Why We Coach: James McCowan ’99, Cross Country and Track and Field

McCowan, himself a former Vassar runner, now coaches the Vassar cross country and track and field teams. While these sports can sometimes be brutally objective, he stresses the importance of winning in multiple ways, not just on the clock. Courtesy of Stockton Photo

Have you ever taken one of those personality/skill assessment tests aimed at helping you figure out what kind of career you should pursue? I vividly remember taking them in high school and getting feedback along the lines of clergy, teacher, counselor, doctor. It all seemed preposterous. None of those things felt authentically interesting to me—I didn’t see myself as religious in a traditional sense; the idea of standing in front of a classroom felt painfully extroverted; I still couldn’t quite figure out what my school counselor did aside from direct us towards college applications; and…med school? I mean, interesting, but no thanks. Strangely, I look at those same suggestions now as conveniently interwoven with my career. All those vocations are about guiding fellow humans to become their best selves: more complete, more capable, and more vigorous in body, mind and spirit. These are the people in our lives who help us get what we want and need out of ourselves. As Cross Country and Track and Field Coach, I find I’ve become all these things and more.

As a student at Vassar in the ’90s, I still hadn’t much clue where I was heading in terms of a career, but one thing was certainly true: Running cross country and track and field was as essential to my liberal arts education as any course I took. While I studied anthropology and followed my intellectual passions eagerly (though not without the occasional smear of collegiate procrastination), I also devoted myself to the relentless perfection of my craft: racing. I ran 100-mile weeks and relished joyful and strenuous practice sessions with teammates, many of whom remain dear friends 20 years later. I had lots of great races, laughters, highs, lows, failures, injuries, frustrations and redemptive efforts. Running helped me understand myself and make sense of the world. I discovered how to be brave, to cultivate relentlessness, to persevere, to foster and inspire discipline and to find freedom within that discipline. Most of all, I realized how all of this is constantly shifting, and how it has to be practiced and learned again and again to stay relevant.

It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that coaching could be my vocation, and I shifted my trajectory among several potential paths after college. Eventually I realized that what seemed the most meaningful to me was to give back to the sport that has given me so much. I went to graduate school for sport performance, and took every coaching opportunity I could get. When the opportunity to return to my alma mater surfaced several years later, I couldn’t refuse.

Often I’ll let recruits know—“I didn’t get into coaching because I like losing.” The thrill of victory and the joy of seeing students surpass their goals and dreams is certainly a cornerstone of why I coach. There is the obvious win of crossing the line first or leaping higher or throwing farther than the competition. That is a particularly sweet taste, for the sport can be brutally numeric. We know exactly where we stand against not only our competitors of the day, but also how we stack up against anyone who has run that distance, that course or competed in that field event across space and throughout time. We also know how we stack up against our own past performances as we compete with ourselves to improve. There are a lot of layers to winning in cross country and track and field. Indeed, all the way through the result sheet, you can find wins and losses for each student-athlete, both in watching how they compete, and even more in knowing what it takes to get them to the start of the event. Of course the winning is fun, but it is thedrive too do our best, to improve, to succeed and in many ways struggle that creates a journey that inspires meaningful growth.

No student-athlete can be reduced to isolated parts: the student, the athlete, the friend, the daughter or son, or the myriad of other identities and experiences too numerous to name. In programming training, coaches may try to streamline our curriculum to maximize a facet of performance, but neglecting the whole won’t get us far. Humans are social creatures, and our relationships and identities are a part of our performing selves as well. In coaching a team to achieve, or any particular student to perform, what I am really doing is fostering an environment for individual, as well as collective, growth. I am providing a space to explore and expand the physical and emotional side of our human potential. It requires dreaming and aspiring to achieve greatness. It demands fortitude, resilience and the knowledge that failure is an important part of growing and learning. It takes integrity to see it through, because while training and competing with friends is fun, growing often hurts.

So why do I coach? I coach for the exaltation of helping students achieve their goals and dreams. I coach to shepherd students through the highs and the lows, to help them discover their strength and potential as they figure out how to get what they want. I coach in gratitude for the power of sport as a vehicle of self-expression and discovery, and to cultivate an environment that facilitates that experience for others. I coach to win—and there are a lot of facets to that winning.

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