Why Do I Do It?
Five (short) weeks ago, I ended another successful year of coaching. Driving back from North Carolina, complete with two All-American relays, finishing a year where we totaled four state champions on the track, a handful of school records, and two team conference championships, I was feeling content, if not worn out. I don’t take success for granted….it’s a lot of fun, and I’ve been blessed to be part of team who is enjoyed a prolonged string of it. I was even happy to enjoy one or two “Holy Shit” moments…..the type of surprising result that far excedes my expectations, but which seem to come less and less frequently these days than they used to. Over the past twenty years and 58 seasons, I know that I have had my fair share of outstanding results, and if I decided to stop coaching track & cross country today, I could walk away with a career full of great memories, and achievements would rival the best that our school’s rich program has had to offer in it’s 41 years.
One of our team’s coaches posted a blog, after the national meet, reflecting upon the fact that she had just finished her first four years of coaching (indoors & outdoor track), and thus had seen her first graduating class go from start to finish. She pointed out some individuals that she was proud of, and of the fact that our boys team had continued to be successful, while our girls team (which is fairly young) shows real promise. She showed such enthusiasm, as she wrote “I Love Track”. I reminds me a bit of myself, when I was younger…….and at various points of the more recent years still.
But, as the summer has gone on, and I prepare for year number 21, I have found myself thinking…why do I do this? Why am I still coaching, after all these years? What keeps me going?
This has not been an easy question to answer. I will say that I never expected to coach for 20 years. I never thought that when I looked around in the community, I would see myself as one of the more veteran coaches in the school or in the region. I started coaching because I wanted to give back to the sport which had given me so much, and because I got a thrill out of helping younger runners to reach their own dreams and goals. It’s what my coach had done for me, and I was certainly never the runner that a lot of my own athletes have become….but he always made me feel good about it. I assumed that I would do it a few years, and then move on to some else. Lord knows, I had plenty of people ask me when would give it up and get a “real job”.
Coaching has required sacrifices. I have given up my time, my energy (physical, mental and emotional), it has cost me personal relationships, it has brought an opportunity cost in terms of my financial earning power, and in terms of what I am able to do socially throughout most of the year. I have had times in recent years where I have wondered when I would stop….or at least scale back (I’m sure that I will cut back part of the track schedule, and give up cross country last when I stop completely). I’m not complaining….I make my own choices, but I know that as I’ve gotten older, it’s been harder and harder to continue at this pace, and I know my patience wears thin earlier in the year, every year, and my energy drops. I know that if I were still married, I would realistically not be doing three seasons now, and while I’m not saying I regret the success of this last year, there is part of me that was ready for that change.
So still….why I am I here? It is too simple an answer to say that I would miss it if I didn’t continue. Coaching cross country and track & field has not just been something for me simply to do to pass my time over years…..it’s become a huge part of my life, and of who I am. And besides, I’m actually pretty good at finding things to do (and others have always said that they have stuff for me to do when I have time……again, those opportunity costs). I know that there are things that I wouldn’t miss……I won’t miss early season paperwork or interest meetings…..I won’t miss School Dude….I won’t miss idiot bus drivers who don’t know where they are going, or who bitch when you get out late…I won’t miss getting up really really early in August (as much as I love practicing, the hour is done out of necessity from the heat, not because I’m a natural morning person) or on butt-cold Saturday mornings December/January…..I won’t miss disfunction (the school board threatening to cancel indoor track, the region hosts screwing up the regional schedule, DSA’s with varying degrees of indifference to the sport…..(NOTE: it took me 19 years to have a DSA who I really really like, and who respects my work)….of going to meets at schools who don’t know how to put on a meet as well as we can….I won’t miss hours upon hours of entering results in after a TJ/Episcopal/Wednesday meet, instead of watching TV or going outside on Sunday…I won’t miss the 10-20 emails/texts/messages saying why someone can’t make it to a MANDATORY event…I could go on, but in reality….those are things that annoy me temporarily, and not that really stick with me. They get harder to deal with each year, as my patience wanes, and makes me wonder why I continue.
