Track Coach

TC227 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS

If Not Now . . .  When?

My first freshman XC team did not look too good that first day of practice. They were little, scrawny and didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. In truth, they shared many traits with their coach.

To their credit they kept showing up. They were diligent at practice and generally supported by the JV and varsity squads. We started to bond in the early weeks. At an early invitational I chanced upon an older coach whose record and guidance I’d always admired.

We shared some polite formalities and he complimented me on the early success of the varsity. I gestured towards the frosh and mentioned how much fun I was having with them. I mentioned their eagerness to learn, their enthusiasm at practices and how it really spurred me on.

Without missing a beat, he looked at the frosh, who were out of earshot, “You are wasting your time with those s***birds, they’ll never be any good; you’re just wasting your time.”

I was stunned. I looked at the freshmen. They were still little and scrawny, but they were laughing and cheerful and even though they had a so-so meet they were doing their best. I took the comment personally. My feelings were hurt, really hurt. I never had another coaching discussion with that guy.

But his words stuck with me like a bad tattoo. Maybe there wasn’t any talent there. Maybe I just didn’t have the experience to see this. Maybe I was wasting my time.

But what could I do? I had to play the cards I was dealt. All I could do was give them my best, teach and coach them as well as I could and let nature or nurture or the future bring what may.

Together we got better. There were bumps and bruises along the way. We lost a few dual meets but there was also a steady climb up the ranks at invitationals. The talent emerged and their winning ways lifted the rest of the team.

We lost the frosh league championships by three points when the #3 guy missed the bus. I was discouraged and angry. What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t know, was that this group wouldn’t lose another league championship again for the rest their high school careers. There were individual league champions and even a medal at the state meet from that group. Little and scrawny became strong, fast and confident.

There is an aphorism in pop psychology that encourages one to “fake it, ‘til you make it.” I never liked that one. The negativity of the “fake it” only ever smacked of simply false bravado to me, nothing more. Maybe there always is a twinge of doubt in forward dreaming, but I prefer to use long-range goals to draw or drive me to do what was required to get there. Small, successful steps on a long journey.

If the “little and scrawny” were simply treated as little and scrawny that is what they would remain. But what if high expectations, confidence in a method, and the example of time-tested values were the foundation of one’s actions? Citius, altius, fortius, right?

And when the champions arrived the stage was already set, the machine was in place so that their presence became a controlled emergence directed (in part) and encouraged (with honor and respect) by the little and scrawny now in team leadership.

Life’s adversities (or cutting remarks) can present stumbling blocks or stepping stones. I’ve never liked that little tidbit of advice either. But the older I’ve become the less I question it. It is funny how often I have reflected back on that chance conversation with the older coach. Had he not spoken his mind, had I not been so offended I’ve often wondered if I would have just settled for “what is” instead of daring to dream about “what could be.”

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I want to take a moment to note the passing of Don Bragg. America’s Awesome Air Attack lost one of its charter members in Bragg, an Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder. Condolences to his family, friends and the Villanova track and field community.