As I stood near the start of the 2018 New England Prep School Athletic Conference Div III Cross Country Championship a few weeks ago, it struck me that — for the first time in about 12 weeks — I really had nothing much more to do. Around me there was constant movement of athletes, coaches, teammates, and supporters, but I felt no need to move. I pretended to make myself useful by “guarding” the small rectangle of muddy real estate that would soon be occupied by seven nervous Concord Academy runners, while taking in the scene around me and wondering if I had, perhaps, missed some important detail.
As I was considering this question, one of my assistant coaches came over and observed that different teams had very different ways of choosing to spend their final pre-race minutes. He pointed to a very fit-looking adult in running apparel who was barking precise instructions to his varsity athletes, directing them through a series of warm-up efforts, including what appeared to be a 400m run at threshold pace. His team looked impressive, certainly more impressive than our team, at the moment finishing a modest set of dynamic drills.
Thinking aloud, I mused on the theory of warming up, and about why runners might do the different things they do prior to racing 5K – jog for 15-20 minutes, perform dynamic drills, stride out, or run 400s at threshold pace. “Whatever the warm-up,” I concluded, “I think runners need to be able to do it properly, without any adult supervision. The last thing I want to be doing is coaching the warm-up and correcting the kids when they’re trying to get ready to race.”
There is a spectrum of coaching styles that represents a wide variety of attitudes about how much a coach should take control of a team’s actions. Those attitudes range from the most laissez faire to the most authoritarian. On that spectrum, I believe I am solidly in the vast, vacillating middle.
I do think details matter, and so I did insist at the start of the season on taking practice time to teach everyone how to tie shoes properly. Before we ran our first meet, we practiced pre-meet routine. I talked about how sleep and diet are the most under-rated factors in training, and how they and all the other little, overlooked things make the difference between improving and plateauing. Once the season was underway, I made sure we studied every course using maps and elevation profiles. We lectured the kids on taking course walks seriously. I think most coaches do the same things with their teams.
For the final meet, we made a special study of the Championship course at the Canterbury School in New Milford, CT. Two days before the race, we laid out a 300m stretch that mimicked the start of the actual course, and practiced that start, discussing how to get off the line smartly, and then quickly settle into the flow of the race before the adrenaline sucked you into an over-ambitious first 400m.
I worried about the unexpected, so we talked about what to do in case of a fall during the race. We even staged a simulated false start to prepare our top runners for the possibility of an actual false start happening and not being called back. And on the day before the race, I told the team exactly where I wanted each runner to be positioned in the starting box, and why. That was a new one for me, and maybe a little too far in the “control freak” direction. Truly, there wasn’t much more to be done other than make sure everyone got on the bus bright and early Saturday morning for the three-hour trip to Connecticut.
And when we were finally underway with all runners accounted for, I left the control freak at home. As the bus sped down the highway, an eerie calm descended on me like an early November mist. I had stopped worrying and merely wondered how it would all turn out.
In my own experience of racing, I’ve found that nervousness comes and goes, without any obvious correlation between the importance of a race and my anxiety level. I’ve been very calm before races where there was a lot at stake, and I’ve been very anxious for fun runs where there was absolutely nothing on the line except my own private expectations. When I do feel nerves, I try not to amplify those feelings by thinking too much about them. I trust that butterflies are ephemeral, and won’t affect me one way or the other once the racing starts. I’ve never once been nervous after having survived the first 30 seconds of a race.
I try to share that perspective with the runners that I coach, but strangely, coaching brings out a very different pattern of nervousness for me. When I’m coaching, the state of my emotions is closely correlated with my assessment of my athletes’ readiness to compete. If I feel we’ve been ragged in our preparations, then I’ll likely be very nervous. Not only that, I’ll feel compelled to adopt a pretense of confidence, to avoid spreading my nervousness to my athletes.
If, on the other hand, I feel our preparations have been good, I’m generally not nervous at all, no matter how big the meet.
