Thoughts From Three: Staring at Mountains

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."

For the past nineteen years, summer for my wife and I has always meant several weeks in Vermont with her sister and husband. Nobody in either of our families understands why we keep going were we do--an aging farmhouse at the end of a dirt road with a view over the Connecticut River Valley to Mt. Moosilauki. We've stopped trying to explain. Over the years, I've climbed that White Mountain peak by just about every trail possible. This year, I just enjoyed it from the farmhouse porch. Shifting sunlight and storms created varied appearances of the hulking behemoth, but beneath the optics of weather it never really changed. Moosilauki speaks permanence, which in this present flood of rapid cultural and political pivots, is a welcomed offer. 

There, being temporarily removed from the fray(or what's called three-season coaching) always provides a beneficial respite. While any diligent and invested coach can-and will--get excited about being in-season, stepping back for even short breathers is important. Moosilauki, from where I sat, suggested the value of perspective and the time it takes to produce it. 

Far away, my summer runners, to be sure, were well taken care of. They had their targets, their teammates and the time to do what we've preached is important. My assistant met them for voluntary team runs in my absence, and the opportunities for together-time would increase with our coming Distance Camp and additional team runs as we accelerated toward the 'official' start of the season in mid-August.  Mountaineers have a saying, "A narrow base means a lower summit."  We had put that into runners' language ("building the aerobic base") and also talked about the expression of self-discipline and team unity--as well as potential-maximization--through summer running. So they had all the information; they had the opportunities. They just needed to decide on their commitments. 

There's a reason for that particular approach. The level of adult intrusion into childhood has risen dramatically over the last twenty years and, as of now, it shows no sign of receding.   A confluence of factors-some understandable and some lamentably avoidable-has led too many parents to believe they can-and should--wrest ownership of youth sports from youth. Over-regimentation, over-zealous psychological monitoring, warped visions of college athletic scholarships-we can't leave the kids well enough alone. The news stories of parents-behaving-badly at sports events continue to accumulate. Even well-meaning moms and dads, those merely trying to safeguard their athlete's way through the emotional mind-fields of adolescence, often wind up being more of a hindrance than a help. Hire good coaches that run solid programs, I say, then stay out of the way. With luck, the school district will have a reasoned A.D. who knows when to rebuff an oppressive parent and when to fire an ineffective coach. 

In our sports, we are fortunate to mostly have parents who create the proper space between themselves and their children. Which is why some of my athletes are tearing it up these hot months, building the deep aerobic bases that will make superior training possible in September and October. They've made their own decisions and are using the framework of our team traditions and knowledge to turn those decisions into productive actions. A larger percent are meeting more moderate targets-and maybe learning a little less about themselves. And some others are not reporting mileages at all. They've made decisions too. Those members will, I assume based on experience, report to our team workouts in mid-August over-enthused with an untrained intent and primed to injure themselves. But we have a plan for that reality and that level of commitment, so with luck we won't lose those folks to empty afternoons otherwise. 

Mt. Moosilauki is far from the highest of the White Mountains, but it commands the lower peaks nearby. It catches clouds while others are in sunlight and so sometimes influences their weather. They would be different mountains without the big 'M' looming above. And that gets me thinking of roles and proper relationships. We've read recently of the untimely or undignified exits of various coaches nationwide who forgot that their sport was not ultimately about them, but the athletes. They came, unfortunately, to believe their job was to simply loom, to coach their legacy. The fellow coaches I most enjoy being around don't care so much about legacies. They are too busy guiding young athletes, and don't have the time to step back and admire themselves. My long-time assistant, Coach Delsole, used to make me laugh when I'd ask him about the records of varsity teams he'd coached at other schools, seasons that produced sectional champions and individual state champions. "I don't remember," he'd say and change the subject. He remembered all the important things, though, and some athletes cried when he retired from coaching. Coach Jensen, though, will always have said it best: "It's about the athletes." He didn't say the elite athletes, the athletes with the best attitudes or those with the highest level of commitment. He said "the athletes." 

Which merely jogged another thought one morning as I stared along the worn--but long--summit ridge of Moosilauki. Any modern scholastic program that wants to make its broadest possible contribution to a district's education of young adults should be constructed to accept and address both the ranges of talent and commitment that always show up on Day 1-the broad spectrum of students becoming athletes. That would suggest inclusion versus exclusion. Of course, it's harder to do that right. It's messier for sure. It might mean fewer sectional or state titles. But it probably means, in the end, more positive benefits for more young adults, not just the chosen. One of the things I told the runners when we met for our June pre-summer Cross-Country meeting was that, into the regular season, I wanted them to become "a community of runners." I meant something different from the commonly portrayed single-minded, shared purpose, "all in" kind of teams we fawn over, teams that tend to shed bad attitudes and uncommitted team members as they close ranks to pursue someone's definition of excellence.  I don't know if we'll achieve our different sense of community, but the goal is that of a disparate collection of attitudes, desires, behaviors--and the colorful personalities that carry them--finding ways to identify and honor fundamental commonalities. In this instance, the commonalties of a sport and the young adults who hope to master it. 

My first evening back after the long drive through the scenery of Vermont and upstate New York, I considered an email received from Cary. She'd contacted me a day earlier, confessing her summer work so far was not impressive and worrying that attending our voluntary Distance Camp might over-stress her. I had simply replied that any and all adjustments could be made so she could spend time with teammates, demonstrate a commitment to not only the team, but to her potential. "I was just worried that I might run the risk of getting injured again," she replied to that. "I just don't know how I should prepare myself before the season starts."  It wasn't a dodge. Her previous running year, following a summer of very solid mileage, had become a plague of reoccurring injuries, and she was understandably gun-shy about repeating any of it. 

"Cary," I wrote back even before unpacking, "let's see if we can think our way through this." It was good to be home.