3 October 2018
Community in Crossed Personalities
Ethnography: New Plymouth High School Cross Country Team
Brisk wind slapped my tired face as I shoved open the door to my car and stood in the morning air, the temperature caused me to shiver and I immediately feel pity for my peers about to run before the sun had peaked above the horizon. A chilly morning practice for the cross-country runners is the icing on their painful cake of running, as they usually practice in the afternoon. Heading through the parking lot toward the bright lights of the football field and track complex, I reflected on my decision to choose the cross-country team; perhaps instead of their insanity for voluntarily running, I was more insane to study them. Their motives behind wanting to solely run for competition, an action that is merely a component of other sports, has always intrigued me. My brother competed in cross country for several years and his motivation to run on a team for several months when he never bothered to run outside of the season was odd. The individuals that comprise the team don’t all come from one collective background or spot on the New Plymouth High School hierarchy as other sports’ members seem to, yet they must compete as a team. In order to do so, major relationships must be formed during their time together at practices where a window of opportunity to observe their group dynamics is formed, and as I quickly learned that morning, the cross-country runners waste no time being shy.
The team members accumulated in a group on the track, huddled around their coaches, and begin to converse among themselves as they wait for instructions. Coach Henggeler instructs them to begin their run, only after she analyzes the number of members present and appears frustrated. The runners stop after a quick two laps, the sleepiness erased from their eyes and replaced with eager attitudes. The group recollects, spreading out along a line across the track lanes and they begin to stretch. “We need extra stretches,” one member comments as the group moves back and forth along a small stretch of the track like a pendulum on a grandfather clock. As they transition stretches, conversations take place among the group. Several of the older cross-country members group together and a senior, Ernesto Navarrete, sarcastically says “who wants to wake up in the morning and come to some stupid school and run?” The team continues to stretch, ignoring Ernesto’s comment. Although the idea of running is undesirable to many, even the runners themselves at points, the support that the team gathers from one another is evident.
Voluntarily running for extended periods of time is a turn off for many people, however those brave enough to choose cross country as a sport are fully dedicated. Members decide to belong to cross country for varying reasons including exercise/weight loss, preparation for other sports, and social interaction. The members stay because of their team. Ernesto mentioned this when I questioned him about the opportunity cross country provides him with to be a part of a group, “without my friends I wouldn’t do it… [they] make it fun,” this is an example of the feelings members hold about relationships that the group forms. Rather than referring to his fellow runners as teammates, Ernesto counts them as friends. Members of cross country can testify to the encouragement and friendliness that the entire team possesses and shares with each other. This comradery built between the runners over something as simple as sending a “roar you'd have thought... just won [the] Boston [marathon],” as Rick Reilly describes of one cross country team, shows their investment and pride in the members of their team (76). Ernesto describes that the group is “like a family, all brothers and sisters,” resulting from spending copious amounts of time at practices and meets.
Cross country may appear as an individualized sport, however without a team, the members are just runners. Bonding together over cross country, whether they participate in the sport for enjoyment or not, builds a community for them. “As a whole, they’re supportive of each other both in cross country and in school,” Coach Henggeler describes, these bonds between members keep them invested in the sport by knowing that there’s someone there to cheer them on at their meets, or give them a simple high-five after a hard run during practice. Together, the team of runners are able to find belonging within each other.
As the group finishes their stretches and toss conversations back and forth in the otherwise dead silent morning, a few members shed their sweatshirts, while others clutch their layered athletic clothes against their bodies. The runners appear like a patchwork quilt as their athletic outfits span the colors of the rainbow. Light, polyester fabric or graphic cotton shirts hang loosely from their shoulders rippling calmly with the breeze. Female team members wear mid-thigh athletic shorts or workout leggings, while males wear basketball shorts or sweats. Fitbits and athletic watches are adjusted to time the runners, sending out shrill beeps as the team lines up to begin their actual workout.
“Your goal is [to run] a mile a little under race pace,” Coach Henggeler barks at the runners, resulting in a “when you say little under, do you mean faster or slower?” clarification reply from Caycin Howard, a senior on the team. Coach Henggeler flits her eyes in his direction and states “faster,” as the remainder of the team debates how to divide their time by three (their five-kilometer race is just over three miles, so they divide their best race time by three to approximate their race pace). She readies a timer and the herd takes off, feet scuffing and pounding against the rubber grip of the track. The hiss of sprinklers takes over the complex and the two coaches’ discussions as runners pass by, puffing out transparent clouds of condensation. Coach Lysinger and Coach Henggeler converse about an upcoming meet and how it will impact their runners along with plans for future practices.
Every day the team devotes their time to warming up, running, and stretching as a unit. Like clockwork, the group meets in an empty classroom afterschool to have a brief team meeting on days when they don’t have morning practice. They then warm up by taking a short jog to a meeting place on the grassy boulevard in New Plymouth and completing warm-up stretches. Following instructions from their coaches, the team takes off on their run, only to return and finish with cool-down stretches as a team. Ample amounts of time together spent daily leads the team to see each member in a variety of different ways. Each day different members could be experiencing different emotions or have different experiences to share with the group. The steadiness of having a team to hear about your day, good or bad, sticks trustworthiness to the team. All of their practicing and preparation is to compete at cross country meets against other high school teams. This cycle of practicing to compete may be viewed as simple, but “it’s hard. It requires a lot of determination, perseverance, and a goal in mind otherwise you’re running for nothing,” Ernesto explained the cross-country member’s mentality to me. Continuing toward goals individually in this activity involves reaching a “PR,” or personal record, for the runners focused on the sporting aspect of cross country.
