My team races their biggest meet of the season so far tomorrow. League finals will be a knockout round, with the winners moving on to the postseason while the rest of the runners will take a short break before beginning the summer base phase for cross country. Truthfully, if everyone runs up to their capabilities, we should qualify a whole lot of runners for the next three weeks of competition, eventually leading up to the State Meet in June.
Way back when I started coaching in 2005, I thought it was something of a lark. I’d long wanted to coach distance running and the job fell into my lap. After years of writing training articles for running magazines and more than a decade traveling the globe writing about endurance sports, I thought myself uniquely suited to the rigors of coaching high school cross country and track.
I was horribly wrong. It's one thing to be a runner and quite another translating the inherent self-awareness that comes with a daily running habit into coaching championship teams. The first four years were a struggle. I was average, at best. Many times I wanted to quit — not because of the losing, but because of the bureaucracy, petty turf wars and administrative juju that comes part and parcel with coaching.
But at some point in my life I realized that coaching makes me a better person. I need it. I write in the morning in the total silence of my office, then head down to the school each afternoon to yell at children. I say that only half in jest. Sometimes coaching means wiping away a tear or listening to a long story about heartbreak. Sometimes it means cajoling and humor. It means changing a workout because the team looks they haven’t had enough recovery from the last one, while other times adding more speed or more tempo on the fly to adjust issues of speed and strength.
And yes, there are times when loud vocal exhortation is required to get the job done.
My reward is the same reward coaches everywhere enjoy: that look of elation on the faces of athletes or a team when they do something unexpected. A win, a personal best, beating a runner from another school they’d never beaten before. I am devastated when my runners lose and filled with euphoria when they win. In that way, I ride the roller coaster with them. I’ll take responsibility for the losses, because that means I did not properly prepare them. But the victories are theirs, and theirs alone.
I used to say that I’d retire from coaching after my sons graduated high school. Then it was that I’d step down when the greatest runner I ever coached stepped up into the college ranks. But I’m still here. I still get into the truck at 2 pm every afternoon, rain or shine (the track is all-weather, so there’s no thought of cancelling practice) and drive down to the school. My current group of runners is talented beyond words, young men and women of character and ambition that can turn a fast opening 400 and still hammer home for the win three or seven laps later. The bureaucracy still beats me down. And if I made a tally of all the hours spent coaching, planning workouts, discussing coaching with other coaches, and basically contriving new and better ways to improve running performance — well, it might all seem a little obsessive.
I’m writing all this down because I’m trying very hard not to think about tomorrow’s meet. I know how everything looks on paper, but I also know that big meets can do funny things to athletes. I want to believe that every one of my runners will know a moment of glory as they push their limits — approval from their parents, applause from that special someone, a win.
I spend more time with my athletes than their teachers and in some cases, their parents. Back when I started coaching, I thought it was all about running. But it’s about training them for life. It’s my ministry. There was a time where I didn’t think myself worthy of such a challenge — too much anger, too many unresolved issues, too much anxiety. But as the years have passed, those fears have melted away, along with the anger, the issues, and most of the anxiety. Because as you might have realized by now, while I have been coaching my teams all these years, they have also been coaching me.
That growth — and the challenge to keep growing — is why I need coaching.
In closing, I would be remiss if did not add that I hope my team kicks a little ass tomorrow.