Thoughts From Three: The Big M

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."

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"...a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below."

Thavolia Glymph


Sara popped off the line quickly in her slower heat of the 800m. She had missed the cut-off for the fast heat, but there's nothing wrong with temporarily becoming a front-runner. The timing software would eventually spit out the final ranking of all the finishers, but at the moment, Sara wore a #1 on her hip, and she was the target. She had to get out fast; she had to work harder than usual that first lap. She had to hang tough in that mind-gaming third 200m, but even so, she was passed. Circling into turn two for the second and final time, however, she made a decision different than those I usually watched. Instead of just hanging on, she bore down. She re-passed for the lead and then ran like the fox with hounds at its heels all the way across the finish. Her exhaustion looked no different from other races, so when I pointed to her time on the scoreboard, the eyes lit up. An all-time personal record. The fast heat shot off as we stood on the infield. "You know," I told her, "You're less than two seconds off the qualifying standard for sectionals."



There wasn't much of a pause. "Can I run it next week at leagues?"

"I certainly hope so," I said and sent her off on a cool down to consider the possibilities.

Sara didn't make it to sectionals in the 800m, but at leagues she gave it her best shot and learned what it would take in the future.


Now, of course, state championships and national meets are over. Those tracks have gone temporarily quiet. So, it's time to tally. There's so much to tally. New records and accomplishments of awe. New words and phrases spun that describe excellence, new tales of persistence and sacrifice rewarded. New winning streaks established, and others lengthened. New dynasties initiated. New predictions of what is possible and of expected future feats. Arguments about who's #1 of this or that will tide us over until the next season. Superlatives, it seems, are all we have left.

Few, though, are interested is discussing 'average.'

The parabolic athlete talent curve on your typical scholastic track and field team is unique to varsity-level sports in the way it more accurately reflects the general school populations than other sports teams. On one side of that curve lie the elites we enjoy praising, those gifted the genes and the attitude and the work ethic to step up on to the award stands. On the other side live those often resistant to work and investment, as well as those who simply possess little native talent for the sport's required skillsets. Most of the team roster, however, lies between the extremes, in the middle, the Big M. Those masses are, arguably, the true drivers of our sport. We survive and thrive in track and cross-country because of the Big M. Without them, our sports would degenerate into voyeurism, as it does in others that are founded on the principle of eventually winnowing the athlete field. We should not be surprised, however, by the eternal disconnect between our sport's reality for the majority of its initial participants and its projected vision of itself through championships and the media. The disconnect is endemic to all sports because the need to celebrate the minority is inbred and easy.

Usually, coaches unconsciously adopt the common and accepted parameters of sports success: team and individual victories and performances. Then coaches align their aspirations and expectations of participants accordingly. As a result, on the youth and scholastic levels, sport as an organized process of demonstrating superior athletic superiority is typically over-rated. The values and life-long lessons of sports-done-right, on the other hand, are typically under-stated simply because those results are harder to measure-and more subjective--than wins and losses. We ignore or downplay that irony for the masses because we believe heightened proficiency must be the fundamental criteria for any scholastic system of sport.

Consider a hypothetical. What happens if the predominate measure of a sport's success becomes how long it can support 'average' athletes and improve their performances? In other words, no attempts to steer or embarrass young aspirants from a sport as long as they willingly make the investment.  With that criterion, the notion of sports success has to change.

Truth be told, gains in the middle are not what most coaches choose to chat about, much less advertise. And in moments of candor, some might admit that it is harder to coach the 'average' athletes with the same level of intensity or investment that is granted the best on the team. I knew someone who once barely tolerated the JV-level athletes he coached.

More closely addressing the needs of the Big M, though, has benefits. If improvement of 'average' is actually a practiced goal, that kind of coaching is likely more democratic. It winds up serving a larger percentage of any team population. It's driven by the coaching satisfaction of taking an average athlete and making him or her good. Steve Magness claims that the step from average to good is actually harder to achieve than the one from good to great. That's because it often involves forging disciplined work habits and commitments for the first time. So why isn't that kind of coaching understood and more appreciated? We know the answer. Those advancements, even though they represent the greatest lasting value of a sport writ large, are more difficult to publicize. They don't command the headlines. For all those athletes, we are comfortable in simply assuming value is added.

Everyone, of course, enjoys coaching superior athletes. It would be an indifferent (and ineffective) coach who does not want to take those athletes as far as they wish to go with their talents. But one assumes coaches can walk and chew gum at the same time. Coaching average-to-good is probably the most valuable long-term contribution we make in our profession. Switching that last determinate question of scholastic athletes from did you win? to what did you master? or what did you learn? does not preclude excellence. Just the opposite. It expands the classification of excellence to include what's achievable for individuals. For the coach, it means even 'weak' competitive teams can claim successful seasons.