Thursday, March 30, 2017

Confessions of a Girls Coach

I am not a woman. I have never been a girl.

But I am a coach of girls teams.

I have coached girls for as long as I have coached. My first coaching gig was tennis where I coached both girls and boys. After leaving tennis, I became a high school girls soccer coach.

Well, technically, I'm the girls' assistant coach, but the head coach is also the basketball coach and the seasons overlap so we don't get to have her with us until after our first quarter of the season is already passed. Because of this, we function more like co-head coaches with me focusing on soccer skills and tactics and her focusing on conditioning and the mental aspects of being an athlete.

I had originally signed up to coach soccer to make sure some of my male students who had been pushing for a team got a coach who took both them and the sport seriously, but I was actually okay with being assigned to the girls. One of our other teachers had been a soccer coach who founded a program at his previous school. Since the boys who were going to be on our team had actually been playing competitively on teams in the adult league organized by our local Catholic church for years, I didn't feel comfortable coaching a team where the players knew more than me.

The girls were different. Whereas the boys' team was entirely Hispanic except for one, my girls were more diverse. A third of the team was Hispanic. We had a team-building thing in our first year where we asked our girls why they were playing. Many of these girls talked about they'd always wanted to play but they were never allowed. They had watched their brothers and dads play and were excited to get the chance to have their own team. Talk about motivation to be a good coach. Another third were athletes who'd never played soccer, but were coming from softball and basketball to play their second sport. The final third had never played any organized sport. They just thought soccer sounded fun. Some coaches would see this is a disaster waiting to happen. I saw it as an opportunity. This lack of experience would allow me to read, watch, and research my way to keeping my soccer coaching skills ahead of my team's playing ability.

And it worked. A lot of teams in our area started teams the same year we did. We beat them all in our first season. We even beat a team with an actual history, and we had a chance of making the playoffs until our star scorer, a softball player who had never played before, was injured halfway through the season. Our second season has been even better. We have a good chance of ending the season with our first winning record and making the playoffs. We've done well as a team.

But I have noticed something I didn't notice about girls' sports in my work with tennis and cross country. Coaches and referees treat our girls differently than they treat our boys. There are no officials in those sports in high school and there's never any legal contact, but soccer is different.

We don't have a youth program in our county and none of our players have more than one year of experience. We can't rely on crisp passing, smart runs, and perfect positioning to win games. We work on those skills and we're usually better at those things than the teams we beat, but we have to hustle. We have to be aggressive, and I don't mean we play dirty. Soccer is actually a contact sport. You're not allowed to pull, trip, or push an opposing player, but if you're both going for the same ball, you are allowed to use shoulder-to-shoulder contact to keep your opponent from getting the ball. We coach our girls to be persistent and aggressive defenders without fouling. It's the same way the boys play.

Coaching girls this way is natural for me. The women in my family tend to be confident and bold, or at least give off the outward appearance of being that way. My sister was an aggressive and competitive athlete and the other members of my family encouraged those traits in her. I'm pretty sure that part of her personality was what my dad loved most about her. Coaching my girls to play the way my sister would have played is natural to me. It's a challenge, especially since many of these girls have been encouraged to be the opposite and discouraged from taking risks their whole lives. Well, except the softball and basketball players. Those girls are used to being athletes even when they aren't used to be soccer players. The girls seem to respect our head coach and me, though, and we've gradually developed them into a team more willing to take risks and unafraid to be aggressive on the field.

Except that frequently when they play the way we ask them to play, the refs caution our girls to stop being so aggressive, especially when they see an opposing attacker starting to get frustrated by our girls keeping them from being able to pass or shoot easily. I have seen refs caution one of our girls for playing too aggressively when she hadn't even touched the other player. I've never seen them do the same to one of our boys unless the boys actually committed a foul.

Even worse, I often get stories after the game where refs were making flirtatious comments or commenting on the girls' appearance during the game. DURING THE GAME. This isn't just from the college kids we get as refs sometimes, but from middle aged men older than me.

This frustrates me, especially that it doesn't seem to seem weird to the girls. I want to make my team a place where these girls learn that they can still be women even if they're willing to stand up for themselves and fight for something, that they don't lose their femininity just because they want to be an athlete. It hurts when I see parents who clearly don't take what their daughters do as seriously as what their sons are doing athletically.

