Sports teach you a lot about yourself. They often highlight many of your strengths and expose many of your weaknesses. Great athletic programs teach the importance of teamwork and coming together to achieve a common goal. But most importantly, they taught me how to deal with pain.
By they I mean my high school cross country and track coach Robert McCarthy, who, for three years, busted my chops and held me accountable on — and off — the field.
Coach McCarthy was a role model in more ways than one. An older, sun-kissed adult heading towards retirement (I never knew his exact age), he managed to compete in multiple triathlons and other endurance events every year, doing more athletic competitions than us young athletes could ever imagine doing in a lifetime. “Coachie,” as we affectionately called him, focused more on his athletes’ strive for excellence than their level of performance. But that didn’t stop him from giving his two cents at the end of a race.
Anyone who’s ever competed in cross country knows it is incredibly demanding and taxing on the body. And when you’re younger, you occasionally find ways of cheating the system. Maybe that’s taking a shortcut on a 12-mile steady pace or slowing down the lead pace during a tempo run. “I’m in a lot of pain” was an excuse we often gave to Coachie, and one day, he set us straight.
I remember getting ready for our pre-run talk on the bleachers after school one day and looking at his face. We knew — or at least we thought — we were headed for a lecture on chickening out of hard workouts, but what we got instead was an important life lesson. I’ll never forget it:
“Know the difference between pain and injury. Pain is a temporary discomfort that makes your stronger. An injury, however, will take you out of the game. You need to take care of yourself and your health when you’re injured, but the problem is you always think you are injured. How are you supposed to get stronger if every time you start hurting, you stop? Trust me, you’re not injured, no one’s been injured. You will know what an injury feels like when it really happens, but stop confusing injury with pain. They are not the same thing.” — Coach Robert McCarthy
Of course Coachie was referring to our habits out on the trail, but little did he know, he had created a brilliant metaphor for dealing with pain in life itself.
The truth is we all struggle with one thing or another, but sometimes we let that struggle consume us. In effect, we tap out of our race, allowing others to get ahead of us while we pity ourselves. This discomfort is meant to strengthen our will and help us rise above and conquer our greatest challenges. It is painful, but we so often treat it like an injury as if our long-term health depends on it.
Our long-term health, in fact, depends on us dealing with pain and overcoming it so that the small hurdles in life don’t become injuries.
Coach McCarthy passed away in 2016 after losing his battle with cancer — the only challenge he ever lost. My high school graduation would be the last time I’d see or talk with him in person, but Coachie’s message still holds true to this day.
The next time you feel compelled to tap out of your race or make excuses, think of what Coach McCarthy would have said: It’s just a little pain. Keep it up, kid.