Olympian's message to kids (and parents): Try different sports
By Greg Bach
Colleen Quigley encourages kids to try all sorts of sports and activities growing up – and with good reason.
It helped her uncover a career as a world class track athlete and Olympian who competed at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
“I always tell people when you are growing up that you don’t have to find the sport that you are going to be the best at,” says Quigley, who placed eighth in the steeplechase at the 2016 Olympics. “You just need to try lots of different sports to see what you like, as well as learn basic athleticism.”
Quigley loved playing soccer during her youth and enjoyed the teamwork involved in the sport. She also danced – ballet, tap and jazz – and dreamed of a career as a professional dancer.
When her high school years rolled around she admits to being afraid to try out for soccer and risk not making the team, so she chose track and cross country because those were both no-cut sports.
She excelled, was recruited to run at Florida State, and soon discovered an event that was never on her radar.
“My college coach wanted me to try the steeplechase because I had coordination from all those years of dance and soccer,” she says. “So she thought it would be a good fit for me.”
The event is tough.
The hurdles are unforgiving.
And Quigley loves it.
“It is super fun,” says Quigley, who won the 2015 NCAA indoor steeplechase title. “I get bored kind of easily so just doing a 5k or 10k is horrible just to do that many laps. So when you have all these barriers that you have to jump over and every lap you’re focusing on getting to the next barrier and the next barrier you’re kind of dividing up the race that way and taking it just one hurdle at a time – which is a good way to deal with life.”
The event requires full concentration every step of the way. Losing focus or allowing the mind to wander even for a moment can be disastrous.
“In the steeplechase the barriers are wooden so if you hit one it usually means the race is over for you,” she says. “Or you are injured. You really have to be very careful – you can never lose focus in a steeplechase, which is really good for me because I need to have something immediate to focus on every lap to keep me engaged."
DOING YOUR BEST – EVERY TIME
As a high school track athlete Quigley remembers the pre-race nerves that would surface.
Now, as someone who has competed in the Olympics and in big races around the globe, she’s learned how to manage those emotions.
And she encourages today’s young athletes to not beat themselves up when they fail to achieve the results they were hoping for.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and feel like whatever race you are doing is end-all, be-all in defining you,” she says. “I want to compete to the best of my ability but when it comes down to it I’m just going to do the best that I can do today and whatever that is it is; and if it’s not what I wanted to have happen it doesn’t mean I’m a bad athlete and it doesn’t mean that I can’t achieve that goal some other time, but maybe today just wasn’t the right day for whatever circumstance might have happened.”
So coaches and parents must remind young athletes that while it’s important to do your best every race, whatever the outcome happens to be doesn’t define the individual.
“Each race is important, but it doesn’t define you as a person or as an athlete,” Quigley says. “If it goes badly it doesn’t mean you’re bad. I think a lot of athletes put that kind of pressure on themselves.”
Being involved in a sport like soccer growing up did much more than help contribute to a professional running career for Quigley.
It also produced memories and forged friendships that she cherishes to this day.
“My favorite memories come from the team aspect,” she says. “Just going to practice and working together and relying on other people to be successful I think is really important, especially for kids to learn those kinds of skills while growing up. You have to learn how to work with others, and communicate and support each other, to be a team and a family. A lot of the girls who were on my soccer team I still keep in contact with now. So, I’m really glad I was able to play team sports growing up because I think there’s something really special about that.”
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