But I can let my girls know that I take them seriously as athletes, that I take pride in their successes, that I love seeing them be tough on the field, that even if their parents aren't in the stands that my parents are there (and they usually leave before the boys finish their game after ours).

I'd love to be one of those guys who, because he doesn't notice it in his own life, dismisses women who talk about the problems they face in a society that is less sexist than it was in my grandparents' time, but is still not entirely fair to them. Because I care about these girls (and my sister and my wife, and my daughter), I can't dismiss it. I think it's important that more of us stop dismissing it.

And in the grander scheme of things, sports don't even matter. I like to think that some of the things we teach our girls about not being afraid to make a mistake, not being afraid to ask for what you want, not being afraid to be competitive will transfer to their future lives. I don't know if it will, but when a girl works up the courage to ask me about playing time, I consciously work to explain to her what I need to see from her in order for her to get that shot. She won't always get that response in life, but maybe my treating her with respect and giving her an explanation and a plan to get what she wants may make her a little less hesitant to ask in the future when the consequences of her asking are much more important than just a place on a soccer field.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

What If College Football Had Promotion and Relegation?

If you follow sports outside of the United State (or even American soccer where this is a constant low-level debate), you know about promotion and relegation. Many European professional leagues have a system where the best teams in a pro league get advanced to a higher league and the worst teams get demoted. This ensures that the best teams play each other and gives the fans a more balanced league, especially with the lack of the salary caps that keep the teams in American sports closer together.

The problem is that American professional sports work in a very different manner than European sports. In Europe, most teams are independent of the leagues in which they play. In the US, almost all professional teams are actually franchises of the league. Convincing owners who paid hundreds of millions of dollars to bring in a change that would potentially drop their property out of the top league will be impossible. There's a chance that the lower professional and amateur soccer leagues in the US may eventually band together to create a pro/rel system in US soccer, but it's likely that MLS will remain in the American format above all of that even if it comes to pass. After all, the players go where the money is and the money will stay where the safety is. Pro/rel is inherently risky, meaning owners with deeper pockets will just skip straight to the guarantee of MLS.

College football is entirely different. The teams exist outside of the league. Alabama is perfectly free to leave NCAA and join NAIA, USCAA, or even band together with other schools to form their own league. The NCAA dominates this area, though, and it is already set up into tiers. It would be really simple to make a few changes and introduce promotion and relegation to college football. The FCS (second tier of college football) playoffs would decide which teams would replace the worst four or eight FBS (top tier) teams. Same thing for Division II to the FCS and the Division III to Division II.

There are problems, though. Currently, there are way too many teams in every level to make this fair. To make matters worse, there are few rules about scheduling to ensure a fair schedule by which to compare teams. Going undefeated in the American Conference (previously the Big East) when all of your nonconference games were basically the easiest teams you could find is not even as impressive as going 9-3 in SEC or Pac-12.

Even the power conferences like the SEC and Pac-10 have their share of teams that are consistently crap and are there really only to make the conference look better academically (Vanderbilt and Duke) or because of their basketball prowess (Kentucky and Duke). With pro/rel, this problem is minimized.

The Top Tier

Here's how I say we fix that problem. Let's start at the top. The top tier will be a coast-to-coast conference of the best 14 teams in the nation at the end of the previous season. Every team would play every other team in that conference one time to make a 13-game schedule with no cupcakes. Every week you'd have seven games with prime-time quality match ups. There's no room for cupcakes and because of this, the NCAA can charge a ton for the TV rights to this league. Because of the increased costs for travel, these proceeds would help offset those costs for these teams.

Here would be the 2015 National Premier Conference:
  • Ohio State
  • Oregon
  • TCU
  • Alabama
  • Michigan State
  • Florida State
  • Baylor
  • Georgia Tech
  • Georgia
  • UCLA
  • Mississippi State
  • Arizona State
  • Wisconsin
  • Mizzou
This is a very diverse conference. You have everything from the Pacific Northwest, to southern California to Florida to the Great Lakes. Sorry, but the Northeast kind of sucks at football.

