In the final weeks of their final season, as the athletes dwindled in number, the logistics became easier, even as the competitive stakes rose. Some of the athletes were merely winding up the year. They'll be back for more chances, more attempts. Others, though, were sizing caps and gowns and planning graduation parties. They had a foot out the door.
Coaches, as is typical, tally those athletes' seasons, all the hours and the countless interchanges. Summing up the departing is natural and necessary. "The honest truth," says one coach, "is I want this season over." Others are more circumspect and award the process a greater element of grace. You win some, you lose some-and some just leave you baffled. But, considering who we're dealing with here, it was always going to be messy.
You're never quite sure what, after all the attempts to coach and teach, leaves with the graduating athletes. Accolades and victories and medals are meaningless indicators-or at best they mean something else that's usually left unstated. In the end, the best graduation presents for our departing seniors have never been wrapped. We hope they have been enjoying those presents all along the way, and that moments of delight will also come later, when they realize at odd moments what they were always given.
To put some names on it, there are a few 'gifts' for the graduates that should be part of any decent program, offerings made-though not always accepted. The gift of knowledge is chief among those, a nebulous concept for a nebulous age bracket. The buzz phrase often tossed around is to graduate a "self-coached runner" where the objective is not so much a departing senior who no longer needs coaching as much as one who can carry on an objectively intelligent conversation with future coaches about what training and competing works best. Being self-coached, of course, requires self-knowledge, though self-knowledge is only as good as the actions it inspires. We always hope that learning things-and knowing truths about the sport we care for and have tried to teach-lead the graduating athletes to improve as competitors, as teammates and as human beings. The proof's in the pudding, but even as they leave, the pudding's still being made, so you never know for sure.
An even less quantifiable 'gift' is the offering of identification. Unlike knowledge, an athlete's identification with the sport is too often either assumed or unappreciated. The current mythology of varied participation and wide exposure to activities and sports is strong. It harps that the more activities a teenager engages in during high school the more "well-rounded" they will become. It also supposedly indicates how much more effective are their parents and infers false status. That mythology is misleading at best, at least in the temporal sense. When parents or the athletes themselves take too much pride in weekly or monthly juggling multiple extra-curricular responsibilities-to a sport, to a club, to music or drama-they ignore the facts. The studies have been completed. The science is in. Multi-tasking, whether on a daily or seasonal basis, leads to a diminution of focus and creativity. Performance suffers when efforts are dispersed or spread thin. There was always wisdom to the cautionary description, "a mile wide and an inch deep." Or more specifically, it was Colorado University legend, Coach Mark Wetmore, who once famously put it this way, "I don't want 'well-rounded' athletes. I want lopsided athletes," meaning those who could focus on becoming really good runners.
Doing well with something, it turns out, happens most often with immersion in that activity, and the value of knowing how to be immersed in something cannot be overstated. Most coaches don't demand an athlete's total allegiance to their sport, but they do preach the necessity of making a "commitment to the season" if anything of lasting value is to come of that time spent. We know we can provide identification as a team member, an elusive but powerful commodity for young adults, as long as the team member embraces the opportunity. So when we encourage our athletes to commit to a season, to stop "majoring in minor things," and immerse themselves in the sport, we are merely reinforcing a proven fact. Less will become more, even if only for the span of a season. Successful two and three sport athletes prove that year after year.
There is a third-and seemingly strange-gift that are our sports should have passed on to those exciting stage left. Few, if any, coaches deliberately plan it, but irrespective of all the trumpeting about 'building character' and 'developing personal discipline' and honing 'life skills' through athletic endeavors, we overlook the importance of helping athletes own a time and a place within the sport we coach. The novelist and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, once famously asserted, "If you don't know where you are, you can't know who you are." Most of us understand the power of athletic memories that are tied to place. All those great 'war stories' repeated years down the road when alumni chance across each other? They require a strong sense of location and time. When one of my four-year guys e-mailed me with the bittersweet declaration he'd never do step-up 400's again, I suspected he was picturing our heat-baked track on a cloudless, May afternoon with some small sense of loss.
But Berry's 'where,' as other have pointed out, doesn't necessarily require a specific geographical coordinate. Time and place can be fluid. A cluster of noisy cross-country upperclassmen who meet every afternoon to vociferously argue, amidst their intervals, the topic de jour-that can also be a 'place' remembered just as fondly as our course's Outer Loop in autumn colors.
You may never be sure what of their team days live long in the athletes, but if honest efforts have been made to offer up more than simply critiques and commands, much of what we value most about our sports should stick with them too.