Thoughts From Three: New Growth on Old Terrain

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."


From up the path on School Hill, you can still catch quick glimpses of the cross-country runners circling our Inner Loop Trail, an integral part of the competition course. It's not like the old days, though, the first years after Coach Delsole and I mapped that sinuous route around a field of merely stubby grasses and the occasional courageous bush or spindly sapling. You could watch the runners start to finish then, but now the place has grown in. Birch groves, thistle patches, shrubs and high grasses hide the runners along the sheltered path where only weekly mowing staunches the full closure of a once open question mark of acreage. That is what time will do. It likes to fill things in.

The visuals of the loop have changed but not the mileage or the demands it levels on runners. It is an inconvenient place in the racecourse, coming right at that time when the mind games begin, when the runner starts receiving those urgent internal dispatches about slowing down to conserve resources. Just past halfway, there is a brief open stretch along the indistinct spine of the back field, and the trail follows that long enough to give the runners a glimpse of the woods ahead that they still have to race in reverse. They can glance right and see the Amphitheater Hill they will eventually have to climb only to face yet another half mile to the finish. They can see all that. The veterans come to understand the moment. Through experience, they have mapped out a mental response to their surroundings and accompanying inner landscape of signals. They know what to do. Yearly, though, some of the neophytes come down the last small slant of the Inner Loop wide-eyed and wondering.

The Inner Loop has been like a Rorschach test for many of our athletes. What exactly do they see there? Just trees, shrubs and trying trailways? Something to merely survive? Or do the twists and turns under canopies of green amid mounting fatigue offer them the opportunity to define themselves more clearly than perhaps they have ever seen themselves before? Do they learn to think: You keep pushing now because…..?


We carry on this argument yearly, continuously, and politely with athletes, their parents and the onlookers to the sport. The arguments continually arise only because of a fallacy, a misjudgment of cause and effect. Years ago, a parent, after watching a son struggle through another race as just one more chapter to a season with less than expected results, made a diplomatic suggestion. Maybe if you give him more positive reinforcement, he will be able to push himself more, to do better. The well-meaning recommendation begged the reality that both coaches and teammates regularly cheered him on. Maybe the parent was unknowingly implying that he just needed more of that--and more often. But the homeostatic basis for our lives--the most neurologically complex of all living organisms--reveals that the opposite is true. Actions, in fact, precede emotions. Whether due to the internal actions of memory or the external events and behaviors of the world and people around us, our emotions are typically consequences, not causes. I did not, however, have the heart to tell the parent that she was wrong, that her son needed to do some things better, to do some things more often and with more discipline, and that those actions would lead to improving mastery and, finally, a rewarding sense of self for her son. So I nodded politely, and the coaches kept pushing him to take those actions until that, in the end, is what worked. All the motivational gurus of sports and life, aside from collecting their speaking fees or book royalties, are not in the business of getting others to just feel something differently. Their job--and ours too--is to get others to do something differently.


The two grand imperatives of our no-cut sport are exactly the ones you would expect. Show up. Give good efforts. Both are repetitive actions. To succeed in the sport, regardless of talent or social currents, the need for those actions never changes. Almost any coaching problem with athletes or parents can be traced back to circumstances where the athlete failed to do one or both. We can, of course, change the imperatives. We can water them down or make an exception for anyone who wants or demands one. But then it would be a different sport, no longer our sport but somebody else's.