The Second Tier

The teams in the second tier would be the majority of teams currently in the power 5 conferences, at least for the first year. Teams would be organized based on geography and density of schools into five conferences. The Southeast Conference (SEC) would be comprised of schools in the southeast, mostly the current SEC and southern ACC schools. The Northeast Conference (NEC) would be the northern ACC teams, some of the American Conference, and the easternmost Big Ten teams. The Northern Midwestern Conference (NMWC) would be the bulk of the Big Ten and the northernmost Big 12. The Southern Midwestern Conference would be the bulk of the Big Twelve, western SEC schools, and easternmost Pac 12 schools. The Western Conference (WC) would be the largest in square miles, but would basically be the current Pac 12 and Boise State.

All current mid-major conference (teams in the BCS that never got automatic bids to the BCS bowls) would be excluded unless they made the final top 25 ranking in the AP Poll. Those teams would form the pool that the third tier would pull from.

This is what your 2015 NCAA Second Tier would look like:


  • Florida
  • Tennessee
  • South Carolina
  • Kentucky
  • Vanderbilt
  • Ole Miss
  • Auburn
  • LSU
  • Clemson
  • Miami
  • UCF
  • Memphis
  • Georgia Southern
  • Appalachian State
  • Boston College
  • Syracuse
  • Pittsburgh
  • Virginia Tech
  • Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Rutgers
  • Penn State
  • NC State
  • Wake Forest
  • Duke
  • North Carolina
  • West Virginia
  • Navy


  • Louisville
  • Cincinnati
  • Michigan
  • Indiana
  • Nebraska
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Northwestern
  • Purdue
  • Notre Dame
  • Bowling Green
  • North Dakota State
  • Marshall

  • Arkansas
  • Texas A&M
  • Kansas State
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma State
  • Texas Tech
  • Kansas
  • Iowa State
  • Texas State
  • Louisiana Lafayette
  • Arkansas State
  • Louisiana Tech
  • BYU
  • Boise State
  • Stanford
  • Washington
  • Cal
  • Oregon State
  • Washington State
  • Arizona
  • USC
  • Utah
  • Colorado
  • Colorado State
  • Utah State
  • Air Force
Teams in these conferences would only play games within their conferences until bowl season when the teams at the top would play each other for the right of promotion. The top teams in each conference would play a mini tournament to decide which four teams get promoted to the NPC and which remain in their regional conference. Conferences would be reshuffled slightly each year to keep them balanced in number and as small, geographically, as possible.

A few notes on this list: The easiest conference to make was the SEC. The Southeast is the heart and soul of college football. While the NFL is the most popular sports league in the country, people in the south are often more passionate about their favorite college team than they are about the nearest NFL team. While the Falcons have been usually good in recent years, as much as it pains me to admit this as a Georgia Tech fan, UGA football is the most popular sports team in the state. People in Alabama barely even know what the NFL is compared to the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn. I had to drag in a few mid-major teams to fill out the new SEC, but the teams I added are solid teams with histories of exceptional achievement. Georgia Southern came into the FBS last year and won their conference in the first year. While still in the FCS, Southern scored more points against the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide than any other team that year and that included the combined total for the ranked LSU team that played them twice that season. Last year they lost by less than a touchdown to both Georgia Tech and NC State. In 2013, they beat Florida. Appalachian State didn't have quite the successful entrance to FBS, but they were still good and have a history of being the most-likely regular-season loss for Georgia Southern.

The NMWC was perhaps the most difficult conference to fill. Despite having the 2014 national champion and a college football history only matched by Texas and the SEC, it turned out to be not as deep of a region than either the Southeast or south central. The worst teams in this conference are among some of the most likely to be relegated. This conference is also the only one to pull a team out of the current third second tier in the NCAA. North Dakota State is the only FCS team on this list, but they may be one of the teams least likely to be relegated. NDSU dominates the FCS and has won the last four national championships at that level. The also have an 8-0 record against teams already in this second tier since 2010.

Each level below the second tier would be organized in a similar way.


The most likely teams to be relegated from the top tier in this hypothetical 2015 would be Arizona State, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, and Georgia. Arizona State has been inconsistent in recent years  and there's no reason to suspect they're going to suddenly be consistently good against the best competition. Wisconsin rode a weak conference (outside of Ohio State) to their end-of-the-season ranking, and Mississippi state was fading hard at the end of last year and wasn't supposed to be good to start with. They were 0-2 against teams that made the NPC. I added UGA to this list partly because I hate Georgia (Go Tech!), but also because even Georgia fans are worried about their quarterback situation this season.

