To all the sports I’ve done before: Cross country

How I learned to enjoy sports without pressure

Sophia Chen, Copy Editor

With all the teams sprawled behind the start line, runners wait in anticipation for the ear-shattering pistol that would start the race –– their hearts pound and a million thoughts rush through their heads. When the defining shot reverberates through the group of competitors, a burst of adrenaline rushes through their veins as the race commences.

Or at least that’s what I think happens to most people.

Starting cross country my junior year put me in the unique position of starting something new, free of any expectations. I had swam up until sophomore year, attending swim lessons and practices for as long as I could remember. I started playing basketball in sixth grade with my lack of experience hanging over my head as I played my first team sport. I was on the volleyball team for a season in eighth grade, though mostly on the bench, after trying out for three years and finally making the team. Running was a breath of fresh air — all I needed to do was lace up my running shoes, step outside and put one foot in front of the other.

This is just going to be conditioning for the basketball season right? Or in case they cancel the basketball season altogether because of COVID restrictions, I can do at least one sport. I’m just doing this to stay in shape, and to break up the monotony of daily Zoom class.

That season was refreshing: I went to practice, ran at meets and despite not being the fastest of all runners, I didn’t get beat up over it. I enjoyed being outside and witnessing the crisp winter air usher in the dewy scent of spring. I enjoyed passing by numerous dogs and squirrels on our runs and saying “Good afternoon” to the occasional person I encountered. I enjoyed being on a team with people again, people that I can chat and interact with in-person.

But more than that, this was one of the few activities where I didn’t feel the need to be a perfectionist. I wouldn’t say I was incredibly confident in my running ability, but I definitely wasn’t insecure about it. While not being stressed out should be a good thing, the fact that I wasn’t always nagged in the back of my mind — which ironically enough, was stressing me out.

If I’m never dissatisfied with my performance, doesn’t that mean I don’t want to improve? And if I don’t want to improve, doesn’t that mean I don’t want to try, that I don’t care enough to try? And if I’m not trying, can I even be working hard? Can I be dedicated to something without working hard?

But what keeps coming back to me over and over again is the amount of time I’ve put into cross country. There has to be a reason why I woke up at 6 a.m. six days a week throughout the entire summer to run while going to basketball open gyms simultaneously. There has to be a reason why I think running up strenuous hiking trails is fun. There has to be a reason why I still pour every ounce of my strength into this sport with my lungs and legs on fire when the finish line is in sight.

In a lot of aspects of my life, I’m driven by the stress of my performance and the guilt I’d experience if I didn’t try my best or give it my all. While I definitely care about trying my best, I’ve come to realize that working hard doesn’t always have to be associated with negative stress and guilt. I can simply enjoy something and work hard, period. I don’t need to wait for the other shoe to drop.

And since this year I was able to run with a lot more people who run at a similar pace, I discovered that I don’t have to race just for myself — I can race for others. Even when I yelled “Seriously?” when a teammate passed me at the very end of a three-mile race and beat me by 0.6 seconds, I couldn’t stop smiling because my presence and possibly a light-hearted insult could have been the push she needed to get that time. It’s moments like those, racing with my teammates nearby and watching them succeed that proves to me I really did do something when I joined the team. Ultimately, work ethic and dedication can come from a lot of places, but negative pressure doesn’t have to be one of them.

When I heard that pistol fire for the very last time at my final meet, my heart might not have been pounding as loudly as my teammates’. But I smiled, knowing that that doesn’t make me any less dedicated to this sport I love.