I could say that I continue because it feeds my own ego. I don’t care who you are in athletics….anyone who is serious about athletics has an ego on some level. I’d like to think that most the time, I can keep it in check, but there are times like these that I do reflect, and I can say honestly that I’m proud of what I (or really, WE) have done over the past several 20 years. I took over as head coach of a program, 15 years ago, that was traditionally one of the best in the region, but that had sort of fallen on a lower plateau. I watched our teams get spanked for a few years, even coaching a boys team that put up a Goose Egg (zero points) at a district meet. I never really dreamed about building a championship team…it was not something I understood well enough how to do, and frankly, I didn’t believe it would happen…..I thought that we would always be behind the Lake Braddock’s, Robinson’s, Jefferson’s & Oakton’s of the world. I was content with finding success in other realms. I was lucky enough to have some good individual athletes, and who experienced success. I was proud to get recognition for their accomplishments, and I am proud that my name is linked to champion runners like Brad Siragusa, Lia DiValentin, and Chris Foley. They were great runners, All-Americans, and Hall of Famers. I felt like I was following in a path that great Chantilly coaches had set before me, and I was making my mark. In retrospect, though, I’m not sure that it was enough, either. I’ve learned through experience that as much as I enjoyed having the best individual runner at a meet, and as much excitement as that resonates w/in a team and a community, it doesn’t replace the enthusiasm generated when you are an active player in a team race…..knowing you have the best 7 boys out on a cross country course, or that you have athletes who can compete well in every single event at the district, regional or even state levels. I am also proud to have shed the “has coached some excellent distance runners, but surprising to have Chantilly as a whole win” label, and now coached teams to multiple conference, regional and state titles as a whole. I’ll always be a distance enthusiast, but I get the same kick out of seeing a Charger succeed in sprints, jumps, throws or a relay. It just makes everyone else around us happier. When everyone is excited, and focused and celebrating victory, and looking forward to the next one….that is pretty special.
I know that from a number’s standpoint, because I am a numbers guy, I’ve had my fair share of success to be proud of. I know when I look at the record boards in the lobby, half of the records on there were from athletes that I coached (or helped coach). I wear a back-to-back state championship ring every day, and I see our championships celebrated every time I come in the building. I know that we’ve not won nine straight district titles like CHS did back in the late 80’s/mid-90’s, but I know that we’ve had a great run over the last 5-6 years, and I’m not sure I see the end of that yet, even if it gets harder to fill in for graduates each year. In my mind, I know that I’ve upheld the Chantilly tradition, and I get respect from my peers at school, in the coaching community, and from my friends as a good coach. I may not make a lot of money from it, but I’m rich from experience. I don’t feel like I have control issues over giving things up, but I do know that it would hard to not be known as the Chantilly Head Coach, because I have always worked that way, as a teacher in the building…..and perhaps more importantly, knowing that whoever follows me would keep up the same traditions. I think it would be hard to work in the building and see the team struggling if that be the case, and maybe that helps me hold on a bit longer.
I know that there are things I would miss. I would miss being called Coach at school, and feeling like I am contributing positively in a way that I do well…..I would miss the relationships I have with friends from other schools….I would miss being the first team to arrive at a meet, or the last to leave…..I would miss standing at the top of the hill at Burke Lake, calling out names at the top of my voice, knowing full well that they may not hear me…..I would miss sitting at the finish line….and knowing that EVERYONE knows that that is the Chantilly section, and making ourselves at home anywhere we went…..I would miss the smiles that comes from a good job….I would miss poring over Milestat to see where we stack up, and spending more time farting around, seeing how we could improve…..I would miss building something up over the short and long term, and see it pay rich dividends….and I would miss the chance to establish further relationships, many of which I have successfully continued far after kids leave CHS.
So, now I’m 7 hours away from the new season officially kicking off with August practices….and having reflected on all the reasons why might not want to continue for much longer, I can say WHY I don’t see myself stopping too soon.
I LOVE COACHING CROSS COUNTRY & TRACK & FIELD FOR CHANTILLY HIGH SCHOOL. I’m good at it, and I see the results….and I still feel like I’m getting better every year, as the team continues to improve. I know that it’s weird to say, when I am reflecting on why or when I might retire from coaching, or as I see my peers stepping down…..but I feel like I’m still growing as a coach, and I have a great great job.
I get to work with some of my absolute best friends, and we have come together to make some awesome things happen. I love seeing the enthusiasm from Jason, or LA, or Danielle…..it keeps me young(er)…and it allows me to relax, because each season that passes, I know that it is less of a burden on me as a head coach. I have seen Jason grow into one of the better coaches in the region over the last several years, and I know that we complement each other, and Chantilly is no longer a school with great two milers, pole vaulters, and hurdlers. We’re a program that focuses on EVERY event, with committed coaches who care about the athletes, and who are willing to put the team first. Learning to trust in the abilities and commitment of one’s staff allows me to see bigger goals, and to relax. I’ve learned to be more open to other ideas, and that releases a lot of pressure. It’s not about always agreeing on the methods, per se….but agreeing on the big picture, and that means team success. This has been an evolutionary process over the years. I know that when people around me are full of energy and enthusiasm, it certainly entices me to keep bringing my own A game, and it also gives me a great sense of satisfaction in sharing in the good feelings that I’ve had myself.