The most likely teams to be promoted would be Clemson, Stanford, Marshall, and Louisville. Why? Clemson has always been the team that you were afraid to meet because of their talent, but who never quite could keep up with the best teams. With the best teams all in the NPC, they have a very good chance of making the jump. Boise State, Marshall, and Louisville are all good teams that will be playing in the weaker conferences. The West and North Midwest are both conferences that are in areas without a lot of depth. Take out the top couple of teams and it's suddenly a vastly easier conference to win. Stanford already was a competitor on a regular basis in the Pac 10.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

You Ever Heard of this New Sport Basketball?

Photo by: Sebastiano Pitruzzello, Flickr Creative Commons

Yes, it has been a while. I've been busy. I'm currently at least five episodes behind on every TV show I follow except the Daily Show, and that only because I watch it while I get ready in the morning. I'm still preparing for the Cheaha 50k next month, although my mileage is lower than I'd like. The time issue is not getting better anytime soon either. Tennis season just started up so my work day is 2 hours longer four days a week until the end of March, and now I'm coaching youth league soccer. I spent most of my free time last night researching how to do basic things like dribble and pass the ball since it's the only sport I watch, but have never played. I had a couple of "ohhhh, so that's how you do that" moments last night on something as simple as the most basic dribbling techniques.

Speaking of sports I never really played, I started watching a little basketball again this year. I usually follow some of the early rounds of March Madness and there were a couple of seasons when I gave the Atlanta Hawks a chance to win me over for the NBA, but it never took, possibly because the Atlanta Hawks were the most Atlanta of Atlanta sports teams. (Not a sports fan? Our teams are notoriously mediocre and weakly supported by locals.) I didn't even watch a game last season as the Hawks only made the playoffs because the East was so bad that even a team that won barely 40 percent of their games got in. Sure, this made me a fairweather fan, but I tried. Basketball just wasn't that fun to watch.

I didn't have any plans on watching this year, either. Sure, I'd check in on their record, much in the same way I follow the Braves' record each summer, but I wasn't going to waste any time on watching them. Basketball and baseball were just going to be sports that didn't vibrate at the right frequency to resonate with me. That's ok.

Then the Hawks started winning.

And my Twitter feed started filling up with names like Korver, Millsap, and Budenholzer and phrases like "that ball movement, though."

And then they kept winning.

So I gave them a chance. In case you don't know, Kyle Korver is one of the greatest shooters in the history of the NBA and that may not even be hyperbole. They guy is currently hitting 53 percent of the threes. That leads the league by a wide margin. (Second place is only 46 percent.) It is not uncommon to see the Hawks on a breakaway pass from the paint back to Korver for a 3-pointer. That is not normal. At all.

Paul Millsap is good but there's a chance you watch basketball and don't even know him. I'll let this quote from a recent Grantland article sum him up:
Wins himself three different honors: “Best Free-Agent Bargain of the 2010s” (Atlanta stole him for $19 million over two years, which seemed utterly insane even at the time); “Best Secretly Successful Player” (for career win shares of active NBA players, Millsap is one of only five under-30 guys in the top 50); “Best Table Test Guy” (hold this thought) and “Best Night-To-Night JumboTron Surprise” (he never jumps out if you’re watching him in person, then you look up with nine minutes left and say, “Wait, Millsap has 18 and 8 right now?”).
Mike Budenholzer is the coach. He was hired from the staff of Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich is beloved by the geekier basketball fans for his genius as a coach. It seems Budenholzer paid attention during his time in Texas. The Hawks are running a very similar game. They spread the ball around, put a lot of people on the court over the course of the game, and get everyone to play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. There are no ball hogs. Just guys doing what they do well and then helping the other guys do what they do. Then, because everyone seems to be on the bench for half of the game, the well-rested Hawks hustle to strangle the other team on defense. In their last game, which actually was an off night by this season's standards, four players ended with double digit points. It's common to see between five and eight guys in double digits, though.

Keep in mind that only five guys can be on the court at a time in basketball.

I didn't even mention guys like Al Horford and Jeff Teague, guys who've actually been on the team for a while now and were beloved by fans or recognized as great talents long before this season.

