What are we to make of a season where it's been two months since anyone answered the report of a starter's pistol?
It's been two months now since the spring season of high school sports was shut down. That makes this as good of a time as any to start taking inventory of what we've lost. And what we've gained.
I'll take on the former category first. What have we lost?
Starting with obvious, we've lost an entire spring season (save for a few very early contests that made it under the wire). Since I'm writing for track and field website, I'll focus on what that means for our own sport.
At a minimum, athletes lost one-twelfth of their high school athletic experience. Those who don't go through high school as three-season athletes lost a larger fraction than that, but none lost less than that.
The sting of that loss is, in most cases, felt most acutely by the senior class of 2020. That class lost the culminating season of their entire high school careers. School records? Maybe. Personal bests? In most cases. A state record? Possibly, for a very few. The experience of spending a final season under the advancing warmth of the spring sun with friends and teammates? In all cases, yes. Learning--not just about track and field, but some about life as well--from coaches who've invested a very large portion of their lives into the young men and women who come out for our sport? Definitely. A chance to compete for an opportunity to run, jump, or throw at state? Yes. The thrill of a lifetime for many of giving it their best shot at the state meet? That too.
There are no guarantees that come with any of the possibilities listed above--life doesn't come at us with many guarantees--but it's a heavy slate of losses to contemplate even so.
Competing side-by-side with friends and rivals is a joy to all who have known the experience. Even that, however, comes with no guarantees. An injury can take that away as quickly as COVID-19. But, with an injury, there's at least the sense that you went down trying instead of gazing out your window.
In a curious sort of way, something else is lost here, too. We don't often think of it this way, but we lose the educating and shaping effects of disappointment this spring. Not the disappointment of missing out on a season, but the disappointment of coming up just short. Maybe just short of a spot on the team for a big meet where not everyone on the team gets to go. Or the disappointment of coming up just short of qualifying for state, placing at state, or winning at state.
Those disappointments can be like cancer or like gold, depending on how they are received by the person gathering them. For some, they become an excuse to quit or wallow in self-pity. For others, they become the foundation of successes yet to come. In the former case, nothing much is lost. In the latter, however, the only means of replacing the loss is to go out and find another venue to take the place of the experience that slipped out of your grasp.
So, much has been lost this spring. The exact measure of what was lost varies a great deal from person to person, but the losses are real. It is to be hoped that each of us can put the losses into perspective within the greater scope of life--and that, too, varies from person to person--but the losses inflicted are still very much losses.
We come, then, to the other side of the coin. It's a side of the coin we haven't thought much about this spring. On this side of the coin we ask, "What have we gained this spring?"
And, that question is a lot like asking what we've taken away from the experience of being made to sit mostly idle and mostly separated from friends for a season.
If bitterness is your default response to adversity, then that is what you've gained from the experience. More bitterness. Good luck with that.
I trust, however, that I'm mostly not writing to people choosing to be consumed by bitterness. I suspect that if you've made it this far through the article you're more of a mindset to grow from the experience of the past two months than to let it have the best of you.
So, what can we draw of value from two solid months of enforced non-competition when we signed up for exactly the opposite?
In a nutshell, we gain an appreciation for a whole lot of things related to competition. We gain an appreciation for timers, officials, athletic directors, and all the others who set aside entire days of the week to make meets happen. Yes, most of these people get paid, but the world of track and field reaps an enormous bargain each time a meet is held. We gain an appreciation for all the time that coaches invest into the preparation of athletes--time that was nowhere to be found this spring (even though time was the one thing almost everybody had on hand). We gain an assurance for the value of hard work, and the difficulty of getting it done when we don't have a coach standing over our shoulder and teammates encouraging us forward. We gain an appreciation for teammates who daily push and inspire us to greater things. We gain an appreciation for rivals who force us to reach a little deeper on meet day.
None of those things were in place this spring, and we all felt the emptiness. Whether we stopped to pinpoint the root of the emptiness or not, it was there just the same. Shame on us if we miss the lessons.
It's easy to take all this for granted when things are going along like we always thought they would. When things come to a grinding halt, however, we begin to realize how much we miss all of the pieces that come together to make it happen.
Track and field is a crucible wherein we learn our personal limits are not what we imagined they were. It is a frolic where we are reminded how rewarding running a little faster, jumping a little higher or farther, or throwing a little farther really is. Simple actions, really, and of no particular value in and of themselves except in the most unusual of circumstances, but curiously refreshing actions even so.
High school track and field truly is a sport for almost everybody. The bars of entry are lower than almost any other sport, while the rewards are as varied as the individuals who participate in the sport. This spring, however, served as an excellent reminder that all the things that make track and field what it is don't just happen automatically.
Maybe, just maybe, the reminder of what we've lost carries forward with us in life and prods some of us to become the people who coach or officiate track and field as we grow older in life. The sport doesn't happen without those people. For those of us with time remaining as high school track and field athletes, the reminder has been given that it really does matter if we show up to practice or not. If matters if my teammate hears nothing when he runs or responds to a stadium full of folks clamoring to bring her through the finish line.
Most of all, perhaps, this season-that-wasn't should remind us to be thankful. The sure things in life aren't as sure as we thought they were. If we learn nothing else at all from this spring, we should learn to be thankful people, and to express that thanks to all sorts of people who helped make the good things we enjoy happen. Thankful people are the best kind of people to be around.
Track and field is a great world. It will be an even better world going forward as we daily choose to become people of gratitude.