I love teachers and especially those who coach sports! Recently I observed and wrote about swim coaches during an especially humid and hot Pennsylvania summer. What follows takes us to a cooler place and time, to the vast open spaces and dusty winding paths carved into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Imagine a sunny day in Ft. Collins with low humidity and a beautiful sky that stretches on forever, except where the mountains rise up abruptly in the West and draw a jagged line against the sea of blue. The altitude is 4,984 feet. High school cross country runners in brightly colored uniforms arrive and walk 1/4 mile or more to the stadium, where at least twelve other groups are staking out their territory and setting up “camp.” Team members help coaches carry coolers packed with fruit and snacks, large water jugs, and assorted equipment included a large tent awning.

The first to arrive plop their backpacks onto the grass and work together to raise up the poles of the canopy. Others talk with the coaches about the course and schedule. Some nap, play cards with friends or quietly stretch. I sit by one of the coolers and smile as the students help themselves. It’s a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.

Before long, groups of uniforms make their way onto the dry crackling earth of the stadium and gather behind a yellow line. The coaches accompany them to give last minute reminders and encouragement. Teams form circles and sing chants and then line up as they await the ringing shot that sends the entire mass of color and energy bursting down the course like a herd of great creatures.

I cheer for the red and gold team and then slowly meander back to my seat in the shade as the runners disappear into the distance. For the coaches there is no rest, however. They run ahead to the 1-mile marker in order to time their students. Then on to the 2-mile marker for more record-keeping and finally they race to the finish line at the 3.1 mile marker ( 5 k) to welcome their hard-working runners. This seems pretty strenuous to me for adults who get up before dawn to prepare for the day and begin teaching by 7:30 AM.

Now this is the key! Anyone who has ever set foot in a high school classroom knows that total attention and energy are required to effectively implement a lesson and manage a class. Teachers need to respond to the surprises that occur and, most important, they are committed to offering each student special individual care. Most teachers have five classes daily and that translates to as many as one hundred fifty students. As well, they teach various levels and content throughout the day and must prepare materials, write and grade tests, answer emails, attend meetings, administer make-up work, etc. This sounds like a full-time job! Teachers who coach sports move directly from the classroom to the responsibility of supervising students at practice and in competition. I never fully appreciated the extra rigor and energy required to be a teacher-coach—until now.

Back to the throngs of students who are pacing themselves, breathing, and concentrating on strategies while moving along the course…….it’s soon time for me to leave my comfy chair and find the finish line. Some students look like they’re in pain. All are perspiring. Some lurch forward with new energy as they approach the end. Others barely make it across. I cheer for each runner equally as he or she makes it to the finish.

 

………..This all occurred on a Friday after school. I was proud to be there and to secretly applaud my son, one of the coaches. As dusk fell, we returned to his house, engaged in lively chatter about the personal records made that day and the positive team spirit I had witnessed over and over. I learned that the coaches check in with each runner after a competition to ask if goals were met and what new learning has occurred. If a runner has a bad day, encouragement and understanding from the coach are essential. I discovered that it’s not about winning, but rather about character, learning, and growth. Eventually, we discussed dinner and came up with a nice menu of quinoa, spinach salad, and leftover grilled beef. It tasted great, but I shouldn’t have been hungry. After all——-I hadn’t run anywhere.

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