Cross country complex

Our cross country runners are the hardest-working athletes at our school, as a group. They also have the fewest “fans” show up to their competitions. In this way, our school is like most schools.

Is this wrong? Do we need to “fix” it? Will you be satisfied if I tell you I think the answers to those questions are “yes” and “knock yourself out”?

Don’t get me wrong, I do just as much to support, recognize, and appreciate our cross country runners as I do our other athletes. But I’m also realistic; I know how humans work.

If you’ve been following my posts, you know that I value hard work. Effort is a prerequisite for excellence. If I was in charge (of life), I would tip the scales slightly more toward effort, in the effort vs. talent battle. This was point number one in “Benefits of sports without a ball that you don’t get from sports with a ball“. Therefore, you must know I value cross country. Cross country is all hard work and mental toughness. Plain and simple. 

If you’re a serious cross country runner, you’re now offended I’m overlooking the strategy of running a good individual and team cross country race. You can’t turn it off. You are a victim of the cross country complex.

I made a joke about this at last year’s sports banquet. Something about how I haven’t bought the cross country team new uniforms because I didn’t want to take away the chip on their shoulder, which is vital to their success. I don’t know if my audience understood if it was a joke, which is true of many of my jokes. And I wasn’t really joking, at least not about the cross country mentality. The real reason they were the last high school program to get new uniforms is because they were the last team to earn it, from a commitment and effort perspective. They are now in the middle of their third season with a new coach, and at this point they objectively put in more offseason work than any other team. They have new uniforms now.

But! The new uniforms don’t fit perfectly, for a couple runners. This is the new slight. Forget that this is a problem common to all teams who don’t buy custom uniforms every season. Forget that they have more size options than any other team, or that I spent more effort into designing them than any uniform prior (#separateblogpost). If something happens to them that isn’t ideal, cross country takes it personally.

Is it healthy to take everything personally? I know a lot of great competitors intentionally use this as a motivational technique. There are plenty of All-Pro athletes who can name every player who was drafted before them; the longer the list the more likely they know it front to back. I suspect the point where it gets unhealthy is when you lose touch with reality and truly believe everyone is overlooking (and therefore disrespecting) you. Healthy or not, it is effective! “Nobody believes in us” is the most-used rallying cry in team sports for a reason.

Feeling undervalued, or downright disrespected, might be the single most motivating incentive humans can experience. That is, if you’re anything like me. If you’re competitive. Last week I had lunch with a former student, and this was one of the topics we discussed. “Are you more motivated by not letting down people who do believe in you, or by proving the people who don’t believe in you wrong?” In the end, we agreed delivering for the people you care about is a more reliable day-to-day source of motivation, but if you had to pick one to dig your deepest and get your best effort? You need to be out to prove someone wrong.

I tap into that mentality all the time, most often when I’m trying to convince people to care about athletics at a small academics-focused charter school. I also do it while being a proponent of charter schools in general. And girls basketball. Pretty much every area of my professional life, I guess.

Our school hosts a cross country meet. This fall it is on October 5th. The first time we did this, I was highly involved. I walked the proposed course during the summer, talked through logistics ad nauseam, helped ensure all the volunteer positions were filled, whatever was needed. The day of the meet, I was there from the start, and even stopped at the store to buy additional materials at the request of the coach. I posted an obnoxiously-long story on our Archer Athletics instagram feed (@fcarchers), and at one point I spent a good chunk of time scooping wood chips into a bucket over and over to help fix a traction issue at the end of the course. It went well.

A few months later, I was talking to our top runner on the cross country team. With a straight face, he told me I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t even made an appearance at the first home cross country meet in school history. In reality, I had had an extended face-to-face interaction with him, on site, after his race. This is fascinating stuff, people, don’t you agree? Our memories are fragile. It’s certainly possible what we want to believe (nobody believes in us) is more sticky that what really happened. After that conversation, I re-thought my approach.

There is a real cross country complex, but if you solve it, you may break cross country. Do you want to solve it? Or use it to achieve greatness? In the “Us vs. the World” showdown, I don’t mind being “the World” every once in a while. Especially if it helps our teams, “Us”, succeed.

Being who I am, I’ve ranked sports from best to worst ratio of effort to glory. Football is the best ratio in the U.S. Most glory for the least effort. The mainstream team sport that I think comes in last? Swimming! For swimmers, two-a-day practices are the norm, which typically includes practicing before daylight. Everyone wears “disguises” (spandex, goggles, swim cap), so it’s hard to even tell which lane you’re rooting for. The majority of every race is under water, so swimmers aren’t able to hear fans cheering for them, if any fans are there. And meets last for hours and hours. And hours.

Cross country is not a spectator-friendly sport, either. It’s early in the morning on the weekend. It’s not on campus, or even at a familiar location. Every race starts with a mad dash, which is exciting for a second or two, then you lose sight of the people you’re cheering for amongst the churning masses. If you plan ahead, scout the course, and are up for some running of your own, you may be able see your runners once or twice during the race as they power through the woods or cruise across a field. Then, the finish. You can learn a lot about a person from the way they finish a race, and sometimes it’s genuinely exciting, too. But it’s nearly impossible to track team scores, with so many runners in every race, and it’s also tough to track personal records, since every race is a different course. There’s not many highlight moments, or traditional “stats”, in fact, runners hate pictures of themselves in action.

