Thoughts From Three: The Doughnut Hole

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."

"There are no dress rehearsals." 

                        Ted Levy

With enough free time, I can remember a lot about the Manhattan Invitational. I can, for instance, recall the evening a desk clerk at a hotel where our team stayed called my room to let me know an athlete of mine was hanging from the porch railing outside his second-floor room. He didn't want to be bothered using the stairs. I can always re-imagine the dust that would rise from the Van Cortlandt playing field before its re-sodding, a compacted substance that could have been spray-painted black to resemble macadam. Cheesecake from across Broadway-I can remember that too. The team tent collapsing in a monsoon rain, beaming athletes hoisting a letters-race first-place trophy, other athletes sobbing quietly after a crappy senior last-Manhattan trip. In my mind's eye, I can stare again at all those moments while I stroll down the halls of my Manhattan museum of memories. They are long halls. 

We won't be adding any museum pieces this October, however. We won't be making the trip. Things happened, some controllable, some not so much, to make the meet unadvisable this year. None of those circumstances were inevitable, but then nothing ever is-the primary reason analysis is usually more productive than fault-finding or fatalism. And since we won't be looking for other invitationals, the long and short of it after a difficult competitive September is that our team members will have a few wide open weeks to simply train and appreciate being runners first, racers later. Late summer is making a cameo comeback for these Wildcats. Unique for us. Intriguing too. A doughnut hole in the middle of a season. 

The Prefontaine quote is familiar: "A race is a work of art." You could argue that, by logical extension, so is a season. There are just that many more pieces to consider, multiple frames of reference for judging success or failure--or something in between. It is youthful terrain where you can lose a league meet badly but still have almost 80% of them race seasonal personal bests. Where you can help team members learn the invaluable skill of becoming disciplined as well as other-directed athletes during a losing season.  Or where some can appreciate that reactions to failure are usually far more important than the failure. 

We now have some time on our hands and some facts to confront about what, from here on out, is realistic and what may have to be left to next June. One of the realities is that there are limited opportunities to alter the talent level of our teams. That is what should be understood. But another reality is that there are limitless opportunities to increase the effort levels. Properly presented, honesty always remains the best policy, though even that presents risks. The legendary college coach, John McDonnell, insisted "there is no place for negative motivation because you cannot enforce it." This has always been true, especially at the scholastic level. What muddies the waters, however, is when a bad attempt at motivation is confused with the necessary application of standards, misinterpreted instances where the coach appears to be more loyal to the sport than to the athletes. That's the inherent danger in this media age where perception assumes too much power, where it blurs reality. But since we have some time, we'll take that risk. We will even consider this the start of our second season. 

Often, through planning and persistence and luck, coaches have things well mapped out, with the road ahead, if not definitive, at least well lite. But there are bound to be those other circumstances, those other journeys, where it's the uncertainties that have be the motivators. That's actually an incredible opportunity, but it's no mean feat. For us-athletes, coaches, parents-it means appreciating the doughnut hole time and then enjoying the plugging ahead part of late October/early November, a stretch where nothing is predictable or inevitable. It means that, as James Galvin once wrote, "At a certain point you keep going to see what happens next."