An Open Letter To Kansas Athletes In The Class of 2020


On March 17, 2020, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly closed all school facilities in the state and banned face-to-face education for the remainder of the school year in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Today, KSHSAA made the announcement we were all expecting, but was still devastating news: All 2020 spring sports have been canceled.

There are no two ways about it, and I won't sugarcoat it - this is a massive loss for you. You've not only lost your final high school season, most, if not all, of you have probably also lost your last high school prom, your graduation, and seeing your friends every day at school. 

It is disorienting for us adults. We can only try to imagine what it must be like for you.

I said I wasn't going to sugarcoat this, and I'm not. But there are some things I'd like you to think about.

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One of the things I hope this sport has taught you is the importance of only focusing on what you can control. You've had bad weather before meets and heard your coaches say countless times, "It's windy/raining/cold/snowing/hot for everybody. So what are you going to do about it? Figure out how to deal with it and go warm up." 

You can't control the fact that a freak pandemic of a virus nobody had heard of until a few months ago forced the closing of the schools, the cancellation of your season, and the loss of events that are normally the highlight of your senior year, like prom and graduation. 

So, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to respond?

In a frame hanging on my wall, I still have the letter that my high school coach wrote me after a particularly difficult cross country race my junior year. This was written nearly 40 years ago, but it still resonates enough now, even after a DI college athletic career and my non-athletic professional career, that it's in a frame hanging on my wall. It says, in part:

"It seems to me that the best athletes are those who don't just cope with pressure but those who seek it, enjoy it, and even thrive on it. Diamonds are not found in sedimentary rock; they're found where conditions of extreme heat and pressure have created them. Just as great races or times or runners don't develop in non-pressure races; they're developed under conditions of pressure...[w]ill you let it crush you...or will you let it mold you?"

You can't control what happened, but you are in complete control of how you respond to it after you take a day or two to grieve. And I want you to grieve. You need to grieve. You've had a huge loss. Don't let anybody make you feel like you shouldn't grieve. You've lost some very valuable things. But as I explained here a little over a year ago, there's a huge difference between something being valuable, and something being important. But you only get a day or two to grieve. Then it's time to start figuring out how you're going to respond. Will you let this crush you, or will you let this mold you?

As hard as it may be, and even if you don't agree with what is being done or why it is being done, I urge you to focus on the need to protect the community at large, including those highly vulnerable members. At some point, you've all probably been called upon to "take one for the team" and you did whatever it was to help the team, even if it was difficult or unpleasant. As unfair and devastating as this seems, I ask that you at least consider the notion that this is another, more critical, time that you've had to "take one for the team." We are all called upon to make sacrifices for various teams in our lives, be that team our family, our co-workers or employers, or the community at large. This is just one more way that difficulties in sports can help prepare you for difficulties in life. It's one more reason why sports are so valuable. It's also one more reason this so crushingly disappointing.

For most of you, this was truly your last season and you won't be not competing in college. Some of you will be continuing on in college. I'll address both groups separately in a moment but first, I have a favor to ask, regardless of which group you're in.

Don't let this be the end.

Don't let this be the end of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Don't let this be the end of continuing to improve, of challenging yourself, of setting goals that inspire you to become something more than you are right now.

Don't let this be the end of finding friends who support you, who challenge you, who hold you accountable, who inspire you, and who make you laugh.

Don't let this be the end of finding joy in sports.

Don't let this be the end of going to track meets or being a fan of the sport.

Don't let this be the end. Let it be the beginning of the next phase.

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If 2020 Was Your Final Season (Not Competing in College)

No doubt most of you had goals and were looking forward to going out with a bang or, at a minimum, making memories with your teammates one more time. Now, that's gone. Again, not going to sugarcoat how lousy that is. So, what're you going to do about?

First, realize that every single competitive athletic career ends or transitions at some point. Yours unexpectedly ended a few months early and in a way that leaves a big hole in your heart. I get it. 

But ask yourself this question: What were you going to do after this season was over if it had ended normally? Maybe you were so focused on this season that you really hadn't thought about it. Well, start thinking. The end of this season - and high school - was coming, it just got here early. Start looking for ways to transition to the next phase, whatever that is going to be. What are other sports you can pursue? What about road races or soccer or biking or triathlons or rock climbing or mountain climbing? What about inter murals in college? Find the next goal, whatever it is, and go after it. Find the next group of like-minded goofballs people who challenge you and make you laugh and get to work with them chasing those goals. 

Find someplace positive, healthy, and productive to exorcize the frustration you feel about what you've lost. You'll never be able to replace what you've lost, but maybe you can find a substitute for it. You know what they say about one door closing and another door opening. Find the door that you can open. Kick it down if you have to.

Take a minute and write down your best memories from high school track and be grateful you had those moments. You know what COVID-19 can't take away from you? Those memories. Cherish them. Retell the stories, including the ones your coach doesn't know about (or at least you think they don't know about).

I have one more radical suggestion and that's to pay it forward. Think about volunteering or becoming an official or offering to help out coaching or managing someplace like a middle school or club team. Get certified as a starter or official. Become a member of USATF. Get involved in the sport in some other capacity. I'll let you in on a little secret. We coaches (and officials) are generally people who loved the sport so much we couldn't let go. We missed it. We wanted to stay long after our ability to compete in our prime was gone. We love hanging out at meets and helping you find the same joy we found in the sport. Maybe, just maybe, being involved in some other capacity might help fill a little of that hole in your heart you're feeling right now. 

If you don't want it to be over, don't let it be. Find another role. Find another way. This sport gave you the tools to rise to challenges and to overcome obstacles. Use those tools. You earned them. They're yours.

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If You're Competing in College

You also no doubt had some goals this season, probably some big ones. Maybe it was finally breaking that barrier or that record you'd been chasing. Maybe it was winning that elusive State title, or adding another one. You probably saw this season as the launching pad for your collegiate career, closing one chapter and starting the next. The stress and hassle of recruiting was finally over, you'd settled on your school and it was time to close this chapter out by checking off those final high school goals. Now, they aren't going to happen.

So, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to choose to respond?

A lot of what I wrote for those not going on to college applies to you as well, but you already know what your next phase is going to be. It just got here sooner, so use that.

Check with your high school coach first, but think about contacting your future college coach, tell them that you're not going to have a final high school season, and ask if you can start getting ready for college right now. This is especially true if you'll be running cross country. I know it's hard to be motivated when all the goals that got you out the door or to the gym this winter are gone, but there's something you should know. Some of the biggest breakthroughs athletes have come from a prolonged, solid block of training with little or no competition. I call it "cocooning." Go in to the cocoon now and emerge from it later transformed. Take advantage of this time to do the kind of long, slow training buildup that doesn't produce much now but can produce fantastic results and monster breakthroughs later.

You know your future in the sport so, after you grieve a day or two, use that to look forward rather than dwell on what you've lost. Be grateful that you're privileged to get to do something that only 2%-7% of high school track and field athletes will experience: have a college track and field career. Don't lose sight of what a remarkable privilege that is.

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Finally, one last thing for all of you: THANK YOU. Thank you for all of the thrills, laughter, goosebumps and tears you've provided the last four years. Thank you for all of the memories you gave us. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. It's been a great, wild ride. You didn't deserve to have it end this way, but this sport has taught you how to respond to adversity and I have no doubt that you will.

Thanks, and good luck.