Thoughts From Three: The Year’s Addition

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. 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."

The Year's Addition

And now, all the scholastic champions have been crowned. Hugging harriers have posed for national champions photos. Indoor champs have flashed their V's for the camera or beamed during interviews. Relay teams have wandered off the Agee Stadium infield sporting their Burger King-ish crowns reserved for outdoor track's No. 1's. We celebrate them all-and rightly so. What it takes to climb those podiums should never be lost on anyone concerned with the current culture of ease and the curse of qualified commitments.

Fewer of us, however, ponder the metaphorical distance in time and talent back to that majority of athletes whose seasons ended earlier than championships and with far less fanfare. Were theirs good? Were theirs worthwhile? And how much, honestly speaking, do we care? Maybe we should consider those questions, if only to push back a little against our current cult of elites, the one that now forms a bookend to a growing lack of fitness in our country's electronics-captured youth. In between lays our precarious middle zone of modestly athletic individuals, the ones who are at least giving fitness a shot.

How, though, do you judge a season for those masses who went home after the final dual meet or leagues or sectionals? Where's the proof that, with no state championship certificate or no national championship backpack (perhaps monogrammed) it was, indeed, a very good season, a worthwhile year? Can we appreciate how is it possible to run a program with considerable team-member successes where no one advances to a state qualifier meet and no league/sectional banner is hung in the gym at season's end? Are we inching into a corner where only winning is winning?

We don't dwell on the successes of the 'average' athletes because to quantify those successes is, actually, usually more difficult and time consuming. So we merely assume the non-scorers and JV-level team members got a good deal. If--just if-other principles besides records, wins and championships applied primarily to the value of scholastic sports, where would that lead us? If we could prove that the valuable 'life-skills' learned by the sum of the average and less-than-average members on one team outnumbered those acquired by a much smaller group of elite-level competitors on another, then which team, at the end of the day,  provides the greater benefit to a school system, a community, society at large? What, in other words, really adds up at the end of each athletic season, each year? That summation-the one that includes everything-is usually given little thought by the traditionalists and keepers of the flame, those concerned primarily with records and record-holders. But what, for instance, would a coach confront if he/she was rated on how many team members starting as freshman remained as seniors? Or would basic programing and practices change if the AD wanted to know each season what the drop-out rate was from Day 1 through Week 4-and expected an explanation if it was too high?

We are, no doubt, great sports. Track & Field and Cross-Country provide athletic opportunities to scholastic team members in ways that other sports cannot-or will not. Our no-cut athletes of modest abilities (the ones who might not survive 'try-outs' if we held them) will faithfully arrive each season. The consequences of how they are served will reverberate-if not throughout the media world, then certainly throughout their families, their schools and their communities. Why is this important, a matter of concern for coaches attempting to fulfill their contractual obligation to field competitive teams? It's important simply because scholastic sports have always been-and always will be--intended to provide much more that the euphoria of victory for the talented. We just tend to forget or dismiss what that "much more" is.

Basic operatives are always in play, if not acknowledged. At the core of our organized scholastic sports-what makes it successful as a human activity--is, of course, something we typically take for granted or assume is an automatic consequence of joining the team. Nothing of consequence occurs without it, and nothing gets coaches in more trouble with parents and A.D's than demanding it from athletes who are reluctant to demonstrate it. Commitment is that elusive, though pervasive, concept. We of course know it when we see it in our champions, and so identifying and celebrating talented commitment is seldom a problem. The problem is our inability to recognize or reward it in other places. Or even expect it.

Item: The sun is lowering through an October sky and lengthening shadows. The coach and an athlete he asked to stay after practice to talk privately have added their own shadows. Coach is patiently explaining the consequences of an unexpected and late-arriving parent note excusing the athlete from an important scheduled invitational that coming weekend. The note states an undefined "family commitment." Several selections for the sectional championship squad will be determined by that invitational, and the athlete is one of those under consideration. Coach is explaining what's at stake. The athlete ultimately misses the invitational, then losses his selection to another who raced well at that meet. And a few days later the angry parent phone call comes to the A.D. about unjustly penalizing his athlete for something 'out of his control.'

Item: Over a lingering morning cup of coffee, a coach is reading a recommended article by an athletic director, one on defining success. Success in this case concerns that of the coach in guiding athletes through a season. The author A.D. describes a rubric that can be used to gauge where and how success occurs. It is a well-reasoned, thought-provoking and thorough rubric that addresses what any particular coach did/did not do to promote team cohesion, a positive culture on the team and individual player development--as well as a coach's role modeling for the athletes. The coach reads it a second time because there is much useful information to consider. What the coach notices, however, is that nowhere in the article, either in reference to coaches or athletes, is a particular word used. The word 'commitment' is missing altogether. 

The key to achieving wide-ranging success on diverse track & field or cross-country teams, I would argue, is also one of the most fundamental ways to improve our sports (and ultimately their popularity and respectability). That would be to focus on promoting and rewarding commitment. Commitment is within the reach of any team member, which is fortunate because everything of lasting value in our sports flows from commitment. Persistent efforts result from true commitment. Self-discipline, sacrifice and goal-oriented behaviors-all are necessary operating principles for the committed athlete.  When we heap praise on our talented scholastic athletes, it's not just the talent being recognized--it's also the commitment, because talent without commitment is like a kite without wind. Nothing much is going to happen.

Commitment is a personal attribute or attitude that can be progressed, just as one can progress training. There are steps or stages, and Jeff Janssen's works on defining and developing commitment are good resources. Neophytes, as an example, cannot be expected to plunge 'all in' to a season like the veterans who know what's ahead. But since commitment need not be limited to only our talented athletes, a season glanced in the rear view mirror might take on an entirely different perspective when a coach (or an A.D.) considers and calculates how well 'they' did during the season-the ones who didn't take home championship ribbons but who could (should) have been winners in other ways. The efforts that stem from a chosen commitment to a sport or a season don't always guarantee excellence, but effort is one of the most available values of a sport. And effort always come first.  With it, a 'losing season' is often not.