All that adds up. The runners still invite their friends to their races, I still announce the meets and locations in my classes (and everywhere else), and we all make a big push to get members of the school community out to our one home meet. It’s mostly for naught, though. You can only do so much when you’re up against human nature.

Left to ourselves, without a good education, we tend to overvalue predictable things and undervalue predictable things. Two players who are identical in every category except the sport they play may have wildly differing amounts of renown and respect. You could even take the same sport and divide by position. A generational-athlete who plays offensive line is going to be unknown to the general public, but a mediocre starting quarterback is at least a B-list celebrity. Why? Lots of reasons, sure, but I would argue in this case the biggest factor is seen vs. unseen. The quarterback always has the ball and accumulates all sorts of trackable statistics. The lineman (should) never have the ball and doesn’t have any stats the average fan is interested in.

Where am I going with all this?

First, let me ask you this. If the sport of cross country were a profession, what profession would it be?

Undervalued by capitalist market forces. Requires a whole lot of effort, yet thoroughly unglamorous. Most of the benefits are unseen and immeasurable. When you tell people what you do, the first questions are “why” and “how”? Have I given it away yet?

Running cross country is just like teaching.

Just like cross country runners, teachers fly under the radar. Context is required. The average human isn’t interested in teachers or cross country runners, even excellent ones. But, if the teacher is teaching your kid, or if you’ve followed the trial of miles and miles of trials of one of the cross country runners, you’re likely deeply invested in their performance. If you are a teammate or coach of the offensive lineman I referred to earlier, then you definitely appreciate his excellence. Quarterbacks and running backs (at least the smart ones) celebrate with offensive lineman after a touchdown, credit them for their success at every opportunity, and even buy them gifts with their higher “skill player” salaries. They know the context.

When I hear a teacher complain about their salary or benefits or hours or whatever else, I don’t pity them. You — we — signed up for this. You should know what you were getting into, get out if you can’t deal with it, or proactively work to change what can be changed. The same goes for cross country runners.

There are societies where teachers have a path to become celebrities. There are countries where long-distance running is the primary source of athletic pride and accomplishment. So, it’s not impossible to reframe these things, large-scale, but it takes particular circumstances that I would argue are unlikely to ever exist in the U.S. I’m not a determinist, though — I aspire to change the perception of several things I consider undervalued, most broadly the value of physical education. That’s the goal behind this blog, after all.

While we’re working on affecting change, maybe that chip on our shoulder helps us perform at our best. Nobody outside our community cares about us or our accomplishments. They’re wrong; let’s show them. We know what’s truly important and what we’re working for. Let’s do this for ourselves and for our team, and the world can appreciate us later. Or never.

In college, I went to swim meets as a fan. A group of us even drove multiple hours to support our friends on the team at a conference meet my senior year. We made signs and painted our chests, and we had a blast. I love underdogs, I love rewarding effort, and I take pride in determining what is worthy of appreciation, rather than letting the world tell me.

Last year, after hyping our home cross country meet for weeks, the result was one solitary high school student showing up to support our teams. She had no idea what to do as a fan, and to make things worse, our runners didn’t do anything to help make her feel comfortable. I ended up hanging out with her and teaching her how cross country meets worked, and afterward I was mad at the team and told them so. How are you going to beg your peers to come see you perform then ignore them when they do? If you were purposeful, you would go out of your way to make sure potential fans had every chance to value what you value. Provide the necessary context.

Here’s another teacher/runner analogy. Teachers are notorious for talking about “work” non-stop. Some of it is complaining, yes, but a lot of it is positive, at least in my friend groups. If you are an innocent bystander listening to teachers talk about a random student of theirs who had a breakthrough recently, you cannot be anything more than politely interested. You don’t know the student, but more importantly, you don’t know the context. You haven’t worked with them every day and witnessed the struggle, or the growth. This is a fairly similar experience to showing up to a cross country meet in the middle of the season.

How do you even cheer for a cross country runner? The average newcomer will be tempted to go with “you’re doing great!” or “you’re almost there!” Last week I told one of the runners to speed up, but that was only because it was her first race and I was totally confident she was under-paced. If you tell a veteran runner that, or the first two options, they are more likely to sneer than feel supported. If you’re not their coach, about the best you can go with is “you got this!”, or let’s go!” and their name. Then again, last week I said exactly that to a first-year runner as he went by, and his response was “you can’t even clap for me?” (I was taking a video for @fcarchers). Classic.

On some level, humans are always that little kid at the top of the slide, trying to get anyone’s attention. “Watch me! Look what I can do!” Care about the things I care about! The question is, how do you respond if no one looks, or cares? Do you do something else? Do you find a different audience? What if they do look, and it’s not as satisfying as you thought it would be… in this particular analogy, I’m the dad and the different sports are my kids. Too far? I think it holds up. I love all my kids, but that doesn’t mean they don’t annoy me sometimes.

If our cross country team wins state this season, which they have an outside shot at doing, it will be objectively the most impressive team accomplishment in school history — even a top-3 finish would be in the conversation.

How much effort should I give to making sure everyone knows and appreciates that?

That’s a complex question.

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