In some ways I am one of the luckiest people my age. With the exception of two years spent in the Peace Corps, the activities I pursued in college (studying biology along with running cross country and track) are the same things I have been able to do professionally.
During the early stages of my career, it occured to me that coaches are (in fact) teachers, and teachers do a fair amount of coaching in the classroom. These roles are two permutations of the same mission – development of confident students with principled value systems.
Philosophers often speak of human development as part of a triad, which includes a focus on mind, body and spirit. I am of the belief that the sport of cross country is a perfect compliment to the classroom experience in the context of education. Sports, in general, offer opportunities for different kinds of developmental stimuli. First, there is simply the physical benefit of exercising the body. I believe that attention to physical activity both strengthens our bodies and allows better access to intellectual development. Many people would agree that exercise “clears the mind” for better focus on academic or artistic pursuits. I would argue that, at the highest level, competitive running is an art form with links to our earliest emergence as a bipedal species. Whereas the benefits of studying math, science, or Shakespeare may require years of reflection before truly appreciating the benefit of these subjects, the rewards available in sports are much more immediate. When an athlete has experienced the thrill of accomplishment in a given sport, a coach is able to convince the same person that the same feeling is possible academically. Conversely, someone who experiences success in the classroom is in a position to believe that they can develop physical skills also. Students who are athletes and athletes who are students benefit from a built-in trust factor that exists between them and their teachers/coaches.
In the sport of cross country, no one truly runs alone. As part of a team at KO, each member is asked to devote their energy toward the development of team spirit. Strong teams enhance the level of individual performance, much like each person in an orchestra.
Ideally, a student participating in cross country for four years will emerge a different person than they were as a third former. This can be a transformational experience, and I have seen it happen many times. Students participating in cross country are stronger, more confident, and more likely to become mature citizens in college. We often characterize the path from childhood toward adulthood as a journey. What sport could better support this metaphor? Each race is a small journey, with a distinct start and finish. So is a complete season or total high school career as a runner. Perhaps this is why I find cross country to be so incredibly meaningful year to year.
There is one more factor that is critical to the developmental capacity of cross country. It is a phenomenon common to individual sports like running and swimming. These athletes are measured by a true and unbiased standard: the clock. There is no grade inflation in cross country. Every participant knows what it takes physically and emotionally to break timing barriers for five kilometers. Running under 18 minutes, or 17, or even 16 is a major accomplishment that runners from almost every school and every generation understands, in terms of quality. It is one of the more beautiful realities of the sport.