Friday, September 30, 2011

The Battle for Next to Last

Several years ago, I was inexplicably talked into taking on the job of coaching cross country. I was a sprinter in high school and college, so the only thing I knew about distance runners was that they:
a. Left practice for long periods of time.
b. Ran outside in ANY weather.
c. Were more often than not, just a little bit weird.

"Just go run" was heard quite a bit that first year. I have since made it my job to know everything there is to know about aerobic conditioning, anaerobic conditioning, tempo runs, intervals and fartleks.*

Caught unawares, I was a stranger in a strange land at my first cross country meet. You want to see some intense competition, head over to the Wamego Invitational on the second Saturday in September. Simply amazing.

I had coached volleyball and basketball the few years before this, and was unprepared for the radical beating my coaching philosophy was about to take. At a volleyball tournament, my team had been smothered by an unbelievable group of eight girls whose coach never even spoke to them during the entire match. The girls knew what to do. They pressured each other. The corrected each other. They substituted themselves. Their coach had them trained.

Of course, being young and dumb as I was**, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to this coach in the hospitality room. He described his practices and philosophy. I can remember asking him if every girl in the school wanted to be a part of his team and whether or not he had to cut anyone. He said, no, he didn't have to worry about that because he created such an intense atmosphere that they cut themselves. I can remember thinking what a great idea that was and how that was the type of team I wanted to create. I even scribbled a note on the program about it.

Fast forward to me now in charge of a completely different world. I was digging through one of my many "Idea" file folders where I found that old program. I can remember that tournament like it was yesterday. I can see the faces and hear the voices. I can remember how I felt when I thought I had figured out the secret to a great team. I sat down in my chair and stared at that paper and thought, "what an idiot I was."

And then I thought, "what a jerk he was."

Being a part of what I am now, I can't imagine treating kids in the way that coach obviously did. I can't imagine putting a child in an environment where she felt like a loser whose only option was to quit something she once loved.

Now, I will grant you that cross country is not exactly a team sport, so the dynamics involved are somewhat different. But I will also tell you that everyone, everyone, is welcome on my team. I don't care what size or shape you come to me, you have a home here.

This year, I have Nate. Nate should be a part of our offensive line, but hated playing football. As you may well imagine, he is not one of my top runners. He is my bottom runner. Actually, he is everyone's bottom runner. Nate routinely finishes last. He's okay with that, and I'm okay with that. I put an immense focus on personal records (PRs) for my kids and would rather they improve in every race than medal***.

This year, there is a boy from a neighboring school who runs just about at Nate's pace (think turtles, only slower). This makes for some incredibly interesting finishes. The last race of the day. Everyone else is finished and possibly even cooled down. And here come the two last place finishers.

Cross country, I have found, is a sport where everyone encourages everyone else, no matter what uniform they are wearing. There is something about running several miles in a row that just makes people want you to do your best. So the scene at our last meet was just incredible. A hundred or so kids and adults lining the course, cheering on the two people left out there. Nate would surge ahead. The other boy would take back the lead. Nate would make his move. Kids are screaming. Arms are flailing. You would have thought it was for Olympic gold. It was one of the most intense sporting moments I have ever witnessed. 

When it was all over, I heard not a single negative comment. Both kids were congratulated. Both kids came away feeling like they gave it their all and did the best they could do. There were no snide remarks about the last place finisher. There was no one making fun of the "big, fat kid who can't run*."

There is hope for our future.

*To become a true distance coach, you must be able to tell a group of adolescent boys to go run a fartlek and not crack a smile.
**Oh, alright, often still am.
***Don't get me wrong, I love medals and winning, but for some kids, winning is defined in looser terms.
*This is how Nate describes himself.

1 comment:

Linnski's Physical Science said...

*To become a true distance coach, you must be able to tell a group of adolescent boys to go run a fartlek and not crack a smile.*.....

All I can say is.... :-)

I TOTALLY know what you mean.

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