Our 4×100 relay team had just finished a distant second and my star athlete was furious with me. “We should have won that race,” she said, shaking her head in disgust. “Can we decide who runs next time?”
At first, I was stung and irritated by this eighth grader’s impertinence. But as I heard her out, I realized that she was correct. I’d picked someone for this relay team who didn’t belong in the event. In that moment, I realized that I was a bad track coach. But I also resolved to get better and earn the confidence of the fifty-odd kids across four teams — girls and boys, varsity and junior varsity — who were counting on me to, at the very least, not screw up.
Until last season, my knowledge of track and field was confined to watching these events on television every four years during the Olympics. And so, when my sons’ K-8 Catholic school sent parents an email last year asking for a volunteer coach, I hoped someone else would do it. But five days prior to the season’s first meet, we still had no coach.
I reluctantly stepped forward because the previous two seasons had been canceled due to Covid, and I didn’t want another one to fall by the wayside. (Yes, outdoor track meets were canceled even in the free state of Florida!) My goal was simply to avoid embarrassment, but now, as I’m in my second season on the job, I’ve discovered that coaching track is an addictive pleasure and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s also underscored my conviction that we must never again fail our children by canceling sports in the name of public health.
Attempting to assess the athletic ability of fifty kids during two hastily arranged tryouts in the school parking lot was chaos. I wondered how I’d learn all their names, let alone determine who could throw a javelin or run fast. I made no cuts and somehow found lineup slots for everyone. I’ve gone back and forth on this and have come to believe that if you cut a child from a team, he or she will simply give up on that sport. Track can enhance a child’s physical and mental health, so inspiring them to quit because they can’t run a fast 100 dash on tryout day is a mistake.
My kids surprised me at our first meet. My JV boys took first place, both my girls’ teams took second and the varsity boys took fourth. I lost my voice cheering for them, and we went nuts, celebrating like we’d won the Super Bowl. I became obsessed with my team, scouring YouTube for coaching tips, losing sleep over lineups, and nearly forgetting my wife’s birthday as I stressed about baton passing techniques.
More success followed our initial meet, but the best discoveries had nothing to do with the times my kids posted on the track. Kids of all sizes and abilities learned and grew in ways I never could have imagined possible during a one-month-long season. Boys and girls who told me at our first practice they could only run 100 meters ran the 400- and 800-meter races, and fared well. The parent of one sixth-grade girl who emerged as a champion distance runner told me she never knew her daughter “had it in her” to win races. Another parent told me that running had given her sixth-grade daughter a sense of confidence.
My son Leo initially threatened to quit the team when I told him I was coaching. But he got used to the arrangement, and I loved having a chance to get to know so many of his classmates. I thought I was making a sacrifice for the kids, but for a single, stressful but also exhilarating month, they were my heroes. I loved how fast they ran, how hard they tried, their laughs, their smiles, their joie de vivre. In a dysfunctional and disorderly age where merit has become a dirty word, my kids appreciated the clarity they found charting their progress through stopwatches and measuring tapes.
When this season rolled around and I was asked to coach again, I didn’t hesitate. This time, I resolved, I would start earlier, find experts to help me, secure a real track for my kids to practice on, and work like hell to give them the best possible chance to succeed. We haven’t even had our first meet yet but already I’m losing sleep wondering who I want on my relay teams and how I’m going to replace a star who injured his hamstring. My wife has already warned me more than once that she’s “heard enough about the (damn) track team.”
I’m recruiting athletes from other sports, wooing them the way an SEC football coach wins over five-star recruits, and negotiating with parents over how often they have to attend practice. This, I’ve discovered, is no easy task. When I was a kid, children played sports, but few ever traveled far and wide to do so and we weren’t nearly as scheduled and busy as young athletes are today. The track season where I live (in Florida) is sandwiched between basketball and soccer — two far more popular sports. Athletes’ parents (usually their moms) are exhausted from chauffeuring them to a million other sporting events, including some that are out of state and even across the country.
Track isn’t a priority for most students or their parents, but it should be. Aside from the obvious health benefits, it is perhaps the best sport to teach children about goal setting, hard work, and sacrifice. This season, I gave all my kids last year’s winning track times and field distances, and at practices I inform them of their progress toward meeting those benchmarks. For example, a fifth-grade girl who runs a sixteen-second 100 meter dash understands she needs to work hard to get her time down to fifteen seconds to be competitive.
I enjoy basketball, soccer and other more popular team sports too. But it can be difficult to gauge one’s progress compared to the clarity of track and field. And in other sports, a promising athlete can sometimes be wrongly overlooked by a coach. My sons have both played soccer and frequently found themselves riding the bench and wondering why. It can be difficult to convince a coach that you’re a better defender than someone else on the team. But in track, if you can run faster and jump and throw further, no coach who wants to win will bench you.
Two seasons into my experiment as a track coach, I’ve found that I understand the world my children inhabit much better than before. Now, when my sons tell me stories about someone in their classes, I often know the kid, and can also recall their time in the 100-meter dash. Now, for a month each February, I have an escape, an opportunity to try to build the best Catholic junior high school track team possible, and hopefully teach the kids, and myself, some life lessons along the way. Our season has just begun, but I already know that the small victories our team has achieved will stay with us for a lifetime.