I keep going not just because I love winning….or even just competing….but because in the end result, it’s about seeing people happy. I know that this seems very simple, but one of the reasons to engage in sport is to seek personal joy and satisfaction. I’ve had more happy days than disappointing ones, and I still remember a lot of them. I remember the first time I had a kid qualify for states, and it was ridiculously ecstatic. It wasn’t even about doing anything when you got there….just running a qualifier. I remember the mixed feelings that came seeing Brad win states as a senior…..the feeling of joy, of relief, and in some way, of finally making it into a club of winners…and having Coach Kelbaugh, who I still think is one of the absolute best all-time Cross Country coaches, come up shake my hand, and say “Welcome…you made it”. It is a feeling that I’m not sure I even felt watching Sean win nationals eight years later (that was pretty damn sweet, too though). I’ve loved sharing this feeling with athletes who I’ve grown very close to. Working with kids for three seasons a year, over four years will do that to you. Ignoring the trophies in the cabinet, or the rings I’ve worn, or even the pictures on the wall…..my trophy case is the memories that I will always carry, and the relationships behind them. I’ve gotten the chance to work with some great, great kids……kids who have done tremendous things as athletes, and who have grown up to be tremendous adults. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss in the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus…..I see my career as a collage of memories of 1000s of young men and women, setting personal bests, winning races, contributing to team success, representing themselves, their families, their school, their friends…and me, with excellence. A lot of these athletes most people won’t remember….but I will. As fun as it is to work with athletes who are genetically predisposed to winning championships (I’ve had at least five win state titles who come from champion level parents), but it is incredibly cool to see the kid who does nothing as a freshman or even a sophomore develop into a stud by the time he/she graduates.
The biggest thing I remind myself as I go through each season, tiring of some things and exhilarated by others (I do joke the season would be so easy if we could just get to the post-season and start there, but I certainly don’t really mean it)….what is old for me, may be brand new for a lot of these kids. I may have kids who qualify for post-season every season and who get used to it, but for each season, there may be someone who is making it for the first time….and only time. I remember when that was me as a senior. And I want to make it special for them, so that they will treasure that memory. A bit of an extra effort….a word of encouragement….even just a smile or a pat on the back….I know what that means to a kid who might not otherwise feel noticed on a large team…..and it can lead to bigger things. Certainly not a big enough price for me not to pay it.
Lastly, I will keep doing this as long as I relish the process, and not just the end result. I enjoy successful ends mainly because I know that I have been a part of a group that has paid the price through the metaphorical blood, sweat and tears of a full season……or for somethings, several seasons. Maybe it is my grandfather in me, but I believe in doing things fundamentally the right way, and in that you will get what you earn. I don’t believe in short cuts, and I know that includes me doing my job as a coach. I promise that I will walk away from this beloved sport when I genuinely do not want to put the work in, or do my job to the high standard that I have tried to uphold. When I can’t give kids the same pleasurable experience year in and year out as I have for the last 20, or when I don’t represent Chantilly with the standard that they deserve….I will bow out. Starting in a few hours….I don’t think I’m there yet. I know that I have enjoyed the last twenty years, and I still get a kick out of it. There are always new challenges to seek. In the 1985 cycling movie, American Flyers, the main character wore a T-Shirt which stated: Res Firma Mitescere Nescit. He said it translated “Once You’ve Got it Up, Keep It Up”. To me, that is part of the challenge of a new year, and doing it with a blend of veterans and newcomers. I want the boys team to continue to be competitive at the highest level. I really want to work with the other coaches to restore our girls team to a higher level of competitiveness…..the sign of a great program is when both teams are tough to beat (see LBSS…..or CHS in the 1990s). There are always records to chase, when there are athletes in reach. There is the excitement of finding hidden treasure in an incoming freshman, or having a sophomore burst from the pack on the last lap of a district race to give you valuable points that you didn’t expect…..saving you now, and giving you hope for the future.
I don’t see myself doing another 20…..but who knows. I hope that I can continue working with great coaches, and great kids (and enjoy great parent and community support) for a while, and that we can keep this up, until it’s time to move on. I know that I will have my days when I have the temperament of Gregg Popovich and a sideline reporter (San Antonio Spurs reference)…..but given the commitment to excellence that Pop has instilled over the past 20 years, maybe there’s something there….and to the kid who may have to deal with me at my worst….I hope I also get a chance to get you at my best.
I don’t know if anyone is reading this now, and if not, that’s okay. I’ve been going over this question over and over in my head for the past few months, and with 6:24 minutes until our first official practice starts, I think I’ve answered it for myself. If you are still reading, that you for bearing with me in my own thought process, and welcome to the inner sanctum of my mind.
Time to go to work.