On Father’s Day, Five Parenting Questions for Matt Centrowitz
On August 20, 2016, Matthew Centrowitz won the Olympic gold medal in the 1500 meters, becoming the first American since 1908 to do so. His father, Matt Centrowitz, himself a two-time Olympian and the former American record-holder at 5000 meters, celebrated in the stands in Rio with unbridled joy.
On Father’s Day weekend at the NYRR RUNCENTER featuring the NB Run Hub, Centrowitz returned to his hometown—born in NYC, he’s a graduate of Power Memorial High School and attended Manhattan College before transferring to the University of Oregon—to discuss his new book, Like Father, Like Son: My Story on Running, Coaching, and Parenting.
Centrowitz, 62, who’s also the head track and field coach at American University, told the audience that rather than smothering Matthew with attention and expectation, he’s tried to let his son lead the way in finding and developing his passion for running. He believes this hands-off approach—combined with unconditional love and acceptance—has been key to his son’s success, and that it’s an approach that can serve any parent.
How did you get started in running?
Like many New York kids, I had to deal with the streets. I had my fair share of trouble. In the book I tell how I went from lost kid to being saved by track. My coaches and teammates steered me in the right direction. Track gave me self-esteem and a path in life.
What were Matthew’s early running years like?
The most common question I get is how do you make him do it? You can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. That spirit, that passion has to be inside of us. Matthew had it—he trained Monday to Saturday with his team in high school and then he’d go out on his own and train on Sunday. I didn’t make him do that.
What else played a role in his development?
Matthew has an older sister who was an eight-time Maryland state champion in high school and a sub-five-minute miler. He was trying to beat her and that seemed to motivate him. Another factor is that we socialized a lot with other runners—he was always surrounded by runners, everyone around him. He’d ask questions and get exposed to different ways of thinking. He’d also look through my old running diaries and always ask 10 questions, so I’d answer two of them, just trying to keep the appetite there.
Was it hard to stay out of the way?
I’ve learned as a parent that if you baby your kids, they’ll think and act like a babies. If you talk to them a step ahead, they grow into who they’re going to be. I’ve always tried to expose Matthew to things that challenge his thinking—not just in running but in all areas of life. That’s allowed him to see that he’s in charge, that it’s his passion and hunger making things happen.
Any other advice for parents—even those of us whose children are probably not going to win an Olympic gold medal?
You know, the biggest teacher we have is experience. That means making mistakes and not being afraid of making them. You’ve got to let your kids struggle—that’s not fun as a parent. But you have to let them fall down, and then pick themselves up.
Each of us has different talents, and our journey in life is to find them, to perfect them, and to take them as far as we can. No one can do that for you.