Thoughts From Three: Athlete X


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."

Athlete X

"The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best."

                                                                                                        Henry David Thoreau


In their minds, all coaches harbor the image of guiding a perfect team to a perfect season. Some--the coaching legends, the national championship coaches, the future hall-of-famers--have come very close. They only missed by a little. Minus an injury here, a personal conflict there, all their future colleague conversations about magical seasons could have begun with, "Well, let me tell you about….." Still, when it comes to the perfect team, everyone can conjure that image.

          The perfect team, of course, needs perfect team members.  

Athlete X is perfect. Athlete X never talks back, never issues evasions or mumbles, responding instead in crisp, declarative sentences that relate directly to the issue at hand. Athlete X is always there, always on time. There's never a question of investment or conviction, unlike some others who wouldn't know a commitment from a cucumber. Athlete X is goal-driven, intent and focused, sponging up every morsel of wisdom the coach dispenses.

Athlete X has never uttered the phrase "yeah, but…."

          When asked, Athlete X will offer an objective, spot-on analysis of the latest race, regardless of whether a personal record effort or a bad day. If a bad day, there are no excuses, no remorse or self-pity, just resolve.

Athlete X seemingly cares more about others than herself. The perfect team player, Athlete X is relentlessly supportive of all in a way that simultaneously keeps expectations high. There are only better days ahead for Athlete X because obstacles are always viewed as opportunities to improve.

          You say you have never coached a team full of Athlete X's? Me neither. With a little luck, I never will.

Every season, I coach something else entirely. My teams are far from that subjective standard of perfect, a standard ultimately tied to records. My teams, to be sure, usually boast a core of dedicated, talented and determined individuals. They fit nicely into the revered notion of 'team' and remain the default image for the school, the community and the media. But the rest are cut from different cloths, young adults zigging and zagging toward that idealized version of self, including some who could never make other sports teams due to cut policies that are, fortunately, not part of ours.

          Year in and year out, season after long season, many of my less-talented team members strive to achieve some degree of personal mastery. We do what we can to make that possible. We provide the opportunities. We add encouragement and recognition and second chances, all nested within our broader expectations and standards. Then we leave the rest to them.

          Other team members arrive daily, asking for nothing more than to belong. It's a simple request, never spoken openly, just acted out with persistent presence. As long as the effort is there, and it combines with at least a modicum of ability, those team members get what they want, and the sport serves a wider--though typically less appreciated--purpose than simply winning in pursuit of an arbitrary excellence.

          And there are the infrequent others. Over the years, a few athletes have been given the opportunity, if only for a few hours a day, to escape failing homes or crumbling marriages and exhale within the safe haven of our sport. It's as though their immediate lives were a serious of unavoidable and unchosen hard intervals, and those hours on the 400 meter oval were really the resting part. It's about opportunities for control amid the uncontrollable.

          Perfect Athlete X's? Hardly. Mandy's hair is blue one day, but it's red the next. With a hard speed session on the agenda, who cares? Certainly not the workout. Tom lays down on the track and gives up on his final required effort with an exhausted look and a flimsy excuse. Tomorrow's another day, another opportunity to dig deeper.  Tammy is potentially talented but listless. Rather than pigeon-hole her because of a projected attitude, we hope those smoldering flames of desire will at some point burst into potential. So we wait.

Those are my afternoons. As coaches, we could all strive for that records-driven 'perfect.' It could occur by elevating our coaching games but would also likely require subtractions. We could find ways to do that, to deal with fewer Athlete X pretenders. We could make ourselves even more demanding and exclusive. We could alter that 'it's only track' perception held by many outsiders by getting rid of some people, by cutting them or driving them out with 'standards.' We could, in effect, close our open door and then silence that dipstick who once taunted my athlete for dedicating himself to something that was not "a real sport," continuing the harassment until my guy laid him out in the high school hallway and then dutifully served his suspension.

But we shouldn't. We don't have to. We are already more than simply "real." We are reality, the actual world where you move among the talented and the not-so, the energetic and the lazy, the dedicated and the confused. Today was the first annual NYSPHSAA Coaches Appreciation Day. None of my athletes at practice came up to offer personal thanks or a card or a proclamation. They didn't need to. Instead, they just showed up and worked hard. It wasn't a perfect practice, but it was plenty good.