Thoughts From Three: A Situated Thing

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."

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"Perhaps it is more generally true that in order to learn from tradition, one has to be able to push against it, and not be bowed by a surfeit of reverence. The point isn't to replicate the conclusions of tradition...but rather to enter into the same problems as the ancients and make them one's own. That is how a tradition remains alive." 

Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

After cresting the final rise-and well off the pace he had hoped for himself--there was really nothing left but for Jerry to shed any thoughts of the recent tough days, the family troubles and the sadness and embarrassment of it all, and plunge into that familiar and clearly defined pain of a long, hard finish. The season had turned on the trails, and his last meters were littered with small leaves that his shuffling strides left a wake through. By far, it would not be his best effort, but then again, he understood intuitively it would never have to be his last one either. That, in and of itself, was a victory of sorts. 

One of the subtle secrets in our unique sport is that there can be multiple forms of excellence, of personal victory. We just invariably judge our sport and others by the forms that get the most attention. And because it's easy to avoid discovering, as Crawford notes, "superiority in unfamiliar places," we sometimes choose wrong. 

"I used to play baseball, but I quit," the young runner told me. "I wasn't any good." Many would encounter this young person's statement with a muted sense of sadness, empathy for the individual and a wish that a sport could somehow be made to work out for an aspiring young four-bagger. Oddly, though, that failed baseball player issued his proclamation with a chuckle. It wasn't, he seemed to be saying, baseball's fault. Baseball was what it is, a historically based activity of rules and requirements and standards. And it wasn't his fault either. He just didn't have the necessary skills, the right stuff to pull it off, so he moved on to another endeavor where his chances were better. 

She quit cross-country following two stellar modified seasons because, as she was honest enough to relate, she knew that as a varsity runner she would not be able to win all her races anymore-and winning was what she had come to expect and was what she assumed the only valid reward of running.  

I suspect that more than one coach confronts athletes for whom the challenge is not fitness or cellphones, but the dangerous illusions of entitlement. For these athletes, it's the inchoate but oppressive doubt they can actually become what they been taught to always expect of themselves--- which is anything they want. Bearing the burden of assumed excellence is a lonely pursuit. 

The unspoken mantra of personal agency-a particularly American ideal--is that you can succeed at anything you set your mind to. Except that sometimes you can't. That mantra is an unfair burden to impose on the young, making failure at chosen endeavors all their fault, a personal deficit of gumption or grit. Failure becomes something to be avoided at all costs, sometimes by quitting with poorly contrived excuses. But institutions and activities such as sports have physical and mental standards for mastery-and sometimes individuals cannot achieve those. Our young fellow understood that better than some 'sympathetic' adults, and he simply searched mastery in another place. Matthew  B. Crawford wrote: "With our presumption of meritocracy-that is, of a fair and frictionless mobility, a system without any systemic rigidities that would block our way-failure carries a deeper stigma than it would if we had a more realistic view of our society." Everyone craves or expects mastery, but of course in real life things actually get in the way. 

Those very real obstacles are there and are destined to remain, not matter how much we attempt to engineer the appearance of success for some young adults. In the running sports, you inherent the genes and thus the predilections for endurance, speed and efficiency. Training, even intensely devoted training, can only take you so far, can only overcome so much IF the sole concern is the stopwatch or the banner across the finish line. Which, at our scholastic level, it should never be. 

We had tried. Pep talks and e-mails and parent cajoling, however, weren't enough for a talented young runner who, in the end, found too little satisfaction in the necessary daily grind of distance training and racing. It was great, as she described, being on the team, but the price of inclusion was too high, the joy of movement too arduously earned to adequately appreciate. There was simply no longer a sufficient match between her desire and the sport's relentless demands. So she quit. After hearing the news, the next hard part was convincing myself that, under the circumstances--and despite all our dissenting voices-the young lady had made the right choice.  

