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HIGH LIFE : It's Called Running on Empty : Burnout Has Ruined Careers of Thousands of Track Stars

February 13, 1988|MICHELE MITCHELL | Michele Mitchell, a senior at Esperanza High School, is an all-league selection in cross-country, a member of the Aztec varsity track team, a part-time sportswriter for the Highlander-Star community papers, co-founder of her school's creative writing club, editor of the literary magazine and a columnist and investigative reporter for the student newspaper, Aztlan.

Mary Anne Bullard came to USC in 1984 as a star. The Esperanza High School graduate had a full-ride track scholarship, a tab by the local papers as a future Olympian and enough track medals to make half a dozen wind chimes.

At the 1984 Orange County track and field championships alone, Bullard won the 300-meter hurdles, 800-meter sprint and 400-meter sprint and anchored the victorious mile relay team--all in school record time--to earn the sprinter of the meet award.

And she loved the sport enough to avoid being tagged with the spoiled-high-school-star stereotype.

"I really didn't give things like the Olympics a whole lot of thought," she said. "Running was a part of my life I really enjoyed, and I wanted to run in college."

Fred LaPlante, USC track coach, said: "Usually the good athletes like running just because they're good at it. A lot of times, the stars get into college and work their little fanny off, and then it's not fun anymore.

"Mary Anne really liked running, but she was one of the good athletes instead of the good athlete. I saw her as a solid performer and a good student, which is perfect for me, but for her it wasn't."

This quest for unattainable perfection is often the first indication of burnout. Such emotional exhaustion has ended the careers of thousands of runners, and for every victim of stress there is a different story.

But Bullard was supposed to be different. She wasn't supposed to become a statistic.

"With her attitude and her versatility she would have been a strong, steady performer at the Division I level," said Al Britt, Esperanza track coach.

But halfway through her sophomore year, Bullard injured her foot, recovering only long enough to pull a hamstring.

"I lost that spark," she said upon her return. "I got tired of competing. I loved to practice and I loved the team, but it was becoming more of a chore."

Finally, after her junior season collapsed when she reinjured her foot, the pre-med student decided to give up her scholarship but remain at school.

Burnout occurs so often that there is no one answer.

"Any athlete that has fairly good success in high school is going to have real high expectations put on them by the community," LaPlante said. "You feel responsible, that you're supposed to succeed."

LaPlante speaks from experience. A former high school distance runner in Ohio, he didn't believe there was much difference between prep track and the Olympics.

"But when I got to college (Eastern Michigan)," he said, "me and about 20 other guys walked in the door with the same idea. It was like walking down the street and getting run over by a semi truck."

It was also the start of a case of burnout that lasted 1 1/2 years, during which LaPlante went through the typical blame cycle: The coach was wrong, the techniques were wrong, the system was wrong. This stringing together of excuses is often the pattern in burnout victims.

"So many kids use it as the reason they won't go on in running," said Mike Sayward, Canyon High running coach. "If you ask a kid what burnout is, they often can't describe what they mean."

Sayward, who has coached more than 100 cross-country victories during his 12 years at Canyon, said, "One of the first reasons it (burnout) might occur is (problems with) adjusting to a new system. After four years of developing a trust with the high school coach--an athlete is going to tell his most intimate things to the coach--they're entering a new system.

"Now, they may be very fast, they may be very competent, but the problem is they have to change."

Many don't or simply won't.

According to Al McDaniels, cross-country and track coach at Nevada Las Vegas, "Some students never let go of the high school coach's image or philosophy."

"There can be high expectations for scholarship athletes," he said, "especially in the Division I schools. Failure to perform at a required level can lead to a loss of financial aid. These programs want conference and NCAA national championships."

Said Sayward: "With those (Division I) schools, they bring in the best athletes in the nation and, with very little coaching, those athletes are national caliber. And, at the same time, there are 20 others there with high hopes, and they get left out a little bit."

In many instances, walk-ons never get a chance. And neglecting a runner can contribute to burnout, said Joe Douglas, coach of the Santa Monica Track Club.

"Young people do need encouragement," he said. "We don't have good developmental programs. You'd see more successful athletes if they gave more young athletes a chance. A freshman competition level would give them time to develop."

But perhaps the most common cause of burnout is injury.

"A lot of times the (college) coaches ask you to come back when you're not fully recouped," Al Britt said. "In Mary Anne's case, she'd get injured just from hard work."

Bullard, who has resumed training--running 70 miles per week but only for herself--and is applying to medical schools, agrees that the responsibility ultimately rests with the athlete.

"If the athlete burns out, there's nothing the coaches can do," she said. "A lot of times the people who aren't real big names in high school make it through the program. But I've seen it all. I've seen people who are really good in high school come out and do well, and then I've seen some who were totally awesome come out and not do well at all."

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