Control. It’s important in all sports, including track and field. You have to control your breathing, your pace, your emotions and even your temper sometimes. But what happens when that control is taken away from you?
That’s one of the questions that the Litchfield High School girls track team is facing as the shutdown of their season continues. The team is barely able to control when and where they practice, with regulations keeping them apart for their safety and the safety of others. Imagine trying to practice handoffs six feet apart? Impossible. And it’s all out of their control.
The same feeling goes for their coach, Shane Cress, who has been involved in track for 29 years, 11 as an athlete and 18 as a coach.
“One of the hardest things about all of this is just how much is out of my control,” Cress said. “I mean, nothing is ever really in my control to begin with, really: how an athlete will feel, how she’ll perform, what the weather is doing, how talented other athletes are. But at least there’s the illusion of control.”
That illusion comes from time spent together, providing workouts and encouragement and training and drills. Cress says that in person, be it at a meet or in practice, he can track improvement and know what’s working and what’s not.
“But now, even the illusion of control is gone. Are my athletes staying in shape like they should be? Will we have any season at all? How do my athletes stay motivated? How can I realistically help them stay motivated? It makes me feel a bit helpless,” Cress explained. “It’s a problem I cannot solve. There’s no runway tweak, no coaching cue, no attitude adjustment that’s going to make the season reappear. It either will or it won’t, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Still, despite those twinges of helplessness, Cress has worked to keep that feeling from creeping into the minds of his athletes.
“I’ve tried to keep communication positive and encouraging. I check in occasionally just to see what/how everyone is doing,” Cress said. “We’ve talked about what we’re doing to stay sane, whether we’re keeping up with schoolwork, Tiger King (which I haven’t watched, but several of the girls have).”
He has also encouraged the team to stay active, not just because there might still be a season, which is still a possibility, but because that lifestyle will help them down the road as well.
“I do my best to encourage everyone to stay in shape and to stay sharp,” Cress said. “I remind them that staying in shape for life is just as important as staying in shape for track, so it’s not like it’s time wasted or anything.”
The encouragement is the least that Cress can do for a group that is having a part of their lives taken from them. Some will get to experience the highs and lows of their sport another day, but for others, like seniors Caroline Quarton, Lauren Thompson and Marlee Shumaker, the 2020 campaign was one last high school hurrah on their home track.
“I’m not gonna lie, it’s been rough. I feel awful for our athletes,” Cress said. “I’ve been doing track for most of my life, and I’ve had a lot of seasons as both an athlete and a coach, but for a lot of athletes, the years they get in high school are it, and much of this one is gone even if we do go back. It sucks. There’s no way around it.”
The scary thing is that the Litchfield girls are luckier than some of their counterparts, who never got the chance to compete at all this season. But even that one indoor meet in early March is a double edged sword.
“We got one meet, which is more than any of the other sports,” Cress said. “That meet showed quite a bit of potential, which almost makes the ‘what ifs’ even harder.”