On well-functioning teams, you have a lot of individuals for who the match between desire and demand works. For that reason, to borrow from the language of architecture, you need to pay primary attention to the deeper function, rather than merely the glittering form, of the sport. The form, usually, reflects a current social justification: we're just here to have fun; we just want the kids to feel good about themselves. Expectations for a form-driven sport will shift as it adjusts to social currents.  As the familiar adage suggests, however, form should follow function, which means not only that the 70's jogging craze was an ultimately lousy way to produce national and world-class American distance runners, but also that scholastic running programs not primarily based on developing an overall competence and appetite for daily, prolonged efforts will typically come to more resemble innocuous after-school activities than a sport worth pursuing full tilt. 

When someone argues for being "true to the traditions" of a sport, he or she is really calling for an allegiance to the function of that sport, being honest about its primary purpose and the requirements for achieving that purpose. A large team dedicated mostly to 'having fun' may fulfill a non-threatening obligation to a particular community, but it will likely never achieve the primary function of that team--nor will it be competitive. 

Only function--not form--accurately describes what Matthews calls a "situated thing," an object or an institution or a sport with inherent characteristics-and with history. This notion of a situated thing is why coaches sometime vehemently oppose changes in traditional racecourses, places with a long string of records and memorialized efforts, places with histories grounded in the sport's function. It's the reason they gnash their teeth or shake their heads over compromised efforts and unfulfilled potential. They remember more fully realized athletes, so they can see the possible futures for present athletes if....  The central mission of our sport, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is a situated thing that lives beyond the moment, in both directions of time. Its traditions---and the envisioned potentials that can extend and build those traditions---can protect us from the vagueness and the constant compromises of "the eternal present" where everything seems subject to negotiation or revision.  

The late afternoon light slants down across our back field and ricochets off golden rod and long grasses that overhang the training trails. Clouds, some gifted an under-glow by the lowering sun, slide quietly by on a benign breeze. The runners are streaming by too, circling the Woods Loop, holding to 'comfortably hard' as they accumulate circuits. Some are going longer minutes than others because a seasonal progression is in play. Faith glides past, followed closely by Libby, both uncharacteristically gapping their teammates because they are feeling it today, power suited to purpose and a mood. Both will, in fact, run faster per/mile paces for a longer period of time than in a recent race. What's gotten into them, I suspect, is a unity of individual effort with the ultimate purpose of the team season. Eventually, the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts-but you start with the parts. This workout helps in that regard. As Prefontaine would have appreciated, they are not holding back, not sacrificing their gifts. They are giving the team's long view their necessary best today. 

David Epstein, in Range, suggests a present challenge is that many adolescents are quietly confused by a modern culture which expects "thinking that cannot fall back on previous experience." Youth tiptoe through the current minefields of a cultural relativism, expected to figure too much out for themselves at too early an age. That is where tradition becomes valuable, not as a crutch or a mandate, but as a safe starting point. Our sport is a proven value. Participants can accept or reject what it offers, but they always enjoy the odd comfort of confronting its standards and values knowing that there is nothing requiring their personal interpretation.  It already is. 

So it helps, whenever necessary, to reorient the sport for the athletes, aim it back toward its true destination, which is individual and team mastery in any given season through, not necessarily shared talents, but shared efforts. To do that right requires a common commitment to the efforts necessary, appreciating that those are the efforts any team member can offer, regardless of talent. We should want, in other words, a sport that reflects its true function, a sport whose practitioners understand, as David Brooks suggested, that "Some things are hard, but worthy of that hardness."

"Right now," I told the athletes one afternoon early in the season, "you're not very good teams." That is, of course, current coaching blasphemy, not what you are supposed to tell young adults nurtured on relentless expectations of competence. The raised eyebrows and the low but audible gasps merely confirmed as much.  "But if you work hard enough for long enough," I then added, "you will be very good teams." 

For the athletes, this business of becoming an actualized middle-distance runner is, in the end, about honoring the primary function of the sport even as they struggle with its demands. It's about appreciating-and ultimately celebrating-what it takes to master a situated thing.