I was mowing my backyard lawn in Merrick last Saturday when I was suddenly struck by the strange sensation that I had missed the bus to my race — that I should, at the moment, have been running a 5K or a 10K at a frantic pace instead of plodding along, mower in hand.
The temperature was a perfect 72 degrees, with no wind. Sunshine streamed down. The leaves on the trees were half-brown and turning crisp. Fall was clearly in the air.
Year after year, from my early adolescence to my young adulthood, I ran cross-country every fall, from middle school through college, missing only two seasons in high school. I was conditioned to gear up for the racing season as September neared an end. When the fall air and the angle of the sun in the sky turned just so, I had to be ready to run — hard.
The nervous anticipation I felt as the racing season approached was embedded in my brain, and every now and again it pops up, even now, more than three decades later. Such was the case on Saturday.
That got me thinking about how screwy the past 18 months must have been for our young athletes, how all of the coronavirus delays and cancellations in their sports seasons must have messed with their heads, whether they were elementary-age kids a few years into athletics or college competitors. When you’ve participated for years in a sport, there is an intuitive sense you feel for its up-and-down rhythms and well-timed rituals.
As a cross-country runner, I knew I had from mid-September to late October to qualify for season-ending championships in early November, a narrow window within which to achieve that year’s goals, for sure. It was six straight weeks of focused energy, of exacting routines and, potentially, of great disappointment or glory on the field of play.
I was never a star runner, though in college I did eventually achieve my goal of breaking 17 minutes in the 5K, running it in 16:40, and 5 minutes in the mile, finishing it in 4:31. What cross-country, and track in college, gave me was a sense of belonging, camaraderie, place. That’s important for a young person. Athletics also gave me a routine — I knew where I had to be after school and on Saturday. My schedule revolved around sports.
I thought about how disruptive the pandemic must have been over the past year and a half to the routines of tens of thousands of young athletes, and the joy they must be feeling as they return this fall for their regularly appointed seasons.
Then I thought about Bulgaria. From 1991 to 1993, I served in the Peace Corps there, teaching English at the Vasil Drumev High School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Veliko Tarnovo, an ancient city in central Bulgaria. There were no after-school athletics in Bulgarian schools. If you wanted to play sports, you attended a specialized high school, open only to those displaying natural athletic ability.
At Vasil Drumev, there wasn’t even much of a gym program. The students, in grades seven to 12, hung out in the school courtyard during a free period when the weather permitted, playing basketball or volleyball. Boys did most of the playing. Girls often sat on the sidelines, chatting. There were no grass fields, no bleachers or scoreboards, only two basketball hoops set on one downward-sloping asphalt court, which, in the U.S., would no doubt have been a lawsuit waiting to happen.
One day, I asked my students what they did after school without sports or even clubs. Mostly, they said, they walked around town with friends, stopping for coffee at a café, where they would sit for an hour or two before heading home to finish homework and eat dinner with their families. Afterward, they might watch TV on the handful of channels that were available then, and they were usually in bed by 10 p.m. It all sounded shockingly stress-free.
High school and college athletics in the U.S. can be wonderful, but the competitions are frequently high-stress events. The emphasis is too often on winning, on beating the competition, on rising to the top. Even youth athletics can be anxiety-provoking, which I found as a volunteer soccer and track coach when my kids were younger.
I hope the pandemic might give us pause to think more deeply about our high school and college athletic programs. I would never suggest that we do away with them and adopt a Bulgarian-like system. As a former interscholastic athlete, I see the intrinsic value in sports. I also see the downside — the over-programming of students’ schedules, the often intense rivalries that can develop between teams and lead to divisions among young people, and the prioritization of victory over young athletes’ health, including their mental health.
Pushing young people beyond their limits to the point of a physical or mental breakdown in order to win a trophy is never worth the cost. Never.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.