Thoughts From Three: Lost & Found

After the success ofJim 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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"Play well, or play badly, but play truly."

Konstantin Stanislavski



By the end of Week 10 this August, my runners had left behind the dry eastern reaches of Oregon, with its sage and lonely cattle ranches. Only the lush Willamette Valley and a dense, wet coastal range separated them from their destination, the Pacific Ocean. It had been a long summer haul from downtown Boston, with weeks and miles of farmland and prairie and plains and mountains and high deserts. In other words, the breath of the country. But all that was behind them. They'd earned the end of the journey, one that was nearly in sight....

All right--none of them, actually, were about to gaze over the big blue beyond and taste that salty hint of Pacific waters in the air. With their virtual team run across America on Route 20, though, the athletes were just trying to wring some runner's enjoyment from a COVID summer that had stolen buddy runs, voluntary team practices and running camps. A small sub-group of our potential Fall cross-country runners had signed on to our trip. Through the hot months, those runners had dutifully accumulated and recorded summer training mileage. I had mapped their advances on the team web site and inserted a few highlights of the places they 'virtually' passed through. It was more fun, they agreed, than just logging numbers on a chart. And who knew that Ashtabula, Ohio has the longest covered bridge in the United States? Or that Sioux City, Iowa was the hometown of Pauline Philips, a.k.a. Abigail Van Buren of "Dear Abby" fame? Regardless of what happens beyond their Pacific arrival, they will always be able to claim this was their 'Sea-to-Sea' summer. If the Fall cross-country season happens in some iteration, they will have enjoyed their unique cross-country prelude and I will know who has run for running's sake. But if COVID-19 takes that season away too, they will at least have the memory of an effort shared, some felt notion of team. And of course, either way they'll have their Sea-to-Sea tee shirt.



Effort as a decision to act is first manifest as a solo behavior. The exemplars of focused effort are the youngest among us. That's obvious by watching infants learn to track objects or coordinate limb movements by practicing over and over. They don't let up with failure. Young humans are relentless with effort. Watch a toddler first try to stay upright, then walk. That requires a lot of effort, a lot of concentration, a lot of persistence. Infants and toddlers have that ability to make efforts down pat, seeming to know intuitively that effort is the skill that precedes any skill. They appear, in fact, to be more skilled at effort than some older siblings who, somewhere along the line, learned how to give up on things that were hard.

So, the question must be posed:where does that skill at making efforts go? What happens to the relentless efforts of toddler-dom that are needed for later, more difficult, skill-building? Have we ridiculed or precluded or praised that basic skill out of too many kids?

Of course, effort-the best kind--is usually not singular. Effort when it matters most is more typically an inclusive action, one invested not only in self but in those around you. That's what makes sports teams what they are, places where singular efforts pale beside a group endeavor. A group effort has reach, a larger and longer-lasting effect. It's a bigger rock into the pond.

Coaching group effort, though, is hard, a lot harder than sparking a personal interest.And the natural tendency is to want to whittle down the numbers to a like-minded group instead of finding ways to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit. That's because, more than anything, effort requires an attitude based on faith, faith that some skill or skill set will, if mastered, matter to everyone involved.

If you've ever watched a parent or a coach try to convince a wary athlete that a particular sport or a particular level of commitment matters, you can better understand effort as a decision based on faith. Sometimes faith is in short supply. One of the sad ironies of coaching 'doubters' is that, through your persistent loyalty to the sport and its irrevocable demands, sometimes you are simply guiding the athlete's arrival at a point where, for them, the sport is worth not doing well.



Hi coach V,

So I have been meaning to tell you that i have been struggling with making the decision of doing cross country or working to save up for my car. 


Dear [Blank],

Thanks for getting in touch. Thatisa tough question for you to answer.

Scott Simmons and Will Freeman, inTake the Lead, address one of the inevitable physiological and emotional circumstances of a hard five or ten kilometer race They write about a "critical point" in the race when the level of pain reaches a certain threshold, and the runner must decide whether to back off or push on. I think, in another way, the same moment comes to all runners in the trajectories of their sports involvement. At some point in a running 'career,' the question gets asked: is this worth it? Does making all these efforts-putting in the hours and the miles-still make sense? Nobody, of course, can answer that question for you. You have to.

What might help is to simply think about-or write down-four lists. The first would be everything that middle-distance running and racing provides that you consider positive (health, recognition, mastery, etc.). The second list should contain the sacrifices you make to be a middle-distance runner (youdo make sacrifices, but not all of them are necessarily bad). The third list should contain what you would miss aboutnot being a middle-distance runner. And the fourth list would be of things you believe you have to gain by not running, both short and long term.Nobody will see your lists, so be honest about them.

What I would tell you with certainty is this. Your best miles, your best running and competing, lies ahead--but only if you still want to be a runner. So that's the most important question to answer. It is also the toughest.

I hope that helps. I hope that makes it a little easier for you to get to your answer.

You already know that, for many reasons, we don't want to lose you. Good luck with the lists. Let me know what you decide.

Coach V.


Almost every coach goes through a period in his or her career(early on or perhaps late, for a long stretch or, one hopes, only a short period of time) when the focus on public achievement supersedes the focus on the purposeful efforts of team members.Public achievement, after all, is the way coaches are typically viewed by the wider community-and certainly the media. And coaches themselves usually find it easier to highlight the bric-a-brac of their achievements than to accurately explain the human endeavors that went into them. They might prefer 75% from an elite athlete for the 'achievement' afforded than the 100% from an average athlete who commands no public accolades. Those trade-offs, though, are usually a bad bargain, for in the end the former has always learned so much less than the latter. Coaching predicated solely on achievement tends to fail more regularly than coaching based on process, on the day-to-day. You can't coach very long for the wrong reasons. The simple test of purpose is to answer the question: If the season ahead is lost, what will you miss the most? Will it be the excitement and the satisfaction of tallying up the winning score of that critical dual or invitational meet? Will it be celebrating with an individual or the team that, by dint of a great performance, is "going states?" Or will you miss most just showing up in on the average afternoon to take attendance, stare at young faces and guide their efforts under an autumn sky?