Why you should try track & field

Alternate titles for this post include “Benefits of sports without a ball that you don’t get from sports with a ball”, or “What you can gain by being weighed and measured, objectively”.

One of my students just started high school track for the first time. She is an outstanding volleyball and basketball player, but hasn’t been sold on a spring sport so she decided to mix up her routine this spring. After her first week of track practice, the results came in: she hates it.

I haven’t defended the sport to her or gotten involved, as I’m fairly confident she’ll come around naturally as she gets in real shape, starts competing, and sees results, but it has gotten me thinking.. If I were to make an argument for track to someone, what would the case be? This has made me start reflecting on what I consider to be the unique benefits of running track, and I think many of them also apply to other timed/measured objective-outcome sports—like swimming—as well.

  1. It provides a more direct “seen” cause-and-effect relationship between hard work and improved results. Many athletes love competing and will play games as much as they can, but they don’t have an interest in working hard between games. In my experience, having a specific number in mind you are trying to beat helps maintain focus and motivation between competitions (more on this in later posts?). This is certainly true in my Advanced P.E. class, where the most dedicated workers are distance runners. They love to push their limits, and that is partly a result of their chosen sport. To be fair, it may be their personality that made them commit to that sport in the first place, but both sides reinforce the other, which helps them become the best version of themselves.
  2. Al Pacino said that “Football is a game of inches“. Well, track is a game of half inches. Of half of half of inches. Of tenths and hundredths of seconds. It is hard to split the margin for error any finer. As races get shorter, the margin for error does, too. At our first meet this year, one of our girls ran the 100m in 13.90 seconds, a PR by 0.38 seconds. That’s a huge improvement, but if she had cut off an additional five hundredths (0.05), she would have finished three places higher! In an event with only 23 competitors, a tenth of a second was the difference between 9th and 15th. Open your stopwatch app and try to start and stop the timer as fast as you can. Can you get under a tenth of a second? Likely not. If you lose a race by hundredths of a second, how are you going to approach training for the next race? I dated a girl for a while who missed Olympic swim qualifying cuts multiple times by hundredths of seconds. When you’re exposed to events of that nature and are forced to consider how fine the line is between “success” and “failure”, you have no choice but to recognize and accept that little things matter a great deal. God —and the devil— are in the details.
  3. It redefines your concept of being “in shape”. Most other sports have built in breaks in the action, and most players find ways to rest or recover even if they don’t leave the game. You can make it through a season with a sub-optimal fitness level without being exposed in many cases. If you’re on the clock, though, being in shape is all there is. As you train and work, you have no choice but to break through walls that had stopped you in previous seasons, and once you’ve broken through, it resets your “anchor” for what you are capable of. Cross country and track athletes often sport shirts with the tagline “My sport is your sport’s punishment”, and I love leaning into that mindset. In other sports, being in shape is the means to an end. In this sport, being in shape (whatever that means for your event) is the end. 
  4. It teaches that recovery is just as valuable as exertion. Most ball-sport practices are a consistent level of energy and effort, or at least that’s what coaches aim for. The focus is always on high effort, from drill to drill and play to play. In track, though, you purposefully alternate between both extremes. Flipping a switch between full exertion and full recovery is a totally different experience. It’s a weird feeling to realize “the best thing for me to maximize my next performance is to do absolutely nothing right now”. Absolutely nothing could mean walking, breathing, stretching, hydrating, napping, or even socializing with teammates, depending on the situation, but the point is you are not working, and you don’t have to feel guilty about it. That’s different, and important (perhaps especially in our current “busy”-obsessed culture in the U.S., where if you aren’t working, you’re falling behind).
  5. It forces you to confront the fact that others are better than you. In a sport like basketball, you can skirt this by trying to outsmart a superior opponent, hope you get lucky, or insist some outside factors influenced the outcome. Excuses abound. And even without excuses, in every game, you either finish first or runner-up to first. In a sport like track, a number defines you, and winning the competition is the exception to the rule. Hundreds of athletes compete in dozens of events, and only a handful win. There is only one “best” in the world in each event, and it’s not a debate, it’s a number. Side note, recently I had this thought: ” I have the same number of gold medals as the average athlete who has competed in the Olympics”. Same concept. For everyone who doesn’t win their event, not only do you know where you stand, you know exactly how far short you fall of being the best. “That guy ran 1600m in 4 minutes and 21 seconds. I ran it in 5 minutes and 2 seconds. He is better than I am (in this event, today).” This encourages a focus on personal excellence (my True opponent is myself, yesterday), and it fosters an appreciation of excellence in general.
    1. Quick aside: the 2019 NCAA Indoor Mile was just won with a time of 4:07 by a guy with a PR of 4:06 and against a field that included many runners with PR’s under four minutes, including the favorite at 3:54. People aren’t robots and every race is different. Track is *more* objective, not completely objective.
  6. When someone is better than you at something, the default human setting seems to be jealousy. In basketball, if someone has a good shooting game and makes difficult shots over and over, you can write it off as luck and resent it without ever considering your opponent may have trained dozens or hundreds of hours to perform that way in that situation. If someone laps you in the mile, it’s not luck. You have to accept they worked hard for that performance, and, thus, it is easier to respect them. It’s not uncommon for runners to cheer for competitors on opposing teams to show appreciation for an outstanding performance, and that reflects a healthy understanding of competition and excellence. One memory that stands out is a 4x400m a few years ago where our anchor started in 8th place by about 35-40 meters when he got the handoff. He ran an insane leg and caught the guy in front in him at the finish line. We didn’t get any points and finishing 7th rather than 8th made no difference, big picture. Nevertheless, his effort and heart were recognized and applauded by everyone watching, even the teammates of the runner he passed at the finish. Any competition that can create that environment is a good one, in my opinion.
    1. Worth pointing out here is the opposite extreme. If a runner trips and falls, is struggling to finish a race, or is simply just struggling, it actually brings out the best in people watching. The loudest cheers are for athletes demonstrating excellence, closely contested events, and athletes who are merely striving to finish what they started. Again, you don’t see this nearly as much in other areas of athletic competition.
  7. I’ve spent more time working through this last one than any other. Track affects your brain’s relationship with your body. You realize that “you” and your body often have conflicting interests, and though you need to be able to listen to what your body is telling you, only one of you can be in charge. Furthermore, although your body has inherent limitations and weaknesses, you still have control within a large spectrum of possibility. Serious track athletes think of their bodies like sports cars (this becomes true in all sports as you approach the highest levels, but I think it manifests itself earlier in track). If you want the best performance, you have to take care of the vehicle. Somehow, a concept that simple can take years to figure out.

