Character · Things I've Learned

Lessons from a Junior High Track Meet

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I love junior high track. It’s all at once exciting and devastating, painfully awkward and surprisingly graceful. It’s that sport only a mother could love.

Slow clap for the parents! You gotta be committed to organize your whole day around, I don’t know, maybe a combined total of two minutes of competition?

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I loved this year’s season though.  The 7th grade track season seems to me the last bastion of athletic competition where everyone more or less enters on a level field. I know there are places where track competitions start earlier, but there are no traveling teams of four-year old track stars in our town.  Sweet mother help us if that ever begins.

At the first meet it’s obvious that a majority of the 7th grade decided to give this opportunity a go.  All shapes, all sizes and apparently major athletic prowess wasn’t a necessary requirement. Clad in everything from fancy neon track spikes to worn down basketball shoes, it seemed like this time everyone was invited to the party.  God bless these coaches who had to pick and place this melting pot of hormones in events worthy of their calling.

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Way back in the day where I grew up, 7th grade was the entry point for all organized sports. It is difficult to comprehend but before age 12 kids participated in this strange and revolutionary activity called “play”…in the backyard and at the park and on playgrounds. We roller skated on sidewalks and rode bikes all over town. We played basketball on driveways and baseball games were in empty lots. Go outside and play until it gets dark. That was our sport schedule.

Granted, southeast New Mexico isn’t exactly the trendsetting capital, but I think in the 70s and early 80s that was more the norm. My stomach gets very twisted and I get all conflicted when thinking about the way we do sports these days in ‘Merica with our kiddos.

Is it me or have times changed? It feels like parents are driving their babies to the first soccer or softball practice on the way home from the hospital. I may be exaggerating.

But only slightly.

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Instead of digressing into soapbox land, I just want to share some mom observations and lessons learned from watching all the stories unfold this season. What a hoot it has been!

1. Sometimes we just need the chance to try something new at the same time everyone else is trying it for the first time too. Because if everyone is a bit awkward, it makes our own awkward, well…kind of cool. There is more room for grace in situations where not everyone is an expert.

I saw kids who don’t succeed in many areas burst forth with a skill that suddenly has a crowd cheering. I told one of Caroline’s friends that I didn’t know she could run so fast. She laughed and said “Neither did I!” I’ve also witnessed overachievers not do so well and run smack into the reality that everyone can’t be the best at everything. What a gift to learn that early.

2.  Awkward is the epitome of adolescence. I’ve watched the track and field and watched the stands equally and believe firmly that junior high track meets are just this great eternally long awkward social phenomenon. A simmering stew of puberty mixed with waves of insecurity and longing. You see so many stories going on all at once.  No one escapes.

Like a research anthropologist on a seat in the stands, you can observe 12 and 13 year olds battling friendships and “relationships” and the weather and nerves and emotional identity crises. It’s all at once heart breaking and wholly entertaining to behold.

You see girls try to stay unsuccessfully adorable while battling rain, wind or snow. Because track meets are NEVER scheduled on those beautiful 70 degree sunny spring days. It’s either blazing hot, freezing cold or blowing 400 mph, usually a combination of all the above.

You see boys with man hearts trying to balance their desire to be studly with the urge to play tag under the bleachers. It’s like you have a front row seat at the chrysalis transformation, bursting forth with wings all wet and slimy. It is simultaneously beautiful and gross to watch.

I believe being this age is one of the thin places of a person’s lifetime. Shoutout to all you junior high teachers and coaches. You are helping to mark their world.

3. It’s important to watch the losers as much as the winners. In a one minute race you can see hearts soar and break. There is such a range of ability at this level. And to see the way that kids come across the finish line is telling.

Bravery looks a lot like last place. Good grief. How much guts does it take to step up to a line knowing in your heart you’ve lost the race before the gun ever goes off? You know those races where everyone thinks it’s finished and they have to yell at everyone to get off the track because there is still a runner around the corner. You just don’t realize it because they still have half a lap to go.  Every time I’ve wanted to meet that kid at the end with a high-five and whisper loud, ‘Do NOT let a stupid race define you!’

How much more would we all be able to accomplish if we stepped up to the line with that much courage, choosing to run brave instead of running for competition?

4.  It’s important to find your THING and sometimes that means figuring out what isn’t your thing.  Watching these kids run and jump and throw, well there are just some who are born athletes. They just somehow know, at a cellular level how to run. And there are kids in the same races with them who look like they will be future CEOs of tech startups. Usually they aren’t neck and neck with each other at the end.

And that is OK. Some kids are fine with being a part of a team, regardless of their place in a race. Some kids run track and figure out that competition pushes them to become better. Track is one of those sports that is individual as well as team. It’s rich soil for these budding adults.

I wish there were more opportunities during adolescence for our children to try as many things as possible to help them figure out their THING. To learn to fail in community is a valuable thing. What a loss to not even try something new simply because of that scary fear of failure.

One thing that really struck me this season is the HUGE difference between 7th and 8th graders. Some of those 8th grade boys are like men-men. Also, there are fewer 8th graders running track than 7th, which make me realize this is a one time shot for some of these kids.  Thank you, 2014 track season, for being one of those opportunities. It’s been a truly great show.

(Linking up with Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky for her Things I’ve Learned series)

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