On the day of the New England Championships, I felt quite calm. Our preparations had gone well, I thought, and everyone was healthy. Had they gotten enough sleep the past few days? Had they eaten well? Had they remembered their spikes? If not, it was too late to worry about them. Having these things out of my control was a relief and a reminder that, ultimately, it was their race to run, not mine.
Of course, I would be present, and I might even do some by reminding them in our final huddle out on that muddy field that they were ready to do well, not because of the fast times that they brought to the race, but because of the focus, preparation, and commitment that they had shown demonstrated since the first day of practice.
But I wouldn’t worry about giving last-minute instructions, no matter how brilliant, because I judged that saying more, or expecting athletes to do more, is usually the exact opposite of what runners need in their final, anxious moments of mental torment before the starting gun releases them to run their race.
A few minutes before the start, I walked away from the throng of runners lined up along the sweeping arc of the starting line, and away from the throng of spectators in their warm winter clothes, all ready to yell out encouragement as the starter’s gun fired. I staked out a spot on a small hill about 200m from the start where I would have a good view of the early stages of the race.
The boys varsity race was the first of four races, and I knew that our girls would start their warm-up five minutes after the boys began running. I was confident that they, too, knew how to manage the next half hour without me, but I made a mental not to meet them at their starting box right after the boys race finished.
And then I watched the first race.
Our top runner made me seem like a fortune-teller by falling about 250m into the race, and then calmly picked himself up and proceeded to make his way gradually and without panic back to the front of the pack. He would end up finishing second overall.
Our second runner, a freshman, went out aggressively at the start, but then settled in to defend his position, avoiding the mistake of running the first mile too hard. would finish ninth overall.
Our third runner began well, but then began to labor about a mile into the race. I’d learn later that he had been hit with a bad side stitch, which stayed with him for the rest of the race. He suffered, especially on the big hill in the final mile, but managed not to lose too much ground, and out-kicked four guys in the final 100m to finish 26th.
Our fourth runner ran a personal best to finish 31st. Our fifth runner finished 35th, and then revealed that he had run the last mile with his right foot hurting so badly that he couldn’t walk in the finishing chute.
Our sixth and seventh runners ran personal bests, our sixth wearing spikes he had borrowed from a JV teammate after finding that he had forgotten to pack them in his travel bag that morning.
We had run well, and I was proud of them. We took some quick photos, and then I was off to the start of the girls varsity race. After that, there were two JV races. After that, there was another hour for refreshments and napping. It was well after dark when the host school coach finally began the awards ceremony.
We had five runners in the top 20 of the JV race, and cheered as they went up to receive their ribbons. We had two varsity boys and one varsity girl in the top 20 of their respective races, earning them All-New England honors. We cheered again.
Finally, the team awards, and four hours after they had run the race, our team got to hear how they did. It’s a funny thing (to me) that they keep this information secret for so long, but that’s another thing that I can’t control. I suspected that we had done well, but whenever anyone asked, I said that I didn’t know the scores, but I thought we had done enough, and was proud of how we had run.
Then the top 10 boys team places were announced, beginning with the 10th place team. With every school’s name that wasn’t ours, we got a little more excited. Finally, the second place team was announced, and it wasn’t Concord Academy. A few moments later, our varsity seven were heading up to the front of the gym to accept the NEPSAC Div III Championship plaque and pose for more pictures.
Someone took a picture of me, too, as I stood at the back of the crowd. It looks like I’m staring at my phone (I was actually texting the news to my Athletic Director back at CA). I look pre-occupied and not particularly happy. Actually, I WAS happy, but mainly because winning seemed to me to be a nice way of sharing something special with each other, and also with the rest of the school – something that memorialized a season of working and dreaming together.
Like butterflies, the elation of winning proves ephemeral. Soon, it’s on to the next season and the next race. In the future, we might run better and be beaten by a stronger team. Or we might field our strongest team ever, as we did three years ago, and then have our top runners sick or injured, and finish off the podium. There are things I can control, and many things I can’t.
And I think it’s essential for my coaching that I be OK with that.