Seven seems like a good number to stop at. Don’t underestimate my ability to reflect on the effect athletics can have on a person — I could keep going, I just don’t want to lose my audience (and sap potential future posts). Those seven points stand alone, and can benefit any individual track athlete, in my opinion.

As I was coaching, observing , and reflecting this season, I realized I had been overlooking perhaps the most important (and elusive and ethereal) lesson that track & field can teach. This realization was prompted by a text exchange with another track coach and athletic director, who reacted strongly to my use of the word “specialists” when referring to team members who only compete in one event. He was right. Specialization is a part of all team sports, and the individual specialization is so obvious in track that the team aspect is almost disguised. Setters are specialists, wide receivers are specialists, 3-point shooters are specialists, everyone is a specialist in some sense. Yet, in those examples, their role in helping the team succeed is clear, whereas track and field can often look like a bunch of individuals striving for excellence, alone (or in groups of four). It’s only when a team builds to a certain level of individual success that the team aspect becomes apparent. Many teams compete in meet after meet without being in the running for team awards. Nevertheless, meets track points for a reason, and one team wins every track meet. So, that is the final lesson track has to offer. It’s a team sport. A great distance runner’s training and physique can look nothing like a great sprinter or a great shot putter, yet they are part of the same team and have the same ultimate goal: individual excellence leading to team success. The best lesson you can learn from track & field is the same best lesson from every team sport: I’m not the center of the universe.

Two quick stories before I wrap up.

  1. In high school, we had a group of gifted competitors who finished in the top-3 of  most of the events we competed in. Yet, we never placed in our league meet as a team. This bothered me, I’m proud to say, and, after my sophomore season, I resolved to change our fate. I recruited anyone who would listen to my pitch the next year, and we won the conference championship my junior and senior years. We didn’t need stars, we needed role players — people to fill events and score points for the team here and there. The stars couldn’t win by themselves, the team needed the role players in order to succeed.
  2. Last spring, we were at the district meet and the girls were doing well. One of our sprinters had wrapped up a long day, and hadn’t had a chance to compete in triple jump yet. She was on the cusp of taking off her spikes and scratching her jump, when I intervened. “Hey, why don’t you give it a shot? You never know what will happen.” She jumped, and she qualified for the state meet. At the state meet, she was locked in and placed third, earning the team six points. We won the state championship, easily the most impressive team accomplishment in the five-year history of our school, by four points. We also had a solitary thrower for the girls, a freshman shot putter (who practiced by herself all season!), and placed third at the state meet. Without either of those individual efforts, and so many others, the team doesn’t win. It’s that simple.

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