Thoughts From Three: What We May Not Know

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."

"We overemphasize the importance of what we can measure and what we already know, ignoring that which we cannot measure and know little about."

Steve Magness, The Science of Running

From up on the OCC balcony, peering down at the indoor track and the field events squished inside the crowded oval, it all looks busy. Athletes competing, athletes warming to compete, coaches prepping athletes, officials running the show, athletes milling around between events-a beehive of activity. Once the meet has started, of course, all the parents and spectators up there are left to speculate about everything happening below because, like most athletic contests, the athletes are temporarily beyond their reach. Parents can shout down to their athletes as they compete, but most of the time they're not heard. It is the athletes' efforts, ironically, that isolate them. The coaches are lucky if the athletes even recognize them.

Did you hear me yell your 800 split?


Did you hear me tell you that guy was closing on you toward the last lap?

Not really. 

Those are the moments or the minutes when the athletes are neither obligated--nor should be expected--to share with anyone. A former athletic director of mine put it succinctly about the running competitors: "once the gun goes off, you are on your own." With the possible except of thoughts to achieve for teammates, to the racer absorbed in the work, completely attuned to that momentary unity of mind and body, all our background noise is just a distraction. Better for the rest of us to stand quietly and enjoy watching effort, hoping that effort is also personal excellence. We do know, of course, that it scares some athletes to be so utterly responsible for their preparations and then their race actions. Maybe those are the only ones we really need to cheer for. 

The outsiders (which includes coaches) can justify their reactions to an individual's sports participation from any perspective they choose. There are multiple choices. They can see the sport the way it's rightly promoted--a healthy opportunity to develop skills, interact communally and enhance positive character traits. They can see it from the vantage of their own desires-so and so is scholarship-bound if only rightly understood and properly coached. They can view the sport as supportive or therapeutic, filling voids unintentionally or uncontrollably created. The list goes on. One thing, though, seems to be proven again and again. No outsider's choice of viewpoint is wholly correct or absolute. Uncertainty is the norm and, actually, the primary reason to work so hard as an athlete-not to mention the coaches and parents. Author Robert M. Pirsig believed: "You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in." In the best possible circumstances, you strive harder when uncertain. So, if you coach an athlete who professes to know exactly what he or she is and wants and can do-or if you encounter parents who believe they have successfully mapped out their athlete's young life-there is usually trouble ahead. Nobody's that good. Overconfident or smug or defensive perhaps, but never prescient.

In any generation, adulthood has never come easy, and coaches should be trusted by parents to be the providers--as well as the protectors--of some of the important hard parts. That's no easy allowance for some parents. We all know what it is that's hard: the trials and tribulations of sustained, difficult efforts and the demanding investment and expectations that make those efforts possible. And those lead, everyone hopes, to the lasting values, those habits of being that make good adults. But it's always a two-way street. Coaches and parents must take chances too. We can't cheat athletes of the truth and the standards and then expect we've done them any great favors. Even so, it is often the case a coach won't be appreciated for his or her honesty. Coach-athlete relationships based on such honesty, however, can create important opportunities for young adults to transition into the adult-world of negotiations where things like careers and successful marriages are on the line. Much of the time, coaches won't understand the lasting impact they have on some athletes. Nor, perhaps, do the athletes themselves. Parents can be more perceptive in this way, but even so, it's usually a crapshoot. Knowing what you don't know, then, is both instructive and humbling. With principles and perspiration, we all hope we're doing our best. 

What sports typically boils down to, what we get when all the personal and familial and cultural forces acting on a young adult are considered and assigned weight, is a straight-forward question for the athlete: what do you have to give? In a what's-in-it-for-me culture, you are asking the athlete what he or she is hoping to contribute to the sport, the team. Sometimes that isn't much, and in most cases, that's perfectly acceptable. But there are always parameters, limits. Garrison Keillor once said, "You can only do so much-but you're responsible forthat." No athlete, coaches and parents typically understand, can take something of value from a sport unless they have something, however limited, to give. And so, it always keeps coming back to the E-word. Athletes have to make the efforts. That's where a sport starts. Coaches have the ability and the experience-and the responsibility--to teach team members rewarding, enjoyable and healthy athletic skills. Athletes must shoulder the responsibility to do their best with what's on hand. They are responsible for that much or else coaches can't really coach, and sports can't really work. 

"One works, as one lives, not to be done but to keep on," wrote Wendall Berry. "To travel is better than to arrive," wrote someone else. A runner recently put in an early-season 1500-meter race effort. Forget the clock; race reactions, if you pay attention, always tell the more important story and provide most of what you need to know for that point in a person's running life. You won't get the story, though, if you're too busy trying to tell the runners what he/she did or should have done. This is a good time to shut up and listen. 

The race was a formative effort; it's December after all. She made the decision (a smart one) not to take it out too fast with the race leader but to instead run internally, positioned in the chase pack. The lap splits spoke of a strategic, measured effort until it was time for risk-taking, the place in the race where desire dominates. After a surge when it was hard, she powered the final lap into second place and bent past the finish line, exhausted. Then she straightened and walked toward me, offering a weary smile. "That felt good," she said simply. We would eventually break it all down into the preparations, the race strategy, the reactions to competitors, the splits. At the moment, though, that was all we needed to know.