Thoughts From Three: Another First Day

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."

Another First Day

          One afternoon, I am leaning against the rails trackside at Ocean Breeze, watching some of the nation's finest athletes-and most of the state's elite. Then, after a 1-day "vacation," it's Monday afternoon, and I'm standing before a sizeable crowd of hopeful athletes, a number of whom have never before trained or competed on a team, let alone a Varsity team. Outdoor Track has begun again. The perceptual gulf between the two scenes always causes the head to spin a little.

          The same storm that played havoc with our indoor state championship travel plans has also put our stadium track back to bed, re-tucked under a protective white blanket. Only a week before, with athletes training on that track in light gear, I voiced confidence we would escape a team Shovel Day this season. Now I'm not so confident.

          Covered or not, another chapter of Outdoor Track is here. I've lost count, so thank goodness for the files. It's March #33 for me. What continues to power those first weeks, what I'm now convinced at least contributes something to my coaching endurance, is an unending early-season fascination with the players in that familiar but always unique drama. Cases in point:


·  After attendance, an athlete approaches and informs me-a little too curtly--- I have not called her name. A quick glance at the attendance sheet, updated only an hour before, confirms the reason why. "That's because you never signed up," I let her know, curious once again about the interior world that some inhabit.

·  Janice slugs her way through the short run Coach Mercado has planned to gauge their basic aerobic fitness. Janice is the last one in. Shorts and T-shirt in the 38o weather can't have helped. When coach reads her time, a span over the minimum target he'd suggested to the group, she looks startled. "Oh my god," she exclaims. "I'm quitting!"   Coach thinks about progress of the afternoon workout(already half done) and the distance back to the high school. With a bemused smile, he explains, "But you can't quit right now." At our post-practice meeting, coach and I make a gentlemen's bet for the following afternoon. He is optimistic, and I will regret not putting down any money because on Tuesday Janice will be gone.

·   Libby is feeling her winter. Try as she might, the runs she wedged around another favored school activity during the cold months didn't come close to the work her teammates accomplished during their indoor seasons. She nods sheepishly after lagging on the distance group's introductory GC run. "Hey," I reassure her. "It's going to take a little time." Libby, thank goodness, is a trooper. She understands. And so, where there is nothing to be argued or bemoaned, she simply accepts her fate. "Yup," she says and jogs over to start the hill sprints.


The naturalist Barry Lopez once noted how, over time, while engrossed in observing and recording elements of the natural world, he had developed a "preoccupation with the process rather than the objects of life."  For a number of us who develop track and field athletes, many of those objects are the assorted bric-a-brac of coaching-the wins, the losses, the state championship qualifiers, the All-Americans. And the process? That's more subjective, though no less concrete. The process is always what you can accomplish day-to-day with the athletes you coach, whether it's planned meticulously or achieved spontaneously. Some would argue that coaching endurance is mostly a reflected value of--and appreciation for--that process. And the success of that process depends not only on the loyalty you apply to your relationships with athletes, a loyalty dependent on knowledge and honesty and empathy. It also depends on your loyalty to the sport and what that loyalty demands from the participants-a minimal level of commitment, the semblance of aptitude-and of course the work. Quite often, those first-week losses to the roster simply reflect our adherence to that second loyalty.


The way it might happen:

Carrie is just another unfamiliar face in the crowd on Day 1. On subsequent warm-ups, however, I will start casually noting that look of displeasure, and by the end of the first week, I will already have privately encouraged her to stick with it, to give the fitness-building some time. By week two, though, she will have stood by me prior to attendance one afternoon and described how unenjoyable this building fitness thing is, how practices aren't much fun. "Well, they certainly are a majority of your season and what you should enjoy," I will tell her.

"After I finish, I'm glad I did them, but I really don't like the practices themselves."

A moment will linger where I'm supposed to insert some variation of 'Oh you can do it! I know you can!' But I'll say nothing.

"I don't think I'm going to continue," she'll finally declare, ending the silence. Then she'll add, "Should I stay for the rest of the practice?"

"No," she'll be told quietly, "you don't have to stay."


Our first loyalty is self-evident and almost easy. It's the second loyalty that requires concentration and is worth the effort to protect. With our culture increasingly invested in the management and marketing of feelings, it's worth remembering what Emerson was tilting toward when he insisted that "the purpose of life is not to be happy; it is to be useful." Being useful, not coincidentally, is a lot of what being happy or satisfied is about. So, the first day and then week of no-cut Outdoor Track is rightly a show-and-tell: here's what we are; here's how we do this sport that's worth doing well; here's how you can be useful to yourself and your team.  As the MIA's and the upset parents will repeatedly prove, not everyone's going to like the process, especially that second loyalty part as it's played out--but at least we'll have truth in advertising going for us. "Track done right is hard, so team members must expect and value daily hard work," is one of the sentences in our Team Handbook. In less than one practice, Janice had quickly figured out she wanted no part of that daily hard work. Carrie would take a little longer to decide. But God bless them both for honestly choosing.

          The process, with its fits and starts and doubts, is worth it-all of it. Who, after all, would want to miss those moments when the answer comes clear to an athlete: Oh, so that's the price to be paid for personal excellence. Or those other moments when a student learns to embrace the most fundamental value of time spent on a team and who appreciates his or her unique opportunity to demonstrate what it means to conduct oneself as an athlete. There is, after all, a strong democratic bent to honest effort.

So, on yet another first day, I am, as usual, mostly clueless about what May and early June will bring. But despite the customary March weather flip-flops looming and in spite of the oddballs or misplaced members of our start-up roster, it's at least obvious where we are headed--toward that ambiguous territory of good intentions and great expectations, a time and place anchored by athletes and those who sincerely hope to be.