Thoughts From Three: From The Sidelines

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 thing, as far as it can be its own power, strives to persevere in its being."

                                                                 Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, 1677

 ….you cannot understand a place without defending it."

                                                                             Bill McKibben

For the first time in twenty-two years, winter for me was significantly different. I wasn't coaching Indoor Track. My clipboard had been metaphorically handed over to former assistants, both ready and able to take their shot. It was time--and their turn. Importantly, my wife would finally get that long overdue cold-months vacation in some place warm and sunny. The drawback was that I'd have no particular place to be most weekday afternoons from 3-6p.m.

To be sure, I secured my BOE approval as a volunteer coach for any transition help requested. But after making certain the team members saw none but their new coaches for the first weeks, and then after directing a few sessions with various training groups, I put myself on retainer: e-mail or text if you want me in; if not, fine, I'll go backcountry skiing with the pooch and show up at meets to cheer. And that's what happened. Marsha and I enjoyed a week of that surf and sand in January, and Harley rejoiced along what ski trails we could ply in an erratic snow season.

          Distance does lend perspective, but only if you've been paying attention to the details. I certainly have. Watching the athletes some meets from up on the SRC arena balcony, the mind can easily wax nostalgic.  It's taken only a few years for this new place to create personal histories for teams and coaches.  Down over there, for instance, is the passing zone where a distracted team member of mine once faced the wrong way for his exchange, twirled crazily at the last second, almost dropping the snatched baton, and established a Wildcat handoff technique we will forever know as The Logan 3600.  A few years back, it was around that 200 meter oval where Laura dialed up a beautiful late surge to leave all competitors behind and establish a school record in the 3000m. And it was in that infield team spot just beyond the shot-put boards where Tom, one evening, almost snoozed away his event. Every coach with enough seasons has amassed similar stories about their taken-for-granted places. If you wed those to the required daily work and the frequent battles necessary to maintain and grow a place or a program, then you begin to appreciate an institutional perseverance that should not be taken lightly and which is never assured.  

From up on the balcony, the activities below are always more than just the actors and the logistics. There is that inherent force to the sport, as Antonio Damasio suggests, whose "actions aim at persistence into the future." What I mean in our case is that in those dark days of Section III Indoor Track, when left without a local arena in which to compete--and with plausible rationales for simply folding up the Indoor tent--some belligerent old-timers said no and cobbled together a plan for cold winter team bus rides to disparate tracks that went on just long enough for the present arena to be completed. They pulled that off even as they beat back at least one attempt to abolish our sport. Those looking down from the balcony--and those looking up--are mostly unaware of the will it took from others just for them to stand where they are today.

          "The more things change, the more they stay the same," goes the saying. And though often uttered with resignation or sarcasm, that statement points toward a deeper homeostatic strength of the sport. Constantly fed by the energy of new athletes and coaches, it not only maintains, but it improves. Section III Indoor Track & Field, as in other parts of the state, is growing. And that, too, is the new view of homeostasis, one of a force directed not only to persist but to enhance. From sectional organizations to individual school programs, Indoor Track & Field in upstate has always been able to improvise, to make do long enough so it could then make more. If nothing else, our sectional history is one of resilience, and I suspect that is the same story in other places, which is an unspoken compliment to the determined attitude of this sport.

In our little slice of the state, we've proven able to survive nomadic years without a home track--and we've even survived quite nicely a year without officials. So from up on the balcony, one might ask, is there anything this survivor sport can't do without? Is there anything, when subtracted from the sport, that would make it no longer something with a vital primary function but instead something else, something decidedly less? Thinking about that from a different vantage point this winter, I would simply say that element is accountability.

Accountability is the glue that holds us all together in a sport. What we are accountable for and how we are held--and hold each other--accountable is still at the heart of all athletics. We should apply that accountability with resolute brush strokes of honesty. It's a sad fact in our present culture that when the going gets tough so many work so hard to avoid responsibilities. Too many of our so-called leaders-of-whatever get to skate on important issues, maintaining a low-energy limbo while testing the social or political waters for available escape routes.

Contrast that with the athlete who expectantly toes the start line, about to learn once again the value of personal conviction wed to action. Over the course of any season, athletes typically get to both reinforce successes and confront spectacular failures, always in high relief. There is, after all, no sideline available during a poorly executed 1000 meter. Watch them step into the shot put circle, toe a long jump mark or take their place alongside competitors in the 1500m, and that wonderful moment of responsibility for success or failure falls upon them. Both possibilities are the complimentary forces that drive them forward. You need both because both are, of course, life. And you need to master both in order to move on, to not just maintain, but to enhance. Far and away, the most valuable attribute coaches attempt to encourage in athletes is not raw talent or personality, but perseverance.

Based on what I hear from alumni, it seems that athletes more often remember and celebrate great efforts than they relish great achievements. That's because great achievements often hinge on external factors such as the competition or the position of an event. For great efforts, though, accountability is ultimately owned internally, though those efforts can be shared by teammates.

What I see from up there on the balcony, then, are the athletes in various stages of learning how to hold themselves to task, to take the necessary chances, to risk it. I also see the engaged coaches who understand how difficult that can be for young adults in this day and age, but who always encourage those hard moments when you roll the dice, and who still find these young folks, most of the time, a hoot to be around.  

So the view from up there is good.