portion of your brain that makes you amp up.”
Stowe said she had an hourlong prerace calming routine that included listening to music.
“It was like magic. By the time I finished my routine I had confidence in knowing that no matter how I felt going into it, I could put myself in a place that I was able to perform,” she said. “So the whole process is like knowing how to move yourself into a state of kind of peace.”
Stowe, who coaches high school and world-class athletes, including Neer, also encouraged the students, which included members of Culver’s cross country, football, sailing, soccer and volleyball teams, to take part in a variety of sports instead of limiting themselves to one.
“There’s a value to changing it up every once in a while. Even if it’s just you going out and playing with your friends. Change it up and keep yourself athletic in that way,” she said.
Stowe suggested the students keep in mind the three Rs when it comes to sports: responsibility, real life and rumination.
Stowe said responsibility means knowing why you are on a team and what you want to get out of it. She said for some competitors, being on a team is simply a way of being around friends and staying in shape.
“I want to be healthy and have this social community. That’s amazing,” she said. “Others here are going to probably have a mindset like I had: ‘I'm going to win every single thing at all costs. I'm going to put every minute I can into doing this.’ It’s a wonderful thing to have both of those personalities come together.”
The real-life aspect, she said, comes into realizing that you are probably going to be a part of a team the rest of your life at work, although it probably won’t involve athletics.
“Your bosses and people hiring you will be like, ‘Heck yeah, I want these people on my team because they know how to work with people. They know how to show up. They know how to keep a positive attitude. They know how to be a teammate,” she said.
Part of that, she said, is knowing where you fit in as part of the team and knowing your role.
Stowe told the students that one of her favorite quotes is from TV character Ted Lasso, who said the happiest animal in the world is a goldfish because it has a 10-second memory. She told the students to not ruminate too long over a bad moment or a bad game and to let it spiral into something bigger.
“Honestly, the thing that I found is the best thing you can do is when you see that kind of dark spiral going down, just take a second, close your eyes and breathe. Seven times in and seven times out. And then you reset and see, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait. Where am I at?’” she said. “Because ruminating is tied to anxiety. It’s tied to depression. It’s tied to a lot of really not good things for you. But also those things don't really contribute to being happy.”
She said whether a competition goes well or poorly, you should move on from it after 24 hours. Even if it’s your worst performance ever, she said, find three good things about it. She said it can be that you showed up even though you didn’t want to, or you got up after being knocked down.
“We’re going to be 24-hour goldfishes,” she said. “Rewrite the story about how you would have done it. Because you can control the way that you remember things. … Remember yourself moving and doing the thing you wanted to do rather than beating yourself up.”