Middle School Athletic Pain

The middle school cross country team I coach had its first meet this past week. What an experience! 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade boys and girls, many of them running their first race ever…if you don’t include their video games ventures. We had less than two weeks of practice beforehand to prepare us for the mess. All of our races are one and a half miles, a mire trot around the countryside, right? For some it was! Unfortunately, only a couple of those runners were wearing our team shirt.

We had gradually been increasing the mileage of the runners, running 2 miles and then 3 miles. The day after our race we challenged many of them to complete a 4-mile run, and next week we’ll throw a 5-miler into the mix. But on Wednesday our objective was to run the first race and learn from it.

Here’s the thing about middle school athletes! You have some who grit their teeth, have fire in their eyes, and resemble pint-size Marines giving it their all. The race is a battle for them, a personal battle to quiet the inner-doubts and voices and a battle for honor pitting them against their opponents. Grit in an athlete is a coach’s dream! On our team there is a small-sized fiery redheaded girl who fought off the doubts and all those who looked at her and hadn’t expected much. We expected a couple of other girls from our team to appear over the last ridge before her but she had that look that said she thought she was leading the charge on Iwo Jima.

And then there were others who let the struggle defeat them, turning a ten-minute race into a twenty-plus minute ordeal filled with whining and complaining. A few hobbled across as if they had just finished the Leadville 100-mile Ultra-marathon. Faces showed the agony, looking for sympathetic parents who might soothe their wounds with a post-race shaved ice treat from the Kona Ice Truck parted behind the stadium. One young lady turned her ankle and was helped across the finish line by one of her teammates in a scene resembling the Confederate retreat from Antietam.

I forgot to tell our runners that I had an instant cold pack in our first-aid bag. It may have been a good thing not to mention since I only had one. I’m envisioning a line of runners laid out in a makeshift triage area, moaning for ice to be applied to their ankle, knee, calf, thigh, head, lower back, finger, etc.

Middle school athletics reveals more about a student’s strengths and character than it does their athletic ability. Oh, yes, you have the male athletes who reached puberty about five years before anyone else. Chiseled biceps are a sign that they have probably reached their max. High school may be a disappointment for them since they’ve dominated all the pint-sized competitions all through middle school. Other than those deviations from the norm, middle school athletics reveal who has heart, who’s coachable, who will be a great teammate, and who understands what makes up sportsmanship. It shows who has the ingredients to be successful, not in athletics but rather in life. Who can be counted, who feels entitled, and who will disappear?

And so we’ll go at it again this coming Wednesday on a different course against the same teams of runners, looking for that grit and fire in our 11, 12, and 13-year-olds that will bring smiles to our faces about what they’ve discovered about themselves?

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