9 lessons that elite student-athletes wish they knew

9 lessons that elite student-athletes wish they knew

When I was in high school, I was a running phenom, reaching #1 in the nation. Then I largely failed. I never improved. Here are 9 lessons for the driven that I wish I knew when I was obsessively training and neglecting just about everything else:

1. Being really good at something at a young age narrows your world.

It seems like nothing else matters. That’s false. We need mentors and adults in the world to provide perspective. Having the ability to zoom out is one of the most important skills you can develop.

2. Hard work absolutely matters.

But so does recovery, so does having friends, family, and hobbies, and other outlets. I know that sounds sacrilegious to the ‘pushers’, but there’s a reason why Nobel Prize-Winning scientists are 3x as likely to have a hobby. We need a break.

3. Obsession can be both a gift and a curse.

It all depends on how you utilize and handle it. Treat it with care. Learn how to direct it and use it when you need it. Learn how to turn the dial down, relax, and be in the moment.

4. Separate your identity from what you do

When you tie your identity too closely to what you do, anytime you fail at that thing, you will take it as a failure of your true self. It won’t be that I failed at running. It will I am a failure

If you can’t separate yourself from what you do, the losses will hit particularly hard. Instead, embrace your complexity. Understand that running is something that you are really good at. It’s a passion. Embrace how much you care about the sport. But remember it isn’t who you are.

 5. Develop a Short Memory and Stop Comparing Comparisons lack context.

We aren’t terribly kind or rational when it comes to our evaluations. We look to our best performance and have amnesia on the rest.

Don’t get stuck in comparison mode. Don’t look fondly at the glory days and think that they hold some secret to success. It worked in that moment. That moment is now gone. Focus on what you can do at the moment to get better. Not what worked or didn’t in the past.

 6. Keep things in perspective.

No one really cares how fast or slow you run in circles, or whether you published in some magazine or not. The only people who truly care will be there even if you fail at all of those things. The people who leave, don’t really matter.

 7. Don’t Follow Your Passion. Do Interesting Things.

Passion isn’t attached to a singular item. It isn’t a magical soul mate that will solve all of your woes. Passion is something to apply. It’s a state that lies in the interplay of interests, obsession, & curiosity. It’s a tool.

Keep it simple. Do interesting things. That alone is the real key to success. Interests allow you to explore. Allow your interests to percolate, fuel the ones that show promise, and the rest of the process will largely take care of itself. 

8. Don’t let your goals weigh you down.

Concrete goals are good and fun…until they aren’t. Your goals will slowly shift from aspirational to anchors. While well-intentioned, the very things that may motivate and push you forward can ultimately weigh you down.

Instead of placing the focus firmly on an external result, shift the focus internal. You can’t truly control if you ever run a mile in under 4 minutes, or write a NYT bestseller. What you can control is getting better. Being a better runner, person, and student.

 9. Don’t force things.

You are going to experience some tremendous highs and some depressing lows. You’ll question why you do this sport, your job, and much more. At times, life will appear meaningless.

When you force things, you become anxious, and you press. You start pushing the boundaries of your principles as the external result begins to supersede the work. Don’t let it.

You can’t shove your way to success. Instead, all you can do is do the work to put yourself in a position to succeed and see what’s there. 

– Steve Magness


Steve Magness was the head coach of University of Huston cross country team as well as the assistant coach of Track & Field from 2012 to 2021. He is a world-renowned expert on health and human performance. He writes about science and psychology of performance.

Did you agree with Steve about the 9 lessons that elite student-athletes wish they knew before? If you enjoyed reading this, consider purchasing Steve Magness’s book:

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