Thoughts From Three: What Else Teams Are Good For

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. Coach Vermeulen is also the recent author of The Middle Distances-Running Seasons and the Wildcats of West Genesee High School. 

Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

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"....coherence among a network of different brains leads to championship performance."

Sian Beilock

"I always just wanted to be part of the group. That is what was most important to me."

Tom White, Cross-Country/Track All-American, Adams State

"You have to make a sacrifice for the team. What exactly are you doing for your team....what kind of impact are you going to have on your team?"

Joe Vigil to York High School XC members

The XC season for most sectional runners wound down even as the competitive stakes for the remaining few rose higher. With their best team speed rating of the season, our girls squad placed well up in the Section III merge, so they soldiered on for a week in hopes of a Federation Championship bid. They did not get one. Some, though, wanted to continue training and compete in NXR at November's end. Maybe they'd been at it together so long, in such familiar places, and with such trusted teammates that, given the opportunity, forging on just seemed the most natural choice. I don't know. Others, though, were ready for some rest and recovery before plunging into the long, cold indoor season.

Normally one to encourage anybody's championship aspirations, I instead had second thoughts about the NXR hopefuls. Through five months, Coach G. and I had watched, had interacted with, and had appreciated, a particular strength of this girls' team. It was not simply about athleticism, or toughness, or a shared gung-ho enthusiasm. It was something else, something less apparent, something coursing just below the surface of normal sports cliches. Though hard to succinctly describe, we witnessed a cohesive strength on their good days and on their bad ones as well. So, I gave my opinion to the NXR enthusiasts: take your time off; start indoor with the others, all together; you've been a close team since June; stay that way.

For anyone coaching team sports long enough, the benefits of participation roll off the tongue with practiced ease. We can list them in our sleep, and we can offer up alumni examples of how participation on a team inculcated or honed positive values, attitudes, or behaviors. In and of itself, the value of winning is assumed self-evident and seldom considered a subject requiring deeper consideration. We do establish rules, regulations, and standards of sportsmanship, but it's always better to win-always. That's the point. So, a lot about the sport's usefulness to athletes is presumed even before we begin a season.

Our girls, however, were unintentionally reminding us there's more to it than that. A sport can be a healthy antidote to the American mythology of rugged individualism. Sports teams are constant proof that successful athletic self-expression requires cooperation and validation by all those others who think similarly. For those in organized sports, it is never a solitary pursuit. With a little thought or observation, the notion that track and cross-country are "individual sports" becomes absurd. Even at the upper end of any sport's mastery, you can't be #1 unless there are all those others willing to fight for lesser places. There is no such thing as a track team of one, and that is why some coaches remind the athletes of how much they depend on their teammates and competitors. Competition is, in reality, cooperation, an irony lost on some young adults and one that coaches should remind themselves of regularly. Teams are how athletes learn to validate themselves by validating others. Those communal groups, based on traditions and practices for athletic mastery, are how many young adults first firmly connect with the world outside their heads. Teams are valuable by that measure alone.

At the beginning of summer training in June, I had told the girls' team that two things would determine their overall success in the Fall, success not simply defined by wins and losses. One was obvious-proper summer mileage to prepare themselves physically and mentally for the in-season training and racing. The other determining factor, I told them, would be the strength of their relationships. Important decisions about the structure of the season were designed to build that strength.

What they did not need to be told was that failure is necessary for growth and improvement. And they knew instinctively that the best place to fail is on a unified team. You could watch it happen. The hugs, the pats on the back, the wry but supportive jokes by team members following someone's poor performance or race blunder--those are the hallmarks of good teammates. One way or another, those kinds of teammates insist on sharing the emotions of a suffering team member so everyone can then move on. Shame does its greatest damage inside the head. It prompts retreat from others-and so shame is always the worst motivator. Good teammates tolerate and empathize with each other's mistakes or disappointments as a necessary step forward. On those teams, they don't want public failure to be compounded with destructive private shame. If there is a book that teaches how to coach this to athletes, buy it.

Good teams seem to find a way to provide all their participants with the opportunity to make something valuable happen. For young adults, making something valuable happen is one of the most powerful early experiences of personal agency. You don't have to wait for a college degree or marriage and family. "The world is being made and remade in every second," wrote Alain de Botton. "Therefore, any of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big scale or a small scale." Contributing to a sports team may be small scale, but it is a scale, nonetheless. Teams that find roles for all their members increase the team's value exponentially.

Unified teams do matter. A team socially fragmented is always less a team; the ultimate division is only a matter of degree. Typically, the subject of team unity is viewed through the lens of commitment. The pundits consistently harken to 'shared goals' and 'unity of purpose' and 'group effort' as proof of unified teams. And that is true, yet our group provided evidence that something more fundamental provided the linchpin for what you would call a unified team.

They practiced good citizenship, the kind that prompts a sport to extend itself and try to include rather than create barriers to team membership. Sports, of course, is full of barriers, the chief obstacle erected in many sports being check points known as tryouts, where the less talented are progressively winnowed until only the best athletes in the district or region are left for spectators to cheer. Track and cross-country are lucky to avoid the three-day try-outs, but there can be other barriers, even in no-cut sports, where coaching attitudes and practices can create--or condone--fragmented teams. Ask the athletes; they can identify the type of team they have joined. If lucky enough to be on a good team, meaning a cohesive, self-respecting team, committed athletes get to focus, get to enjoy the here and now, because they have a shared aspirations of mastery and competence. Good teams give meaning not just to the competitions, but to the day-to-day. Good teams embrace things worth striving for collectively, goals with purpose and significance. For young adults, that's an experience of immeasurable value.

Ours chose not to be fragmented. Ups and downs. Great finishes and dumb race tactics. Confidence and confusion. Dreams chased and victories denied. It was a typical season sculpted into something better by a particular cohesion that prevented shallow declarations of a season's worth. They were humble and other-directed and honest enough-and so they built themselves to last beyond the season.