Thoughts From Three: My Pre-Season

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."

My Pre-Season

          I have lost track of my number of sports 'first days.' Another, though, is coming up. The indoor season, turned over to colleagues two previous years, was Covid paused, postponed and almost forfeited altogether. Meanwhile the snowy days came and went, and I skied forty-six of them, often stopping in a back wood with the dog and wondering if the runners were also out, getting in some cold miles of their own. When the outdoor indoor season finally arrived in March, it became apparent who had and who had not.

          A new season "fresh start" is actually an oxymoron. The reality is that everyone is simply continuing on--even the newbies--from some previous physical, motoric and mental level of fitness. It's the differences in those previous levels that starts the sort--neophytes vs veterans; fit vs not-so, mentally pumped vs wary. There are as many not-fresh start points as you have athletes showing up, which means a lot of potential conversations throughout the coming season. My assistants and I always try to get a head start with an athlete information sheet question: what did you do in the previous school-year sports seasons? Some answers give encouragement. Some give pause. Even the blanks provide information.

What's in my mind now as the last of our four sport seasons arrives is what's not there--absence as a form of presence. Watching an April Indoor Track meet that was out of place and out of its time, I listened to an athlete I would soon be coaching during the Outdoor season as she mulled over her completed race.  She had improved, just not enough for her liking. Coaching, at such moments, is nothing more than training abstractions, procedures and learned lists of do-this-don't-do-that unless there is something honest to be shared and trusted. She was bemoaning subtle, nagging leg issues and too much worrying and not enough risk-taking until I interrupted. "Do you know where confidence comes from?" She paused to consider, but I did not wait for an answer. "It comes from hard and consistent training." The face lit up as though recognizing an old friend. I guaranteed her that old friend for spring.

The training objectives and plans, the bus requests, the uniform inventory, facility and gear inspections, the first aid update, the meet schedule posted on the website, the athlete/parent contacts--all the nuts-and-bolts things have been checked off. All we need now are the athletes, the reason all the other things happen.

So, there is a little time to be thinking. Thinking how the busy afternoons will come in a rush, some on soft breezes, some with slanting rain. The athletes will master all kinds of weathers. Thinking of who will stay and earn success and who may leave. Some always leave. Thinking how the creation of a season of wins and losses and records to be looked back on can sometimes assume more abstract 'reality' than the days themselves. That's a danger you can avoid if you pay attention and then remember all the stories. Thinking, finally, of how a sport should 'fit' the typical temporal sprint of adolescents in a hurry to most everywhere--and how it should, one way or the other, be useful to them later.  The season's waiting. This stuff never gets old. Only we do. And as always, nothing's a sure bet. That simply means there is much to look forward to.