The aspect of competition against others, but a reliance on your teammates for good overall standings and encouragement, draws the members to build one another up in confidence. Kara Ethington, a junior on the team, tells how her team has pushed her to do better. During her first meet, Kara recalled how much easier it was to listen to advice and kind words from her teammates than her mother. Those on her team had been through the same experience during the meet as she did, so she felt their empathy was more sincere and worked to motivate her. This team encouragement is discussed by Dr. Randall W. Crist, “A runner… encouraged by his coach and teammates to keep his mind in the race when they start to see him falter, will not feel nearly as discouraged after the race as the athlete who spent the last mile feeling sorry for himself;” Crist describes how moral support to keep the mental strength of a runner is crucial (32). Without relationships between members, this support wouldn’t exist. To encourage bonding, the New Plymouth High School team also has a member’s parent host a team dinner the evening before a meet day. Sharing a meal and having enjoyable conversations connects the members with each other, forming friendships. For the cross-country members, forming friendships might involve laughing together over caramel from a caramel apple on one of their teammate’s lips and tossing a ball around to spark conversations. The group’s traditions are simply a part of being on the team.
“Good, you’re gonna break 8 [minutes]!” Coach Henggeler cheers on to a runner as she completes one of her final laps for the mile run. Some of the lead male runners start to come in first, their panting breathing covering some of the times that Coach Henggeler reads off to them. With grimaced faces, they walk toward water bottles set on the side of the track while holding their hands above their heads. Runners continue to stomp to a halt as they finish their laps. After giving all of the runners a moment to catch their breath, Coach Henggeler is firing them back up to the starting line. Once again, they take off circling the track, this time with the rumbling and clanking of buses parting to pick up students as their background music coming from the nearby bus barn. The students stretch into single file lines as the run, with no talking occurring between members. With little change in the runners apart from their increased breathing and sweat with each lap, they finally finish their practice. Sighs escape from their mouths as some sit to collect themselves after the workout. Those that stand eagerly greet the finishers with a smile, “nice job,” and high-five.
The attitude to support their fellow teammates spreads and more members stand to collect around those who are taking longer to finish. The high school students in cross country share many of the same beliefs even though they bring many different interests to the table. Kara describes them as “nerds who enjoy running” with a smile upon her face. The members feel that their team is comprised of hardworking individuals that don’t shy from a challenge (running, that is). Dedicating time and energy into pursuing practice, meets, and the act of running levels the runners on an even playing field where what they put into their workouts is what they believe they get out.
All of the cross-country members were, at one point, new to the group. This understanding of how it feels to be a new runner with unfamiliar teammates encourages the group to welcome new runners to their group. When asking Ernesto about new members he replies, “I’d love it [if they would join]! I love it when new people give hard things a try,” exemplifying the welcoming personalities of the runners. Cross country members are ecstatic when a new person joins, regardless of whether they have a prior relationship with that person or not. Ernesto mentions the feeling that many new members must struggle with, “when you’re in a group with people you don’t know, it’s better to get to know them,” he concludes and mentions going up to talk to new teammates.
The support they show to each other shows through as the group splits up and members eagerly share their experiences running around the track. The practice is drawing to a close as they return to do cool down stretches. Conversations sputter up discussing sport specifics below the leader’s voice as they call out the stretch names. The New Plymouth cross country team is a diverse group of personalities bonded by their encouragements of each other. Most of their unique language correlates with their sport. Terms like “race pace” and “PR” appear in conversations geared at improving a runner’s speed for the timed meets. During practices, the team stretches wear entertaining titles of the runners’ own invention including “beauty queens,” “Patrick Stars,” and the “triangle.” Regardless of the reduction of competitiveness during practices, the cross-country members never stop rooting for their teammates. A high-five and supportive “good job” are never missing from a practice, nor a team member. Other familiar lingo that the group shares varies from minute to minute, particularly their jokes. During one practice the group shared laughter over dog poop (or “scat” as the group screamed at each other for humor) and teased about a boy runner picking on girls. Sport related terms and encouragements may stand firm for the team, but their relationships with each other grow with each new joke or tease.
Strong team relationships are vital in most team sports, however cross country possesses both team and individual sport characteristics. The overwhelming focus on the individual’s run would cause most to believe that the group dynamics of the team are lacking, when in reality the group couldn’t seem to stop focusing on their relationships with teammates to actually run. Cross country runners don’t simply affiliate themselves with the sport, they find their belonging within the group through their connections with their teammates. The contributing factor that allows these relationships to strengthen is the common ground they share through running cross country; its traditions, chattel, sense of belonging, lingo, and group’s attitude tie them in. As the team completes their stretches, their chit-chat and laugher are set free. Walking back to my car, a comment from Ernesto sticks out in my mind about the sense of belonging he felt in the team “from the beginning.” He described the relationships he’s formed with his teammates, saying “there’s nothing better that I should be doing right now,” and I look back to see the group bubbling with laughter, I see this idea personified.
Crist, Randall W. “Life in the Middle of the Pack.” Coach & Athletic Director, vol. 66, no. 2, Sept. 1996, p. 30-32. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9710100048&site=ehost-live&custid=s8499241. Date Accessed 3 October 2018.
Ethington, Kara. Personal Interview. 18 September 2018.
Henggeler, Carole. Personal Interview.14 September 2018.
Navarrete, Ernesto. Personal Interview, 17 September 2018.
Reilly, Rick. “Worth the Wait.” Sports Illustrated, vol. 99, no. 15, 20 Oct. 2003, p. 76. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=11076776&site=ehost-live&custid=s8499241. Accessed 4 October 2018.