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November 8, 2011

Lessons for a Lifetime

Sometimes it’s far too easy for me to get carried away with this writing business.

Every now and then my friend Mike sends me a draft of a Monterey Herald article to edit – usually just a matter of changing some words around, polishing things up a bit, and sending it along to our editor. However, sometimes I change a few words, and change a few more, and sprinkle in some new ones of my own, and add some phrases here and there to tie things together … and before I know it, I’ve written a completely different article.

Such was the case when I received a draft of an article about cross-country running. Mike wrote something, and I ended up writing something completely different – the result of which follows below.

Running Life 11/03/11            “Lessons for a Lifetime”

Question: What high school sport has the largest participation nationwide? Hint #1: it’s happening right now. Hint #2: since we’re the ones asking, you should have a good idea what the answer is.

That’s right, it’s cross country, informally known as XC. Many of our running partners either coach local teams or have children running on them. In many cases, these kids are 2nd or even 3rd generation XC runners in the family. It’s wonderful to see kids following the healthy habits of their parents and enjoying the sport.

High school XC girls; both photos here from FootLockerCC.com

One of the best things about running is that it can be a lifelong activity, and cross country teams are an ideal way for kids to learn the joys and benefits of running. XC is an ideal team sport at the middle or high school level: costs are low, no training facilities are needed, it’s open to runners of both genders, and you can have a competitive team with only 5 runners. Our hope is that all the young runners we know will continue to enjoy the benefits of running well into their old age.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many XC runners leave the sport after high school for various reasons. Some feel a time crunch from college classes and job commitments. Others miss the camaraderie that their school team provided, and find that logging miles by themselves isn’t nearly as rewarding as they thought. Some emerge from the competitive setting of XC without ever equating their running with fun; it’s only a means of hard work and pressure.

Scholastic XC teams need to emphasize to students that running is not only a competitive outlet and athletic challenge, but it’s also a means of lifelong health and well being. Young runners should realize the link between fitness and health, and understand the rationale for the types of training they are tasked with. Coaches should explain fundamental training concepts like speedwork, hill running, increasing distance safely, form drills, weight training, or any other workouts they assign.

One issue that always comes up, particularly at the high school level, is whether coaches should allow runners to miss a team practice for other activities. More specifically, should XC team members be permitted to run in competition if they miss several practices? Does it matter what the reason is for the missed workout? Is a certain number of missed practices too many? If so, what’s that number? And what if the student is doing the same workouts as the XC team, but on his or her own time? On race day, should a talented runner who has conflicting commitments be able to take the place of a slower teammate who has attended every practice?

It’s a tough call no matter how you analyze it. If the goal of high school cross country is to get as many kids involved in the sport as possible, it would certainly be discouraging for a slower, more dedicated runner to miss a chance at the varsity or first-team squad and give up his or her spot to a faster runner who is a part-time teammate. We wouldn’t want those kids to walk away from the sport – and besides, it’s not uncommon for an uncertain sophomore or junior to some day break through and become a senior star.

If the coach’s primary motivation is to build a tight-knit team, it makes sense to reward the kids who train together the most. On the other hand, if a coach purely wants to be competitive, he or she will be tempted (perhaps even justified) to run the top 5 runners regardless of how many practices each one has attended. Ideally, a skilled coach will balance all of these considerations without any extreme expectations.

After all, high school is precisely the time when students should be enabled and encouraged to try different life experiences. If a kid wants to be in the band or math club or student government or drama, and those commitments happen to conflict with some XC practices, it seems wrong to punish that runner by sitting out a race. 100% dedication to a single sport or activity at such a young age isn’t just misguided, it’s detrimental to the goal of most academic institutions: developing well-rounded young men and women who are ready to venture into the world outside the school boundaries and make greater contributions to society.

Cross country is an outstanding team sport, and is a perfect vehicle for teaching kids to motivate and push each other to great accomplishments. It teaches them the value of hard work and gives them the thrill of competing with a band of like-minded brothers (or sisters). But in the final analysis, its main objective should be to teach the lifelong benefits of running and racing to as many kids as possible. If too much of the joy is overshadowed by coaches with misguided priorities, those kids risk losing the benefits that long-term runners appreciate.

We’re very grateful to all of the XC coaches out there who dedicate themselves to enriching the lives of so many young people. We hope that cross-country participation continues at the widespread level that it presently enjoys, and we pray that the current generation of XC runners will grow to experience all the fantastic joys and rewards that running has brought us over the years.

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Smith Wilbanks 11/9/11, 7:24 AM  

You're last paragraph is why I still coach high school cc/track in addition to my own coaching business. My life is immeasurably better because of running in high school, and I love bringing that great experience to a new generation.


Run The Line 11/9/11, 3:32 PM  

Cross country has that reputation as being a sport that only nutters take part in once High School is up. Personally I love the cross country season as it breaks the year up and forces me to run on terrain that i would usually avoid (aka, hills!!!)

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