For Amy Yoder Begley, an Olympic middle-distance runner, four tumultuous years with Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project came to an abrupt end in September 2011.Mary Cain quit after years of being told she was too fat.
“Alberto told me he was kicking me off the team for having ‘the biggest butt on the start line,’” Yoder Begley said.
Salazar’s critical assessments of her body, how she socialized with her teammates, even the sound of her laugh, had finally reached a breaking point. She was out of the Oregon Project, the elite training group Nike bankrolled to develop mostly American runners it hoped would become the world’s best.
Yoder Begley is the latest former Oregon Project member to publicly accuse Salazar of manipulating and verbally abusing the athletes who trained under him. The other runners include Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympian, and Mary Cain, a prodigy who skipped collegiate running to train with Salazar but quit the team within a few years, her body and her spirit broken by overtraining and verbal abuse.
Maybe Salazar was meaner than he should have been, and he didn't have the success that Nike, his main sponsor, hoped. But this sort of thing is very common in sports because it works. Very few people can train at the level needed to become a world champion without intense pressure, and for some people that means being screamed at for failing and mocked when they slack off.
Bullying is among the tricks that successful coaches deploy every day all across the world. One example I have looked into is San Antonio Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich, who has a great record and a trail of bullying allegations; when he was once asked why his teams played such good defense, he said, "fear." Some players have fled San Antonio, but others have thrived there and ended up with a profound loyalty to Popovich. He screamed at them and humiliated them, but he made them champions, and for that they respected him.
In sports, bullying works. Not always, and it is not the only way, but it is a very successful way to motivate extreme performance.
Other sorts of motivation can be just as brutal, for example the extreme hazing of recruits performed by some teams and some elite military units, which helps to create intense loyalty to the team.
The same can be said of other sorts of education. George Orwell has a moving description in one of his essays of his realization, at the age of about 15, that as much as he hated the regime of beatings and humiliations in his Public School it did "work," in the sense that it motivated adolescent boys to learn Latin and Greek. In fact, he said, it is probably impossible to teach boys ancient languages without beatings.
The Times ponders the intense burden we impose on promising young athletes:
We don’t typically hear from the casualties of these systems — the girls who tried to make their way in this system until their bodies broke down and they left the sport. It’s easier to focus on bright new stars, while forgetting about those who faded away. We fetishize the rising athletes, but we don’t protect them. And if they fail to pull off what we expect them to, we abandon them.Exactly. The young stars who thrive under the intense pressure shine so brightly that the cast the grim suffering behind it into the shadows. Because, let's be honest, success in sports requires suffering, and success at the highest levels requires very intense suffering. It also requires that some people not succeed, that some who try to reach the heights not make it despite years of effort and sacrifice.
I used to think that a nicer world would be in every way a better world. I am still a fan of niceness but I now realize that not everyone feels the same way, and the many people believe harshness and cruelty are necessary to create some of the wonders that make our world an exciting place to live.