Diamonds in the Rough
by Laurel Park, Feb. 3, 2008
Diamonds in the Rough
As much as I’m impressed with (and somewhat jealous of) athletes who possess exceptional talent and ability, I have tremendous respect for those whose natural skills may be decidedly average, yet who through dint of hard work and persistence manage to ascend to the elite ranks of their sport. This is not to say that the physiologically blessed among us do not work, of course, but I think the perspectives on “success” and “achievement” are somewhat different. Most natural athletes enter the competitive ranks at a certain level, and thus their experiences and their expectations differ from those of “the masses.” There is something about working your way up from the middle (or the bottom) of your sport that instills a sense of confidence and determination that I’m not sure you get when you start near the top. I can’t say for certain because I’m no natural superstar, but I suspect the successes taste just a tad sweeter when you’ve had to sweat longer and harder to achieve them.
I also admire coaches who have the wisdom to recognize that some athletes require patience and persistence to realize their potential, but once that potential is developed, terrific things can happen. Obviously every coach would love to have the next Alan Webb or Molly Huddle walk into her office, but any coach who has been around a while realizes that those gifts are few and far between. Good coaches learn to recognize the signs of latent talent and - more importantly - how to cultivate that talent so that the athlete ends up accomplishing things that he or she might never have dreamed possible. It’s a delicate balance of setting the golden apple just slightly out of reach, but not far enough away to be discouraging, and then providing the expertise and encouragement that enables the athlete to eventually get the apple. Once that first apple is achieved, other apples usually follow. And, as the saying goes, attitudes are contagious. When the culture of success is established, it spreads to other athletes and eventually becomes self-sustaining. Some coaches make a career out of turning lumps of coal into diamonds. One of the finest compliments my husband’s college coach ever received was when a fellow coach commented, “No one makes chicken salad out of chicken [excrement] better than Art Gulden.” I suspect that in places where transforming the average into the extraordinary is just a typical day’s work, the arrival of a natural superstar would produce more chaos than cheers.
I often think about the “superstars in waiting” when scanning the results of high school track and cross-country meets. While most newspaper stories rightly focus on the winners, and time/space constraints limit the number of places per event that are listed, I find myself wondering who else is out there. Which name, currently buried somewhere in the middle of the finishing pack, will emerge five or ten or even twenty years from now as a regional or national superstar? Who’s out there toiling in anonymity, just waiting for all the pieces to fall into place? Sometime those pieces fall into place during college, while sometimes it doesn’t happen until many years later. Although I don’t necessary appreciate the additional competition (I have plenty already, thank you very much), I always feel a smidgeon of pleasure when I see some nascent talent finally blossom and start moving up in the results at key races.
One of the things I love about running is that it’s a sport that rewards hard work and persistence as much as skill and natural ability. This is not unique to running, of course; there are other sports, such as swimming and tennis, where world-class athletes emerge from the ranks of the average joes. But I think running has the market cornered in this respect. That woman who finished in the middle of her age group five years ago could be challenging for the overall victory this year. That kid who never even qualified for states in high school could be preparing for the Olympic Trials four years from now. You never know which bits of coal will develop into sparkling gems.