Thoughts From Three: Remote Coaching

Camillus NY - After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month this summer. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

Remote Coaching

On the morning of our sectional state qualifier meet, my first inkling of disaster came with a glance out the window. Snow was falling as a slurpy mess in the near-freezing temperature. On the top of my computer monitor, storm warnings ticked across a weather banner. This was not good. Any postponement of the meet was going to have consequences. By noon, however, the snow had ceased and an ominous cloud cover began to thin and lighten. It appeared, literally, we would soon be in the clear.

An hour later, the A.D. secretary called to tell me the meet had been postponed. Northern and eastern schools in the section feared those roving bands of heavy lake effect snow predicted for late afternoon and evening. "But I see blue sky," I protested to Gloria, temporarily misplacing my institutional memory of northern New York winters. Then I asked the most important question. "When?"

The meet, she said, had been shifted from Wednesday to Saturday. And it had been moved from our Onondaga Community College site fifty miles down the Thruway to Utica College's Hutton Sports Center. And it wouldn't start until 6:30 at night. I gulped. Saturday I was supposed to be in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with my wife, celebrating her birthday with her sister and husband and other family members. The plans had been finalized in late November, the plane tickets bought. A brief family gathering, we were to return in time for my Monday practice and the university course she taught. Earlier in the week, her sister had called with the unseasonably warm weather forecast. That was going to be the best present Marsha could ask for.

In my thirty-one years of coaching, I had missed a total of one meet--and that due to a family wedding. What had made that possible, however, had been other sacrifices. So when we talked later that day and with a tone of frustrated resignation Marsha told me, "Well, you're going to do what you're going to do," I did decide what to do.

I e-mailed my A.D. to explain the circumstances and my decision to give the duties over to Coach Delsole. "I am not worried about team management," I told him. "Coach D.  will be fine and fully capable. My biggest concern is missing the meet with the athletes. I've missed only one other meet in my coaching career, so it's not something I take lightly. But I have put off--or never scheduled--numerous other trips with my wife over the years because of coaching responsibilities. This time she needs to come first."

Coach D. merely shrugged the conflict off. He said simply "you don't have to worry about it," and I knew he was absolutely right. That only other time I had missed a meet, it was he who had also taken over. At the cross-country invitational that particular weekend, he met a parent who asked him if he was nervous about leading the team. Coach had to suppress a laugh and hold back from describing all the varsity teams he'd managed in his career, which would have taken too long. No, I wasn't worried about that. It was more basic. The notion of having my athletes competing in such a consequential manner without my eyes on them seemed alien, simply not right. But right or not, by mid-Saturday afternoon I was noting the budding trees and chirping birds of Chapel Hill, and Coach was texting that they were on the bus and headed to Utica.

As meet time approached and we sat to a gregarious family dinner, I could feel myself getting tense. There was no release possible, no athletes to remind of race tactics or to pat on the shoulder with a "good luck, go after this." No pace charts to diddle with or stop watches to nervously clear six times over. Nothing but family conversation half tuned out. Six hundred miles away, four members of the 4x400 relay were stepping on the track for an opportunity to advance to the State Championship, and I was passing the table salt.

          For the next hour, I channeled my athletes and snuck peeks at my cell phone held under the table. Quickly posted meet results from leonetiming. Text messages from Coach D. The girls won their 4x400 with a school record time, and all I could do was smile and ask for seconds on the potatoes. A few minutes later, I snuck a break and called Coach. The boys 4x400, not expected to win and without one of their best runners, had nevertheless raced a seasonal record on the backs of three personal-best times. I asked if the athletes remaining in individual events were cooling down and resting properly. I heard a laugh. "They're all business coach," he said, describing their preparations that needed no prompting. For the next two hours, after dinner concluded and while the family lounged, the results came on-line, usually followed by Coach's texts. This wasn't like streaming a meet, where you could at least pound the sofa and vicariously will your athletes to fast laps. There was just a weird 'otherness' to an evening with two realities, one close at hand, and the other miles away.

When it was over, we'd entered only six athletes in individual events, but four of them had made states. Including relays, 12 of the 14 race performances that night had resulted in seasonal personal records--and the athletes left the arena with two new school records. What I was left with was the ambivalent acknowledgement that what Coach and I had managed to set in motion the past weeks, months and even years had successfully moved on without me. Though oddly reassuring, I wouldn't wish that sensation on any coach. 

          My strange day ended at the kitchen table of my in-law's darkened house. The others had gone up to bed. I sat in a small refuge of light, finishing the meet-sheet with long-distance data gleaned from Coach D. had just called from a near-empty team bus that was rolling the darkness westward on the NY Thruway, nearing home. "You would have loved it coach," he was saying, relating one of the races. "On that last lap, she just dropped the hammer."