What Made Maddy Run: A Book Review

by Tom O'Grady

Picture from Amazon.com

What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan is a powerful and poignant exploration of Madison Holleran's life and untimely death. In this compelling book, Fagan takes a deep dive into the life of a young college athlete and exposes the underlying challenges and pressures faced by today's youth, especially those transitioning into college and early adulthood. The fall is a great opportunity to revisit Maddy’s story and better understand the lessons that can be drawn from Maddy's experience. Perhaps this review will help to better equip some parents in supporting their children's emotional well-being during these crucial phases of life.

Fagan masterfully weaves together interviews with Maddy's family, friends, and coaches, along with Maddy's own online presence through social media, to provide a comprehensive portrait of her life. Maddy, a talented and driven athlete, appeared to have it all on the surface - academic success, athletic achievements, and a vibrant social life. However, beneath the façade, she was battling a crippling inner turmoil, struggling to live up to societal expectations, and experiencing the dark side of the hyper-connected digital age. Each of the pillars that made Maddy successful created additional pressures to continue performing at a high level. This outer façade of calm and success masking an inner turmoil was called “Penn Face”. Everyone has probably heard some version of the term Penn Face before. It's the name given to Penn's culture of perfection, which pressures students to constantly "do more" with their time and appear put together academically and socially, while hiding their insecurities.

The culture that creates Penn Face underscores one of the critical lessons from Maddy's story, which is the impact of the performance-driven culture on the mental health of young adults. As a society, we often prioritize achievement and success above all else. This can lead many young individuals to feel inadequate when they don't meet the unrealistic standards that they are striving for. Even more unfortunate is that this pressure can be even more intense for high achievers like Maddy, who (although already performing at an exceptionally high level in nearly all facets of life) constantly felt the need to prove herself. Parents need to recognize the importance of fostering a balanced perspective on success and encourage their children to prioritize well-being over external achievements.  

Another significant takeaway from Maddy's experience is the role of social media in shaping how we view the world and self-perception. Maddy's carefully curated online presence projected an image of happiness and accomplishment, contributing to the "highlight reel" phenomenon, where individuals only showcase their best moments online, leading others to perceive their lives as perfect. This disparity between reality and the virtual world can lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy. Parents should be vigilant in monitoring their children's online activities and teach them about the importance of authenticity and mental health advocacy on social media platforms.

Furthermore, the book emphasizes the need for open and honest communication between parents and their children. Throughout her struggles, Maddy's parents remained unaware of the depth of her despair. This highlights the importance of creating a safe space where children feel comfortable discussing their emotions and challenges without fear of judgment or reprisal. Parents should actively engage in conversations about mental health, encourage their children to express their feelings, and seek professional help when necessary.

Another vital aspect of Maddy's story is the significance of mental health support systems in colleges and universities. During her time at Penn, Maddy struggled to find the necessary resources and support to cope with her emotional struggles. Institutions of higher education must prioritize the mental health of their students and ensure accessible and comprehensive mental health services are available on campus. Parents can play a role in researching and advocating for colleges that prioritize student well-being, as well as guiding their children on how to seek help if they face mental health challenges away from home.

Moreover, Fagan's book highlights the potential dangers of relying solely on one's identity as an athlete or student. Maddy's self-worth was heavily tied to her performance as a track athlete and a successful student. When she encountered setbacks in these areas, she felt a loss of purpose and struggled to redefine herself. Parents should encourage their children to explore a diverse range of interests and passions, helping them develop a multifaceted identity that can withstand the ups and downs of life's challenges.

Additionally, What Made Maddy Run draws attention to the importance of self-compassion and self-care. Maddy was incredibly hard on herself, setting impossibly high standards and being overly critical of her perceived failures. Parents can help their children cultivate self-compassion by teaching them to treat themselves with the same kindness and understanding they would offer to a friend facing similar difficulties.

In conclusion, What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan is a thought-provoking and impactful book that delves into the life of a young college athlete struggling with mental health challenges. Through Maddy's story, critical lessons emerge for parents, highlighting the significance of creating a supportive and understanding environment for their children. Parents should aim to balance the pursuit of success with an emphasis on well-being, foster open communication, promote authenticity on social media, and advocate for mental health resources in educational institutions. By learning from Maddy's experience, parents can better equip their children to navigate college and early adulthood successfully, preparing them for a fulfilling and emotionally healthy life.

Screenshot 2023-09-09 at 10.06.19 AM.pngTom O’Grady is an elite runner, coach, writer and college professor with a joint appointment at NYSDOH/UAlbany School of Public Health. In addition to writing diverse articles for the Pace Setter and other running journals, he is the Pace Setter’s official book reviewer.

Click on his picture to read all that he has written for The Pace Setter-and it is a lot! Thank you Tom!



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