At Concord Academy (where I coach), the academic calendar mandates that spring sports start in February with two weeks of preseason, followed by two weeks off for school break, followed a restart at the end of March. I’ve just survived those first two weeks, and I’m still recovering.
Not only is it strange to practice for two weeks, take two weeks off, and then start up again, it’s a huge challenge to figure out how to practice when it’s 20 degrees outside and all the fields are covered with snow. I mean, it’s fine for distance runners who are used to running in real weather and have, by now, figured out how to dress for it. But it’s tough for everyone else.
Practicing indoors is possible, but problematic. CA is not a large school and does not have anything like a field house, let alone an indoor track. The full range of indoor athletic facilities includes:
a gym with side-by-side basketball courts
a wrestling room
four squash courts
a fitness center with a few cardio machines and lots of weights
Into these cramped quarters, the school squeezes a baseball team, a softball team, two lacrosse teams, two tennis teams, an ultimate frisbee team, and — largest of all — the track team.
Every afternoon during preseason, the SHAC (Student Health and Athletic Center) becomes a hive of attenuated athletic activity, with everyone trying to figure out how to practice in the limited space. It’s not unusual to have all of the available facilities occupied, plus the main atrium, the corridors outside the gym, and of course the two flights of stairs, as teams with no assigned space try to get in a workout.
With all that as context, I’m feeling pretty good about how these two weeks went. We ran, we lifted, we did core, we did drills, and we even managed to throw (don’t ask). Best of all, no one got hurt and we didn’t break anything important.
As I take stock of what worked and what didn’t work, what I want to change, and what I have to do to prepare for the restart at the end of March, I also can’t help but ponder the question that underlies the whole season, and seasons past and future. Why do I do this? After all, I’m an introvert; being around people for extended period is exhausting for me. How is it that I return again and again to this job where I’m surrounded by young people, where I need to be “on” for hours on end, where I give up “me time” and solo afternoon runs?
It’s a complicated question, and I won’t try to give a complete answer. But recently, I gained a bit of insight from an article by Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute entitled “The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids About Sports—Or Any Performance.”
As the title suggests, the article contains advice — good advice, I think — for parents or anyone else who wants to see kids both enjoy sports and also experience the satisfaction of being successful. It’s worth thinking about how to encourage without intentionally or unintentionally adding unneeded pressure. I liked what the article had to say, but that’s not the only reason that I responded favorably to it.
The six words are “I love to watch you play.”
(For the record, it’s the right thing to say only if it’s true.)
The revelation for me was that those six words, slightly modified to take into account that what I do is definitely not the same thing as parenting, describe pretty well how I feel when I’m coaching. I don’t know why it’s true, but I really do love to watch athletes — especially teenagers just beginning to think of themselves as athletes — run, jump, and throw. I love to be witness to the process of discovery that takes place with training and competition. To me, the effort is beautiful; the amount of learning that happens is inspiring.
If I’ve gotten better as a coach, and I hope I have, it’s only because watching athletes become vulnerable in the way that track and field makes one vulnerable has motivated me to step outside my own comfort zone. I didn’t know anything about the triple jump until I worked with an athlete who wanted to do it and do it well. Likewise for the shot put, javelin, 100 hurdles, and — God help me (and the kids) — the pole vault. I would never have learned about these events except at some point some kid tried each one and found a home in it.
I‘m really grateful for two weeks without the daily chaos of track practice and all those energetic kids, and I know that break will help me recharge.
Nevertheless, a part of me can’t wait for the last week of March and another chance to watch them play.