After a season-long parade of frustrating injuries and athletes lost to perplexing defections, we approached the championships. The rest would be straightforward, though more nerve-racking. At the initial meets--leagues and sectionals--you enter athletes where they can make the greatest contributions to team scoring. You sacrifice individual desires or a qualification standard to the greater good of creating a team effort. To be sure, it's a foreign concept for some athletes. But I had warned them again early in the season that this was how we roll. These are, after all, the team finishes, good or bad, that we hang our collective hat on each year.
Other finishes, however, must be considered. When there was still time in late December, I told them that, for some, leagues would be the end of the line. So, they needed to seize their limited opportunities. For others, though, leagues was just the beginning of the big push, a push that would hopefully propel them to the state qualifier meet, to states or--just maybe--all the way to nationals. Short roads at the end of long journeys. And I let them know they always get to decide how they're going to finish, regardless of when they finish. With a falter or a flurry. With heads hung low or lifted high. Making excuses or mastering potential. They always get to choose.
The runners returned from a neighborhood route, squeaking their trainers dry with short strides down the length of the gym. Late-winter sunlight angled through the high rafter windows and traced stretched rectangles across the wooden floor. The girls 4x400 relay still had work to accomplish, so we gathered near the exchange zone I'd created with athletic tape and orange cones.
When you're on the outside-hoping-in for a state championship qualification, details matter. Once all the training and the mental preparations are complete, once "the hay's in the barn" for that meet, details will likely make the difference. Execution. That's why I was harping about the baton exchanges. That's why proper foot positions, well-timed arm extensions, speeds in and out of the zone mattered, I told them. My words bounced around the empty gym. One of the runners smiled at my seriousness.
The first time through at three-quarters speed was to settle mechanics. They took their turns: 1 to 2--2 to 3--3 to 4. Half of it went O.K., so I brought them up to race speed. Two of the outgoing runners were decelerating with arm extension, so I took away the baton and had them all repeat a zone drill to simultaneously extend and drive. Once. Twice. Four times. I yelled a little, but in that non-personal way which simply means something-or some thing--can be better.
The light rectangles lengthened. An occasional student wandered by, but the building otherwise felt empty. With the baton back, their mechanics improved. We laughed at one botched exchange which led to the familiar refrain that arm extension means matched paces-and speed in the zone.
Then we tried it again.
According to Brett Bartholomew, the author of Conscious Coaching, "Emotions, logic, and ingrained behaviors together culminate in the drive of an athlete." So then, consider the emotional circuitry of your average adolescent, the ability of said young adult to analyze tricky situations logically--and all the while spontaneously reacting based on behaviors rooted by parents and family.
You can see what scholastic coaches are up against.
Natalie was one of those who didn't make it to sectionals. Well, actually, she ran on a relay, but what she really wanted was to be accumulating circles in the 3000m. Natalie had harbored that dream all season long. For our sectional championship, only two paths could lead athletes to individual events. Our automatic 3000m qualification standard was steep, though understandable considering the talent pool. That route would present Natalie a Himalayan 54 second hurdle, but there was also the better possibility of finishing top-10 in her AA class, thus punching her ticket. Leapfrog about six runners with a last-chance effort at leagues? "What the heck," I said. "It's your best event, so you could help the team. Give it a shot, right?"
"Right," she said.
That night, Natalie wasn't the only one running her race, though she was the one doing all the hard work. Each lap, I flipped back and forth from stopwatch to meet sheet to pace chart, watched body posture, facial expressions, competitors, and chewed on a few fingernails. The media aside, winners often overshadow other, more perfect, races. Judging from what was possible, Natalie's came close to perfect-an eye-opening 37 second PR, though she finished back in the pack and well off the leaders. The next day, when I told her the rankings had not worked in her favor, that she'd ended three places and five seconds shy of that coveted qualification, she just shrugged because she'd already made peace with the possibility.
"So tell me," I wondered. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone drop such a huge PR at that distance. What were you thinking during those tough middle laps?"
Natalie gave it consideration, as though sifting beyond the easy answers. Finally, she said, "I just wanted to go."
The crows were on the move too. Near dusk, high above a clump of runners tracing back roads through light snow, the crows slid like black dots across a whiteboard, arcing toward a neighboring city and any residual night heat they hoped to find. As light faded, the temperature dropped. Snowfall was increasing.
Below, the runners picked up their paces. They knew they could reach the cozy comfort of the high school before car headlights discovered them. They knew that after teammate goodbyes they were assured the final destinations of their day.
And the crows flapped on, driven to expect far less.