Saturday, February 4, 2012

What the New York Giants Should Learn from Cross Country Runners

Although any press that cross country receives in the sporting world is a good thing, I wish it wasn’t (once again) about a runner collapsing at the state meet. Even though I am not a New York Giants fan, I should have been excited to read that Coach Tom Coughlin recently showed the team an ESPN video of University High senior Holland Reynolds crawling over the finish line to help secure the 2010 CIF Division V State Championship. His intent was to motivate his players, to help them visualize and understand what a true "fight to the finish" looks like—how gritty victory can be.

Don’t get me wrong, Holland’s feat was remarkable. Her will to complete the race truly shows an athlete who is unafraid to demonstrate much of St. Ignatius’ prayer of generosity: “to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not seek for rest," but I see other heroic acts in cross-country all the time. So, with those respective sports in mind, let me offer an example of what I might show the Giants, were I head coach…

Considering that “The Nielsen Co. said an estimated 111 million people watched the Green Bay Packers outlast the Pittsburgh Steelers in professional football's ultimate game,” I believe the Super Bowl should be a showcase for sportsmanship par excellence. To me, the post-game ritual is a small but significant moment where sportsmanship is on display, revealed and necessary. And on October 16, 2011, Forty Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh sent sports-talk radio a-buzz as his over-exuberant handshake with Detroit Lions coach Jim Swartz that was analyzed for nearly two weeks.
According to the Huffington Post, "Schwartz didn't take it very well. He appeared to say something to that effect while the two were meeting on the field, but Harbaugh kept running toward the locker room. That's when Schwartz chased Harbaugh down and started yelling at him. Harbaugh looked as if he said "get out of my face" as Schwartz had to be separated by several staff members. Soon enough the players were taking cues from the emotions of their coaches and a scuffle ensued."

Harbaugh admitted that emotions got the best of him. He promised to “work on his handshake” which is funny to read but worth considering if you want to lead with class and poise.
I love his competitive nature. I also love that the Niners took down an undefeated team in their house. But, true sportsmanship loves something else. Sportsmanship in this moment is gracious and poised; it is pumped but it is respectful. And in that way, I think what I have witnessed as a cross country coach can serve as a shining example.

During the 2006-2009 school years, I coached a great runner at St. Ignatius College Prep, Katy Daly. Katy was a three-time WCAL champion, two-time CCS champion and as a junior, she was the CIF Division III State Champion. She excelled at every level, but her greatest title in my eyes is that of the consummate sportswoman.

After every race, Katy would wait for her opponents and her teammates to congratulate them. She would look them in the eye, give a high five or a pat on the back and say “good race." After the big races when Katy battled it out with another girl, without fail, she would initiate a hug. It was something I have rarely seen in this demanding sport. Girls are crying, writhing in pain, trying to open their lungs and Katy had the clarity and desire to extend her arms in a gesture that modeled true sportsmanship.
Runners may not speak to one another during a race, but that does not mean they are not communicating. Runners are dealing with an inner-monologue, they are assessing their opponents' strengths and their weaknesses while determining their own and that of the course. When Katy hugged an opponent, I saw this as a sign of reverence—for both the sport and the athlete. She would never say “look at what I did!” or what you did. No, to me it was Katy’s way of saying “3.1 miles of blood, sweat, and tears—we did that."

If you were to ask me what I would like a coach before the Superbowl to show his team, it might be something like that. But the irony is, as one of Katy’s coaches, this nothing we asked her to do. We never gave her any advice or input on how to handle victory or defeat—I don't know why. I suppose that’s the joy of being a witness to greatness in athletics. We get to take in the beauty of the moment and pass it on. And clearly, that’s why the stories of Holland Reynolds and Katy Daly are worth telling. One demonstrates a desire to get to the finish and the other is one of to be at the finish. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Photo Credits

Holland Reynolds
Harbaugh Handshake
Head CoachesKaty Daly--and I know she'll kill me for writing this!

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