Father and son laugh about it now. The father, in fact, seems to delight in recalling his son’s monumental misjudgment and subsequent collapse in his first mile as a freshman at Broadneck High. The young Matthew Centrowitz boldly took the lead from the start of the indoor race, secure in his talent and genes. He had been a boyhood star. His father was a two-time Olympian in the middle distances. ¶
The band of juniors and seniors following close behind Matthew posed no concern until they blew past him, quite suddenly, over the final lap. Centrowitz ended up fourth or fifth, stunned and demoralized. ¶
That performance inspired a lecture from his high school coach and a huge nudge in the ribs from his father, Matt Sr., a four-time national champion. His son had clearly inherited his running gifts. But race tactics? A sense of strategy? ¶
Those were two realms in which Matthew, now the reigning world bronze medalist and U.S. champion in the 1,500 meters, showed no precociousness or comprehension. As a youngster, he had no idea that thoughtful, in-the-moment race analysis was crucial in getting to the finish line first in his specialty event, also called the metric mile.
But a handful of early strategic setbacks, underdog performances and a father who used defeats as teaching moments have convinced Centrowitz that there is no greater influence on competitive speed than sound tactics and level-headed execution.
As Centrowitz strives to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500 this summer as his father did 36 years ago, he knows his legs will carry him to the finish line in good time only if his brain cooperates. It took a good long time to learn that lesson. Then, once he learned it, he had to master the art of execution. He figures he’ll be refining that part — and discussing it with his father — until he retires.
“The thing about being a miler is it’s 50 percent speed and 50 percent strength, and you have enough time out there . . . to self-destruct,” said Matt Sr., who coaches men’s and women’s track at American University. “You have to learn how not to give the race away.”
Decisions on the fly
Flawed strategy has doomed many a superstar on a big stage, particularly in the 1,500, an event that can be described as a cross between a footrace, a chess match and roller derby. The race is just long enough to provide opportunities for nudging, clustering and tripping, and short enough to allow for furious late sprints. And it allows plenty of time for monumental mental breakdowns. Some of the world’s fastest milers have struggled to win Olympic or world championship races simply because they panicked or were outmaneuvered.
Certain basic precepts govern the discipline; however, the best approach in any particular race is always a fluid concept, subject to change. A few of the fundamentals:
●Running in the lead, which requires making decisions about pace and surrendering the ability to watch your race rivals, keeps a runner out of traffic but can be mentally and physically taxing.