For some reason, I’ve had a really hard time wrapping up the Cross Country season this fall. All during October and early November I told myself that I’d get back to the blog and other writing just as soon as our team had its final meet (on November 11). I even thought I knew what I wanted to write about: something earnest about what I had learned in the course of those 11 weeks.
But I got stuck. First, I had all those student comments to write – each one a miniature epic describing the student’s journey from the start of the season to the final meet – for thirty-five kids on the team. I missed two deadlines, and didn’t finish them until the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That coincided with the first of the big post-season high-school meets – NXR, Footlocker Regionals, NXN finals, Footlocker finals, Junior Olympics Nationals… It just didn’t feel like the season was over, and somehow those lessons I thought I had clear in my head kept slipping away.
And then, over this past weekend, came the news that legendary York High School Cross Country coach Joe Newton has passed away at age 88, and I somehow felt that I should pay my respects in some way, or at least acknowledge Newton and other coaches like him who make such a positive impact on so many young runners. But what do I know about other programs and other coaches? I wouldn’t have known where to start.
So I’ll start with this: I find myself awkwardly weighing those words, so often applied to favorite coaches and teachers: “…they had a positive impact…” I have a different take on them that I’ll try to share before I finally bid farewell to the Fall 2017 season.
One of the consolations, if that’s the word I want, about being a high school teacher or coach is the flush of pleasure that you get when a parent of one of your students tells you that you’ve had a positive impact on their child’s life. It’s profoundly affirming when someone gives you credit for inspiring a kid who discovered an aptitude and passion for running, or for mentoring a kid who had previously lacked direction and focus but has somehow developed an unexpected work ethic that spread to academics.
Talk about a boost for the ego! When such praise comes my way, I accept it with gratitude, even when I’m not sure it was deserved. I try not to be taken in, but I’m only human, and for a few moments, I forget about the many missteps and minor disappointments of a long season. Ah, yes, for those few moments I can bask in the temporary reassurance that I was a success, that I inspired young people, that I made a positive difference!
But is any of it true? And even if it is, is “making a positive impact” (and being praised for it) really the goal of coaching?
I know one thing: the feeling of being praised is addictive for anyone, and coaches are not immune to that pleasant reassurance. Hearing the sincere gratitude of parents, if indulged too enthusiastically, begins to encourage dangerous feelings of selfless virtue. See all the sacrifices I’ve made to make a difference for these kids? Who can doubt I’m a good coach when I’m so selfless? (It probably doesn’t help that coaches and teachers ARE typically overworked and under-compensated compared to, say, software product managers.)
I really wish I could say honestly that I coach for the satisfaction of knowing that I (sometimes!) make a positive impact on students, but having spent a lot of time thinking about my motivations, I just can’t bring myself to accept it.
I think it is far more accurate to say that any positive outcomes of what I do as a coach are the by-products of my wanting to spend time with a group of people who have a positive impact on me. Here’s what I mean:
- I want to be challenged. I’m only happy when I have a ready supply of tangible problems to solve. Being a coach provides me with all I could ask for: how to organize training groups for that afternoon, how to prepare newbie runners for their first race in two weeks, how to balance fitness development with injury prevention. I like to be busy, and coaching gives me endless opportunities fiddle with large and small problems like these.
- I want to be entertained. I know that plenty of adults are impatient with teenagers, and I am too, at times, but they are incredibly smart (when they aren’t being astonishingly dumb), remarkably brave (when they aren’t scared of their own shadows), and endlessly trusting (when they aren’t questioning everything you say). In short, they are a lot of fun. And you can share in the fun if you can find some activity in which a sixty-year-old coach and a mob of adolescents can find common ground. It turns out that distance running is such an activity, thank goodness.
- I want to experiment and learn. I’ve always liked to experiment on myself, but as I’ve gotten older, it has been harder and harder to survive the experiments I dream up. But with a team of thirty or forty or fifty kids, every day is a series of fascinating trials. I think I’m not alone, and most coaches have a little mad scientist in them. We like to know what will happen if we increase the pace a little here, reduce the rest a little here, throw a few obstacles in the way of our runners, try something really different once in a while… Will it make us stronger? Will it suggest new possibilities? I am completely up front about this with my kids, telling them that they are my petri dishes, and that if we’re lucky, we’ll learn something about running and training, rather than simply be satisfied with received wisdom (including mine).
- I want to share what’s important to me, and have others share what’s important to them. From the beginning of September to the middle of November, my kids and I see each other at least five times a week for a couple of hours a day. We spend a lot of time together. I try not to waste the opportunity to get to know them, and after a few weeks, they begin to reciprocate, expressing more and more interest in who I am and how I got this way. It’s eerily predictable that about two-thirds of the way through the season, kids will start asking me what I ran for 5K when I was in high school, or what I do for a living. For my part, I try to find out what they do and think about when they’re not thinking about running (which is most of the time, including most of the time they’re running). It might seem counter-intuitive that an introvert like me enjoys spending so much time with people, but I feel that the coach-student relationship is perfect for me: it allows me to be fully engaged for a couple of hours a day, but also to retreat completely when practice is over. I have heard many teachers talk about the importance of these relationships that are caring and genuine, but do not take on the shape of friendships.
I look over the list I’ve just written, and it really does seem like it’s all about what I want. So much for selfless virtue!
But I suspect that the list represents my reality more accurately than the image of coach as secular saint. I suspect that what’s really worthy of praise is the fact that I enjoy immensely the give and take of coaching, the impacting and being impacted.
All this talk of impacts makes me picture a cosmic billiard table, with lonely odd and even billiard balls careening around, now and then colliding with each other. A coach is neither cue stick, pushing those balls around from some mysterious outside perch, nor passive barrier, against which balls carom without effect.
A coach is someone who in some sense is in the business of encouraging fortunate collisions – an unnumbered cue ball, say, who wants to challenge, learn, share, and be entertained by what at first looks like pure chaos, but in time and space begins to reveal itself as a pattern of deeply satisfying interactions in which each individual sphere finds its perfect part in the plan.