Thoughts From Three: Systems Report

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."

"Each of us lives in pursuit of a notion of happiness that is utterly subjective, generally acquisitive and almost inevitably out of reach...." 

Brett Stephens, New York Times

"So, I was having a really hard time once with a thrower. A talented kid, but he just wouldn't make it to all the practices. Finally, he showed up one day after missing another workout, and I pulled him aside. All I got was another excuse, so I said to him, 'Listen, why don't you just take two weeks off-then quit.'"

Coach Oscar Jensen

"I told my wife I was going for a walk. She said, 'How long will you be gone?' I said, 'The whole time.'"

Stephen Wright

We sat in a quiet corner of our gym space, the athletes already dispersed to their rides home.  Coach Palmisano and I both agreed it had been a two-thumbs-up practice day. The weather outside had been marginally permissible, but since we both needed precision, it was the cool, semi-darkened hallways of a holiday-break school that had been filled with our fast-moving athletes, often short of breath. While Coach's sprinters upstairs were pounding the meters of a pyramid workout, my distance group stayed a level below on The Oval for their own speed focus. We had a few 'invited guests'-select long-sprinters honing their speed endurance. One or two of them were not happy with the sets of two and three hundred-meter bursts, but they knew enough not to complain and even warmed to the early morning task. Once they got moving, I quickly grew excited too. I've typically been more a sucker for a good workout than a good race. Good races usually focus on individuals. With a good practice day, everyone can get in on the act. 

So the new year is here. January has arrived with undulating temperatures and persnickety precipitation--rain one hour, snow the next, freezing rain finally. There's not a lot to recommend these kinds of days, but the work goes on regardless, outside when possible, inside-like today-- when necessary. So far, our custodians have proven some of the real heroes of this season, putting up with thundering hordes that fill hallways if hypothermic rainfall outside forces us in. They move work around so we can use necessary spaces. The varsity basketball coach, nested with his team in the other two-thirds of our main gym, gives us his sidelines when needed for long jump runways or hurdles-"Sure, go ahead, any time," Fred insists, "you don't have to ask."  Athletes in for weight-room work cautiously inch along the edges of hallways so as not to interfere with our circling runners. Some watch impassively the sweaty work they'd never wish upon themselves. Other greet the Indoor runners they know.  On these kinds of days, the rhythms of high school athletics perfectly permeate our vacated but busy building. 

This day, the distance group had it 'short and sweet.' They'd completed a Grunt-Monday workout two days earlier for strength endurance and now shifted to the other side of the developmental diamond. Combi work to more closely wed the extremes of endurance and speed would come some other day. It's an irregular advance, but the broad goal-season to season, year to year-follows a steady compass heading, aimed toward a runner's total scholastic potential which, for multiple reasons, may never be achieved. Not, of course, for lack of trying. Coaches these days are required to be 'realistic' and 'understanding' and 'flexible' in applying the work and expectations to young adults.  The irony comes when sometimes you must fail at that to be successful. 

The distance crew had circled with their speed intervals, the work divided into sets allowing an extension of volume. Everyone by this point of the season had honed the knack of shaving the corners close, running the apex as we call it. Morning winter light fractured itself through the glass block windows and suffused the long front hall of their oval. I stood near the designated start/finish and guarded the weight-room hall against traffic mishaps. The pairings we initially made held up well. Sam, Aidan and Zach formed the usual chase pack attempting to stay in sight of Matt out front. But it proved a difficult task as Matt was breaking the four minute per mile pace prized for in this kind of workout. Natalie and Mia, meanwhile, had become a familiar duo for practices and pushed themselves close to the boys chase pack. They were joined by guest Abby, who proved a worthy visitor, and not far off trailed Mickey and Caitlin, with neophyte Alana right on their heels. Set 1, set 2-the targeted distance dwindled as the intensity of effort increased, but by the end, I simply hoped Mike's sprinters were enjoying equal success, which, as it turned out, they were. With their last laps, the distance group wobbled toward water bottles. They'd nailed it, and, judging from the weary smiles and confident gazes, they knew it. And then, later in the day, Carrie, who had missed seven of the past ten practice days, including this one, would cheerfully note in an e-mail that she had been "with family" but "should be able to come in" for the remaining holiday morning practices. I shook my head and e-mailed back, thanking her for the notification. 

Born of complex situations and often questionable decisions, it's still a simple reality. Athletes who come and go, are there and not there, who train some and then don't-those team members could be given all the competitive opportunities they could possibly desire-and they would still be missing the point. The point, as has been more aptly described by others and proven again in our morning hallway, is the process. That's where our athletes live most of their sporting lives--off the track and in the cramped halls, the weight room or on the roads or lonely trails. If the quality and the conviction of that time is lacking, the fundamental value of pursuing something one is never sure of obtaining-a basic condition of being human-will elude them. 

Aristotle wrote of the notion of "telos," the inherent end or purpose or goal of actions and objects. Telos presumably defines effectiveness and ultimate success. A bicycle wheel's inner tube, for instance, is designed to remain inflated. A flat or punctured inner tube is useless by its purpose, its telos. Coaches, of course, embrace the notion of telos constantly as they choose the sequence of workouts and create the race choreographies that can result in athlete peak performances at season's end--a proof, supposedly, of success in a sport. Administrators and athletic directors themselves take pains to objectively describe the 'take-aways' from a sport for all committed athletes, transactional purchases achieved in exchange for sweat and time and effort. 

But the telos of high school sports looks different when we divert our gaze, even momentarily, from winners and championships and elites, and back to that sweat and that time and those less heralded efforts. When, in other words, we consider the quality of the unexceptional day-to-day. That's when-and where--a sport reveals its value, delivers its bang-for-the-buck, to any athlete invested enough. That's what coaches are usually aiming for--getting athletes to appreciate the value of everything besides just the result. Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said it better: "Judge me by how my players go on in life, what kind of impact they make in their marriages and their communities and their societies. I don't want to be judged by whatever my win-loss record ends up being....What you[the athletes] remember more than anything else is the journey to get there, the relationships, the grind, the failures, the stick-to-it-ness, the perseverance, the fight. That's what you remember, and that's ultimately what matters more than anything."

So, as we move far into this season, some team members have spun their wheels, meaning no significant improvements seemed to occur. This is typically the fate of the less committed members of the team, those for who the journey isn't quite the thing and where attendance averages tell the story. Others with limited T&F skills who have nonetheless made the investment-those folks have found a 'home' for their desires to become something. Even if not the top athletes, even if they never get to our commonly accepted standards of 'excellence,' they have the chance to become valuable team athletes in ways perhaps unrecognized by themselves and others.

As usual for a no-cut sport, our mix of talent and commitment is strung along those two lengthy continuums. And I have never expected, nor desired, any different. But we also have, at this point, identified that small group of the talented as well as the motivated. We know who are the most committed, the scrappiest, the toughest. We know the ones who mirror the Christopher Tilghman story character where "Hope had kept him going, but it was the doubt that gave him joy." We know all we need to know just as the bitter cold weather and the snow and the most important meets are moving in. 

And as always, everything is right on time.