(Originally published December 17, 2008)
“‘Taking [the] season off’ or ‘Work’ are the new ‘excuses’ for doing nothing…”
By sheer coincidence, I read that comment on DyeStat a couple of weeks ago on the same day that I met with some Concord Academy kids for a run around Walden Pond, passing near the site of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods.
Henry David Thoreau wrote “Walden” about his two-year experiment living at arms-length from Concord Society. Many have found profound inspiration from Thoreau’s paean to simple living, many have found it to be the self-indulgent work of a classic dropout who shirked his responsibilities and preferred to spend his time on long walks, gardening, and writing.
I thought of this while I considered that comment about “doing nothing,” letting it resonate in my mind. I thought about all the dropouts I had known, and what they had learned by going off the beaten path. Mostly, I thought about my own experience as a senior in high school, recalling a time when I heard similar words from a coach….
* * *
Back in the mid 1970’s when I was in my final year at Amherst Regional High School, I took a series of detours from the expected path that had been laid out for me.
In my junior year, I had become a successful runner — a “track star” (you need to say it with infinite disdain, the way Anne Bancroft says it to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”) — and by my senior year, I had begun to chafe at that role. I found that, increasingly, when I wanted to explore some new interest or activity, my desire to follow where it led came into conflict with the single-minded dedication expected of me.
In those days, there was no indoor track for Amherst High School. Most of my friends from the cross-country team played basketball in the winter, although some wrestled, and others “did nothing” (meaning no organized sport). In my senior year, I decided to quit basketball and get a job. I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to run Spring track. More alarmingly to my parents, I decided I wasn’t going to apply to college.
In November or December of my senior year, I got a phone call from a college coach. His voice on the other end of the line was friendly and persuasive. He had been an assistant at UMass-Amherst, and had followed the fortunes of the ARHS cross-country and track teams. He was calling, he said, to let me (and several of my teammates) know that he was taking a new coaching job at a big university out of state, and he wanted to know my plans for running in college. Would I consider applying at this university and running for them?
I was flattered, obviously. It certainly gave my ego a boost to be recruited. I wasn’t a great runner — I had seen some great runners and I knew they were at another level entirely — but I was pretty good and I had been serious about the sport since I was in 7th grade. My entire experience with college recruiting to that point had been the half dozen or so letters I had received addressed to “student-athlete.” This was the first time anyone had actually called to talk to me in person.
I also knew that the university was a good school, and I knew that two of my teammates were thinking about applying there. It was tempting to do the same.
But even though I wanted to say “yes,” what I told him was that I had decided not to apply to college this year, that I would be taking time off from school and running… to work… to read…. I didn’t say “to do nothing” but it probably came out about the same was as if I had.
He tried to convince me that I was making a mistake, that I shouldn’t take time off. He counseled against throwing away the chance to run in college, and urged me to reconsider my plans. I think we spoke for another 10-15 minutes before he gave up, but not before urging me again to “stick with it.”
I didn’t take his advice.
The spring of my senior year in H.S. was strange. Having earned enough credits for graduation, and with no requirement to take a minimum number of classes (it was a different era in public education), I was free to read, to work, and to think about the future. After much thought, I decided to run outdoor track my senior year. Without basketball to distract me, I trained alone for about six weeks, just running along the snowy back roads of Amherst. I had a good season, and it was fun. It was also the last season of competitive running I would do for a while.
While my friends opened letters of acceptance or rejection from colleges, I made plans to find an apartment and a job in Boston. Two of my teammates did attend that out-of-state university, perhaps influenced by the assistant coach who tried to recruit me. One of them ran for a single season before quitting the track team. Both got great educations. Another teammate went to UMass, ran a couple of seasons and then stopped running for a couple of decades.
I graduated, moved to Boston, worked for a year, traveled for a few months, and eventually decided to apply to a school with no athletic programs — no track or cross-country. It would be another five years before I ran a competitive race again.
* * *
These days, when I talk with high school runners, I am struck by how many of them are struggling to define the right place for running in their lives. Running on a team is great, it really is, and it has a lot to offer, but it is not the be-all, end-all of high school life. For seniors especially, the need to think about what comes next after high school can shift the focus of their attention in ways that create mental stress and strain. Some will re-dedicate themselves to having the best senior seasons they possibly can; others will drop out, rather than go through the motions when their heart is no longer in their sport.
As a coach, it can be maddening. We dedicate ourselves every day to helping kids realize the potential that we see in our athletes, and it can drive us crazy when we see immense talent go by the wayside. Every coach can recall with sadness the names of athletes who stopped caring, or never cared, about achieving their best.
But we are wrong when our focus on track and field becomes so single-minded that we fail to see the potential that our athletes have in other areas of their lives, and fail to see their need to explore other interests and activities. I believe it is a coach’s responsibility to try to understand why some kids want to drop out, and help them make the best decision, rather than simply dismiss their actions as laziness or lack of commitment to their teams. Do some kids need to learn the value of “sticking with it?” Yes, I have no doubt. But are there other kids for whom sticking with it season after season, year after year is an opportunity missed to grow in other ways?
I feel strongly that the important principle is one of discovery. Running track or not running track, going to college or working at a fast-food restaurant for minimum wage aren’t good or bad of themselves, but only in proportion to the process of discovery and lifelong learning that should be our goal for ourselves and those we coach.
I didn’t run in college because I urgently needed to discover other things about myself. I returned to running after college, because I found running had much more to teach me.
* * *
So Thoreau spent his two years in a cabin. Then he went back to work. In the end, it wasn’t so much the dropping out that we remember and admire, but what he made out of his experience, what he learned, and what he wrote when he was back at his desk trying to make a living.
In his conclusion to Walden, he wrote:
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves….”
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. […] In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”