You’re back on campus, and you’re trying to remember your class schedule. You rush into a classroom, but it’s the wrong class or the wrong time… and although you were vaguely aware of it before, you’re suddenly hit with the full realization that you’re naked… or in your underwear… and you’re trying to cover up using a notebook, but the pages – the pages on which you’ve written down the homework assignment – are loose and keep falling out. Somehow you make it to class, but it’s a French class, and you don’t actually take or know any French… or it’s Chemistry, but you never actually started the semester long project that is due today. Maybe it dawns on you that you never registered for classes at all, or never paid your tuition. The embarrassment of standing there in your underwear having screwed up so thoroughly hits you like an emotional tidal wave.
And then you wake up.
There are few things as universal as back-to-school anxiety dreams. More than three decades since I stepped foot on a college campus as a student I still occasionally have these dreams, and the basic plot hasn’t changed much. I’m still trying to remember my schedule, still panicked about being unprepared for class, and still showing up without clothes.
These days, the beginning of school for me means the beginning of a new cross country season and holding practices with a new group of high school students. You would think that, for an introvert like me, the prospect of meeting and managing 60 teenagers would stir up a thunderstorm of anxieties, but strangely, I rarely have nightmares about coaching. In fact, if I do experience an anxiety dream, I’ll be in the students’ place, not the coach’s place. So I sympathize with my kids, to some extent.
But my sympathy has limits. One of the first things that my assistant coaches and I do at the beginning of the season is ask every kid to write down answers to a few simple questions: How often have you been running over the past few weeks? How far, on average? Do you have any injuries or restrictions? When we collect the answers, it’s discouraging to see how little running has been going on. One newcomer confided that he hadn’t been on a run since the end of last year’s (middle school) cross country season.
Of course, there are exceptions. A handful of students have been training more or less consistently for a year, having run through the snowpocalypse of 2015, trained and raced spring track, and built a base over the summer. It is very tempting to focus my attention on dreaming up challenging workouts for these more serious runners, but the reality is that the most important work is to figure out how we’re all going to be a team together.
So the focus is on learning everyone’s name, teaching our team’s routines for beginning practice, warming up, breaking up into groups for runs, running safely on the roads and trails of Concord, gathering everyone after the runs for core workouts, stretching, rolling, and icing, and finally wrapping up on a good note so we’ll all be ready to do it again tomorrow.
Like anything else that involves so many individuals with different abilities and different needs, making the whole production run smoothly and feel relaxed and fun requires a ton of work and planning. In the weeks leading up to the beginning of pre-season, I struggle to balance two conflicting impulses: the one, the desire to complete a laundry list of preparations so that the first few days will run like clockwork, and the other, the hope that cross country will be a fun and relaxed experience for all involved (myself included). As the first day of practice approaches, I’m constantly jotting down notes about tasks that need doing and nuggets of wisdom that need to be passed along. I’ll fill several sheets of paper with an outline of everything I want to say at our first meeting, and then look at the paper in dismay as I realize that it would take several hours to cover even a quarter of what feels like essential material.
I know what will happen: when I finally do stand in front of everyone, holding a few index cards with a bullet list of the very few items that survived my editing, I’ll riff for a few minutes and – prepared or not – we’ll just begin. All those well-laid plans will change, our scheduled activities will be modified, and we’ll improvise to work around unforeseen difficulties. If we’re lucky, it will all feel good and organic; the kids will leave each practice reasonably happy, and I’ll leave each practice completely spent, wondering why I put myself through this when being a running misanthrope would be so much easier.
About a month ago, I dug up some notes that I wrote before my first pre-season practice for my first year as head coach at Concord Academy. Those notes included seven densely pages that comprised a manifesto of my running philosophy, all of which seemed absolutely vital to communicate to a group of high school kids who probably hadn’t thought twice about running for the past nine months, or if they did, thought about it as a chill way to spend autumn afternoons.
Because the funny thing is, most kids who do cross country will tell you they like it because it’s cool and relaxed and helps them escape from the stress of their over-scheduled and over-regimented lives.
I shared those ancient notes with Tyler, who was a senior at CA in 2007 when I was a freshman coach, and he said it reminded him of the scene in the movie “Juno,” where Juno tells Paulie, “you’re, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even have to try, you know…”
And Paulie replies, “I try really hard, actually.”