As a high school English teacher and track coach, I have had many opportunities for meaningful moments with students in the past ten years. One such moment occurred two years ago, at the end of the track season. Montinique Wilson, a good natural athlete, had begun running the hurdle races early in the season. A junior, she had run track her sophomore year and dabbled in the hurdles; she showed flashes of promise, but would miss practice for several days at a time because her “legs hurt.” She came back last year claiming to be determined to prove herself. I was skeptical, of course, but was willing to give her a chance. While she continued to have days where she gave less than a genuine effort, they occurred far less frequently, and as her performances started to improve toward the middle of the season, she gradually grew more and more dependable. One thing I came to understand about Montinique is that she would get down on herself very easily, and it was hard to keep her focused once she had begun to doubt herself. Therefore, her performances were very inconsistent throughout the year. She would run personal bests one meet, then run poorly in the next one. One meet, she came to the track almost in tears because she had gotten a speeding ticket earlier in the day. I tried talking to her, saying the usual coach stuff – you gotta put it behind you, focus on your races, worry about that other stuff after the meet – but none of it worked; she just seemed to sink deeper into her shell. Before the start of one of the 300-meter hurdle race that day, she shuffled over to the starting line with her shoulders slumped over, then jogged her way to a pathetic performance. I wasn’t even mad. I was more upset at the fact that I didn’t know how to get through to her.
At the conference championships two weeks later, Montinique won the long jump, the 100-meter hurdles, and the 300-meter hurdles, and was voted female athlete of the meet. Going into the state championship meet, she was one of the favorites to win all three events again. In the hurdles, though, there was another girl from a rival school who had run faster than Montinique, but not by much. So Mont would have to run personal bests in both hurdle races to beat her, I felt sure. The long jump took place on Saturday morning, about an hour before the hurdles were scheduled to start. I knew that if Mont did well in the long jump, the positive energy would carry over to the hurdles. But I also knew that if she messed up in the long jump, the negative energy would carry over to the hurdles. She messed up. She scratched on her first two attempts. Then, on her third attempt, she ran very slowly down the runway, trying to avoid scratching a third time and thus being disqualified, and because of her drastic deceleration at take-off, she didn’t jump far enough to qualify for the finals. Distraught, she walked off, by herself, to the edge of the field where all the team tents were set up. She kept walking and walking, right up the edge of the woods that led to God knows where. I sent Joe Coe, our team captain, to talk to her, because Joe was good with re-building teammates’ confidence; I had seen him do it time and time again. He knew how to crack a joke or make a precisely insightful comment to help a teammate keep things in perspective. I wanted to go over there too, but, to be truthful, I didn’t know what to tell her. As I said before, when Mont goes into a dark world, it’s hard to bring her out of it. Plus, she always seemed to do better in meets where I didn’t say much of anything to her before her races. I had come to believe that my motivational speeches, intended to pump her up, only made her nervous. So I decided to stay away and let Joe handle things. As she came back to the track to warm up for the 100 hurdles, her were eyes were red, but she was no longer crying. She had a distant look on her face, as if the crying had emptied her of all emotion. Her dad talked to her too, and, from body language, seemed to be telling her to suck it up and deal with it. I wanted to see for myself how she was doing, so I walked up to her, patted her on the back, told her that was a tough loss in the long jump, but now was the time to make up for it in the hurdles. She said nothing. Didn’t even look at me. Just continued to stare blankly into the gray sky. My words felt hollow. I felt like she know I didn’t give a damn about the long jump, that my only concern was that her failure in that event wouldn’t ruin her for the hurdles.
She ended up finishing third in the 100 hurdles. She was tied for the lead after seven hurdles, then started clobbering them with her trail leg foot. She fell behind, and ended up finishing in third place. After crossing the finish line, Mont tore off her uniform, threw it on the track, and kept on walking away, back, I assume, to her place by the edge of the woods. I didn’t know what to do. After the long-jump disaster, sending Joe to talk to her had been a calculated strategy, and it had seemingly worked, as Mont had warmed up for the hurdles very well, and had run a smooth race for seven hurdles. But the end of the race had proven that her focus wasn’t entirely there, and her reaction after the race proved that she was officially in the process of a major meltdown.
Her dad was livid. He stormed past me on his way to getting her, and asked me if she had to run the 300 meter hurdles. “I’m about to take her home,” he said, “‘cause I don’t like her f*ckin attitude.” I shrugged my shoulders despondently. I didn’t care, at that moment, if she ran the 300’s or not. I felt certain that if she did run it, she would perform miserably. Mentally, she was gone, and there was no bringing her back.
A while later, I saw Montinique standing by herself in the infield. Apparently, dad had decided not to drive her home. But she still had that faraway look in her eyes, that emotionless gaze into emptiness. I decided to approach her. She was near the 300-hurdle starting line. I walked up to her and stood in front of her, about a foot away from her. She looked up, and we made eye contact. That moment was important. It let me know that she was willing to listen to whatever I had to say. Now I just had to find the words that would bring out the competitive Mont who believed in herself. I explained to her, talking slowly, choosing my words carefully, that “track is a tough sport. It all comes down to you. Coaches can’t help you, teammates can’t help you. It’s all on you. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure. To know that you can’t pass the ball to someone else and hope they score. You’ve gotta do it yourself. You’ve had two disappointing performances, Mont, but you can’t give up on yourself. You’ve gotta keep trying. There are no guarantees. You’ve gotta have the courage to try, even when there’s no guarantee of success. That’s all I’m asking you to do in these 300’s – I’m not asking you to win, I’m asking you to try.” I spoke deliberately, very softly. I wanted the words to sink in. I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t angry with her, that I hadn’t given up on her, that I didn’t feel she had let me or her teammates down. “You’ve gotta try in these 3’s,” I said, “you can’t leave here feeling the way you feel now. You’re not going to quit on yourself.” I wanted to say more, but couldn’t think of any more words, so I held out my arms in an invitation for a hug. She accepted my embrace, and we stood there alone together in that crowded field, hugging for a good twenty seconds. I knew I had gotten through to her; I knew she knew I cared, and I knew that she would run well.
She finished second in the 300’s. The same girl who had finished first in the 100’s beat her again. Although Mont finished second, she ran another personal best, and ran with a lot of heart and determination. In the end, that’s all that matters. Times on the watch are times on the watch. They come and go with the beginning and end of each new season. But the memories, the feelings, the relationships, the meaningful moments – they live in a space outside of time. That’s why coaches bother coaching, that’s why athletes bother running. That’s why all of this stuff matters.
© 2004 Steve McGill