In early March, we heard reports of rich parents lying about their kids’ abilities—including athletic—to get into prestigious schools. The news makes us shake our heads at the corruption on both sides of this equation, but it also feels to me like the logical extreme of a culture that sees youth sports as a means to an end.

Too many parents start counting scholarships from their kids’ first success in the gym class mile. And if the goal is the scholarship, or the college admission, regardless of what the athlete learns and develops, then, given the chance, why not forget the actual doing and get the result? For that matter, why even involve the kid? The most mind-blowing story out of yesterday’s news is the young man whose parents failed to tell him that they claimed he was an elite pole-vaulter, and was surprised by an advisor who asked, “so you’re a track athlete.”

On a far less nefarious level, the means-to-an-end attitude too often robs runners of experiencing the joys of progress and mastery. If they aren’t good enough to have external success, they’ll either drop out or get relegated to the second-tier where doing your best is politely applauded by their mothers. Interestingly, these runners who don’t have initial success but stick it out, learn personal, internal motivation and improve are more likely to continue on in the sport later in life, as I discovered while working on a book about lifetime competitors.

photo: 101 Degrees West

The real danger in this culture isn’t for those who have to struggle; it begins as soon as a young athlete shows some promise. From the first time they win an event in a junior high meet, or worse, set a record, they began to be told that they are a good runner. They are told they have talent, a gift.  Winning becomes not a goal but an expectation. Failure does not provide incentive to work harder but calls into question whether or not they are as talented as they thought.

The potential of a college scholarship—or, as we learned yesterday, increased chance of entry to an elite school—enhances the need to win, even if it pushes a child to the point that they no longer enjoy the sport they were born to do. And this is the good scenario, where the young runner is actually involved in the sport and reaping some physical benefits, even if learning to hate it because of the pressure.

I don’t think collegiate sports are bad; they provide incentive and opportunity for far more runners to develop and compete than if we only had professional clubs. But we do a disserve to young runners when we emphasize getting there and the benefits of being a collegiate athlete over the benefits of becoming a runner and the improved life that can bring.

This is where, I believe, we can start to counteract this cultural perversion of the sport. Let’s celebrate effort and growth as much as we do talent and external success. To celebrate success without context leads easily to a world where any means to get that success is acceptable.

We can be as inspired by the girl who improves her 3200m time by three minutes during four years in track as by the one who shows up and, without summer training, can place in front of her on the team. Or the boy who works his way from 31st at state cross his freshman year to winning it his senior year, as much as or more than the one who finishes in the teens his first year and does only enough to stay there for four years.

This doesn’t mean giving up on excellence. As a coach, or parent, I can encourage the girl who shows up and can already run fast to set higher goals and to work to achieve them—not simply applaud her for being born faster then her peers. I can also distinguish between effort on any given day—which is good, but limited—and effort applied over time that leads to growth. I can work to not show disappointment at hard-fought losses but excitement at what they can teach and inspire. And I can give honest, enthusiastic attention and appreciation, not pity applause, for every athlete’s personal march toward excellence.

What do we want for our young runners? Success? Yes, and with it confidence that they are able to measure up and compete in life. But also, to learn how daily runs can provide joy, clarity and vitality. To experience the sense of personal choice and power to create change as they set and achieve goals. To learn the satisfaction of enduring—even getting comfortable with—difficulty and discomfort en route to becoming a stronger, better person. To experience the satisfaction of developing skill and using that skill to meet difficult, engaging challenges.

The parents who who faked their kid’s way into school should be prosecuted. The “athletes” should be pitied. They missed all of the rewards.