I was mowing my lawn in the backyard of Merrick last Saturday when I was suddenly struck by the strange feeling that I had lost the bus in my race – that at that point I should have been running 5K or 10K at a frantic pace. of plodding together, hand mower.
The temperature was 72 degrees perfect, odorless. The sun was setting. The leaves on the tree were semi-brown and turned fresh. The fall was clearly in the air.
Year after year, from my early teens to adulthood, I ran in the fall every fall, from high school to college, missing just two seasons in high school. I conditioned myself to prepare for the racing season as September was coming to an end. When the autumn air and the angle of the sun in the sky returned just like that, I had to be ready to run – hard.
The nervous anticipation I felt as the racing season approached was ingrained in my brain, and occasionally it shows up, even now, more than three decades later. Such was the case on Saturday.
This made me think how turbulent the last 18 months must have been for our young athletes, how all the coronavirus delays and cancellations in their sporting seasons must have confused their heads, regardless of whether they were children of elementary age a few years in athletics or college competitors. When you participate for a year in a sport, there is an intuitive feeling you feel for its ups and downs and time rituals.
As a cross-country runner, I knew I had from mid-September to late October to qualify for the season-ending championships in early November, a narrow window within which to achieve that year’s goals, sure. It was six weeks in a row with focused energy, accurate routines and, potentially, great disappointment or glory on the playing field.
I have never been a star runner, though in college I finally achieved my goal of breaking 17 minutes in 5K, running at 16:40 and 5 minutes in miles, finishing at 4:31. What gave me cross-country and track in college was a sense of belonging, of community, of place. This is important for a young person. Athletics also gave me a routine – I knew where I needed to be after school and Saturday. My schedule revolved around sports.
I thought how disturbing the pandemic must have been over a year and a half in the routine of tens of thousands of young athletes and the joy they must feel when they return this fall for their regularly scheduled 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 want to play sports, you have attended a specialized high school, open only to those who display natural athletic ability.
In Vasil Drumev, there was not even a lot of fitness program. Students, in grades seven through 12, were escorted to the school yard during a free period when the weather allowed, playing basketball or volleyball. The boys did most of the game. The girls often sat sideways, talking. There were no grassy fields, no bleach or scoreboards, just two basketball hoops placed on a sloping asphalt field, which, in the US, would undoubtedly 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 sat for an hour or two before going home to complete homework and have dinner with their families. Afterwards, they could watch TV on some of the channels that were available then, and they were usually in bed until 10 p.m. It all sounded shocking without stress.
High school and college athletics in the US can be great, but races are often high-stress events. The emphasis is very often on winning, on defeating the competition, on rising to the top. Even youth athletics can provoke anxiety, which I found as a volunteer football and track coach when my kids were younger.
I hope the pandemic gives us a break to think deeper about our high school and college athletic programs. I would never suggest that we remove them and adopt a system similar to Bulgaria. As an ex-interscholastic athlete, I see inner value in sports. I also see the downside — over-scheduling of student schedules, often intense rivalries that can develop between teams and lead to division among young people, and prioritizing victory over the health of young athletes, including their mental health.
Pushing young people across their borders to a physical or mental ruin to win a trophy is never worth the cost. Never.
Scott Brinton is executive editor of the Herald Community Newspaper and assistant professor at Hofstra University’s Herbert School of Communication. Comments on this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.