Saturday, June 16, 2018

What Outside Magazine Got Wrong

I wish online social media fuss didn't bother me as much as it sometimes does, but here I am writing another post on an article that derails the conversation about young athletes we should be having, one that includes how to properly guide them into a long and successful career. These kinds of situations are distracting, but I feel it's important to offer my viewpoint given my past as an athlete and my desire to continue mentoring others. This is a serious topic, so I don't like when people hamper progress in an area by quibbling over minor details. When there's a fire raging, you don't stop to yell about the dirt on the floor. 

For whatever reason, the article in the New York Times I mentioned earlier caused a lot of commotion. People stomped onto Twitter to say a lot of things about it. A few even suggested men shouldn't write about female issues. Imagine applying that logic to all areas, and you start to see how ridiculous an idea this is. But then a different man wrote something these same individuals agreed with, and it suddenly became OK for men to write about these topics.

It's unfortunate that so many people are misinterpreting the NYT article. The author, Mathew Futterman, recently mentioned on Twitter that his intention was to address the pressures young athletes experience. Could he have done it better? Probably, but nobody is suggesting puberty is the culprit or that the cruel twist Futterman mentions is the female body itself. The puzzle is why so many promising young female athletes have, as Kara Goucher put it, a "bumpy" experience when it comes to their running careers. The conversation should be about how to better support young athletes. Instead, despite the author's clarification, Outside Magazine Online decided it was necessary to slam the piece and insisted the article would somehow teach athletes to fear maturity. This isn't the first time Outside has published an article specifically to bitch about a New York Times article, either. It should be noted that the Outside article came out days after Futterman clarified his position.

A few errors that stood out to me in the Outside Magazine piece are listed below.


"The article quickly changes tack, however, in order to make the point that many top female high school runners fail to live up to their early promise because of changes to their physique. One of the “cruelest twists in youth sports,” it seems, is that girls become women."

No, this isn't what the article stated or even suggested. It suggested that the pressures young female athletes experience, especially those who have had some success early, to keep their former form as their bodies change is why you often see disordered eating patterns, overtraining, and body image issues develop, and this is ultimately why  many of them don't have continued success in their sport and why the success of those who manage well later isn't always a straight progression. As I mentioned before, it most definitely does not say that the cruel twist is puberty itself, becoming a woman, or a woman's changing body.  

Puberty is natural. How society and many coaches view it may not be. We also look at mothers who have recently given birth and expect them to be back to their pre-baby bodies too quickly. The focus is relentlessly on women's bodies. That's the problem. We don't need to be defined as strong or thin or fit or fat. We need new ways of looking at women altogether. THAT is the problem. People reinforcing diet culture, fitspiration, thinspiration, and posting images that strictly define women as something to look at that put unnecessary attention on the body only are a big part of the problem. Keep in mind I'm talking about athletes here, though this happens in the world at large, too. 

The New York Times article is not the problem, far from it. All it did was point out something that happens that many of us observe or have even gone through and offer ideas about how to possibly prevent burnout, injuries, and disordered eating from occurring in a specific population. Another problem is that we aren't willing to look at statistics and information objectively anymore. Bill Mahr is right when it comes to outrage. People get riled up over someone who's actually trying to help instead of addressing the bigger issues in society and the root issues. 


"Others criticized the author’s decision to cite Mary Cain, another high school standout from New York, as an example of a former teenage star whose career has “largely stalled.” Cain, as more than one person noted, has only just turned 22 and hence still has several years to develop and improve."

Nobody said Mary Cain's career is over, but it has stalled. That's an observation, not a criticism. There's nothing wrong with that at all. It just is. It doesn't mean she won't run well later or even soon. Still, she's missing what could be some of her most enjoyable years as a competitor, and there's no indication that she will return to the sport. Whether or not she does is nobody's business, really, but to pretend she's not like many others who had extra bumps in the road isn't being realistic. Bringing her up at all was only to mention that Tuohy and her team are aiming to try things differently and keep social media pressure and other stresses off of her as much as possible. I already addressed this in my last blog post. Whatever Mary does, she has already placed herself among the best of the best in running. If she likes, she has every right to rest on her laurels. If not, she has plenty of time to continue her running career. Nobody is denying that. 

Right before speculating about Tuohy's future and comparing her to another young athlete who set a world record, the author had this to say:
"As for Tuohy and her fellow high school runners, I think Fleshman and Goucher are right in that we should forswear speculating about their future potential."

The whole thing is rather confusing presented this way because we are supposed to acknowledge and celebrate her success, but only if we do it in the context of "her current athletic level." Despite the fact that this young lady is breaking course records and has two national high school records, we are NOT supposed to call her a prodigy defined as a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities. No, that would be BAD and put too much pressure on her. 

In my opinion, what's more problematic than pointing out the prevalence of female runners who struggle to have a steady progression with large stretches of smooth sailing or calling someone with talent a prodigy is discounting or outright denying the number of times runners, even those who have had tremendous success, go through career-ending or potential career-ending struggles. I know at least three female Olympians who had major slumps early in their careers. Not that my personal observations mean anything, but there's a difference between a difficult transition and dropping out or being forced out of a sport you love early. This isn't to say women should achieve the same statistics or aim for the same type of progression as men; it's just pointing out that there is a difference and questioning why. 

What we should be addressing are how coaches can better guide young female athletes through the changes they naturally experience and how to keep the pressure off them so that the temptation isn't to try to hold onto an unrealistic standard. Encourage building strength so that they don't fall into disordered eating patterns or attempt unrealistic training schedules that their bodies may not be ready to handle. 

Though this wasn't the main topic of either article and is, perhaps, somewhat unrelated, we also need to be more aware and not deny the prevalence of eating disorders and body image issues at the elite running level. We also need to stop stereotyping those with eating disorders and other mental issues and stop focusing only on how someone looks as an indicator of wellness. Those who struggle don't choose a disorder and don't use it primarily to gain an advantage athletically. Mental illness is not a method of cheating. Implying otherwise certainly doesn't help resolve any issues young female runners might experience. 

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