On The Line! Running as Punishment, a Mental Health Burden

For every single team I have been on since the age of 13, my teammates and I often heard the words, “On the line!” belted at us. That, of course, meant we would have to run as a punishment.

When we didn’t complete a drill to the coach’s liking or a certain standard, there was an error, or someone didn’t show enough effort, we got on the line and ran a sprint, lap, or suicide. Running, then, was something we learned to dislike because it was correlated to making mistakes. It was, after all, punishment and meant to be dreaded.

There are plenty of arguments about running as punishments and most of those have to do with the fact that athletes don’t get anything out of it.

Some of those arguments against running as punishment are:

  • It wastes time.
  • It over-works them leading to fatigue and/or injury.
  • It makes you fear failure and encourages you to play it safe.
  • If we’re punishing athletes because they messed up during a drill, let’s take that time and work on more skills instead of run.
  • Slogging around doing a lap or two while you play a sport requiring speed actually does the opposite of what you want your athletes to do in-game (go fast!).

I see how, to many coaches and athletes, running doesn’t fit within the modern-day practice plan. But, have we considered what it might do to an athlete’s mental health? A coach might say it will toughen them up and, sure, it might. But not all athletes have such a relaxed view surrounding exercise as punishment.

(Note: this does not include general conditioning with running; I mean running with no intention other than to punish the team and its players.)

In high school, I had a teammate who eventually quit the sport of volleyball altogether. Her reason might surprise you as it did me, all those years ago.

She said, “When I began looking forward to the running we had to do as punishment, I knew it was time to focus on cross country and not volleyball.”

This was a good realization for her true desires. She was a runner already and balanced the two sports until one emerged as a favorite. However, I have been the teammate who looks forward to the punishment because we can burn more calories by running than by working on technique and standing there doing repetitive skills.

Before I became (completely) engulfed in my eating disorder, I started hitting the gym regularly. I lifted weights, did plyometrics, and generally sought out better fitness related to my sport. If I wanted to become elite, I thought, I needed to put in elite-level work.

I was a naturally-gifted athlete and really never felt the need to do anything more, physically, than give 100-percent effort at practice and in matches. But, I suddenly became so obsessed with trying not to lose any added fitness that I began working out every day, regardless of the workload at practice.

I started working out with a group and another coach would put us through specific exercises. That grew into adding some cardio on my own, little by little looking forward to the caloric burn afterward. After all, the group was made up of boys and girls from all sports – that meant all body types, especially those different than mine. I felt the need to “catch up” by doing even more. My mindset switched from trying to get fit to burning calories and looking fit.

There’s a balance of energy, if you knew… of course I know now, but 17-year-old me thought more exercise was better. It’s not. For me, it led to burnout, fatigue, soreness that wouldn’t go away, and a disinterest in anything not related to two things: burning calories or sleeping.

I began wondering how much movement we’d do at practice and attempted to guess how much food I should eat to prepare. I wondered, could I spend less time on the track that day, or would it be another fairly light day in the gym? I agonized over these things.

What wasn’t on my mind, then, was competing, getting better at my sport, building the necessary muscles to stay healthy and build sport-specific endurance and strength. Running became a joy and a punishment in one.

If the coach used sprints as a punishment for errors in practice, I switched it to punishing myself for not being fit enough… and took advantage of it to burn calories on top of the ones I was already burning. Yes, I thought, getting ahead of the caloric balance!

It might not be surprising to know that this mindset of burning calories instead of being the best on the court put me on the sidelines… because I wasn’t able to keep up with the game. Put me in a running race or physical test that had nothing to do with usable strength and I was the best on the team. Put me in to lead my team in both mental competence with energy and fire as well as physical ability… not so much anymore. I didn’t care because I was so fixated on those two things (burning calories and sleep) – if I wasn’t doing one, I was thinking about how I could.

Running as punishment didn’t make me a better athlete. It fueled my intentions for making myself smaller. It made my voice smaller, my presence on the team smaller, and the care to do better to avoid running smaller. It made my body smaller.

Not everyone has this mindset about running and cardio, of course. And not everyone will take it as far as me. But, for someone who has the predisposition for mental illness and is teetering on the edge of an exercise addiction, running that is unrelated to the sport is unhelpful.

If you are a coach, “run” your program as you see fit… but like the drills and rules you implement with your team, consider the outcomes, both positive and negative, of adding exercise unrelated to your sport as a consequence.


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