Oh, and they're riding a 16-game winning streak at the moment. And they're first place in the East. And they've recently beaten every good team in the dominant West except for Golden State, who they'll finally play on Feb. 6. And, yes, I'm being a bandwagon fan here, but when I've watched (and I've watched all or parts of most of the last month's games) basketball is suddenly fun. Instead of the usual repetition of get the ball to one of the one or two good guys on the team and watch him drive to the basket off a pick and roll followed by a trot to the other end of the court that seems to typify pro basketball, you've got a team that sends the ball all over the court on offense, and you never know who is going to take the shot, followed by full court defense even when they're up 10 points in the third period. They're complex. They're unpredictable. They're good.

I just hope it's not a fluke. This is Atlanta, after all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

That Six Gap Thing

I just realized I never followed up about Six Gap. It wasn't because the experience was so traumatic for me that I avoided it. I simply forgot to pull up the blog and post. The short version of the story is that I finished. I didn't even hit a point where I felt even close to wanting to quit. I made sure to eat more and to drink more this year and I probably took longer breaks between climbs than I really needed. I finished the ride feeling pretty great and even managed to get done before the rain hit. Next year, assuming I do it again, which I probably will, my goal will be to finish faster, not just to finish.

As for the actual ride, let's start with the first climb of the ride's six serious climbs. The climb up to Neel's Gap isn't a big deal, at least not compared to most of the others. It's mostly uphill, except for a short downhill in the middle, for 6.6 miles with an average grade of 4% according to Strava. There are moments when the grade gets up to 8% or so, but this is the range where I'm fairly comfortable. Remembering last year's massive flameout after the fourth climb, I kept my effort easy and still put in a nearly identical performance on this climb as I did last year when I may have gone out too hard. I averaged just over 9 mph for the 6.6 miles.

The fact that I felt like I was taking it easy while going about the same speed is probably largely due to the fact that I've been riding a lot more this late summer and early fall than I did last year. Last year, I started training for a marathon in August, running 5 days a week and only got in one ride a week when I rode at all. This year I was putting in about 4 rides a week and repeating every decent hill I could find. So, despite the fact I was about 8-10 pounds heavier this year than I was at last year's ride, I was a stronger rider, which we'll see evidence of later.

The next climb is Jack's Gap. This climb is actually harder than Neel's despite averaging the same grade and being shorter. The serious climbing is only 4.1 miles, but it's not a steady climb. You climb a section of nearly 10%, then you go down a little, you hit a sudden steep short burst and hit a section that is almost flat and then you hit the final mile and a half where you're constantly between 6 and 9%. Despite this, I actually finished this climb 11 minutes faster than last year, and like I said, I was trying to keep things easy in the beginning this year. This climb actually ends at the beginning of the road that takes you to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia.

Unicoi Gap was actually a little slower, but this isn't a major climb. It averages 6% instead of the 4% of the first two, but it's only 2.3 miles and it's very steady. I'm good at steady. If I can lock into one gear and one cadence and just go, I do pretty well. This is that sort of climb. Fairly uneventful climb.

Hogpen Gap is my nemesis. This is where I broke last year and what caused me to quit, 14 miles after the top of the climb. Why did I manage 14 miles after the climb? Because the next 7 are all downhill so I didn't have to pedal and then it's actually a fairly easy 7 more to the rest stop. Hogpen is actually more than 7 miles from the start of the climb to the top, but none of the Strava segments cover the whole climb and the timed portion of the climb is only 6.2, but by the time you hit the timing mat, you've already been mostly going up (aside from a couple of short descents) for more than a mile. In that 7 miles, you climb around 2,000 feet in elevation and you climb all but 500 feet of it in 4 miles. If you clicked the link for this climb, you'll notice that the elevation profile looks flatter than the previous three, but if you hover over the chart, you'll notice the numbers are all much larger. The timed segment, which includes a short descent, averages 5%, but hits sections of steeper than 15%. If you look at just the steady climb for the last 4 miles, it's averages 7% with a max of around 16%. Sure, this doesn't sound much worse than the previous climbs, but when you start this climb you already have more than 60 miles in your legs and it's more than 2 miles longer than any other climb. You don't hit the steepest sections until you've been climbing for miles. When you get to those sections, you're putting all the power you can into your easiest gear and still barely getting the wheels to turn. I started passing people while only going 4 miles and hour. That's not normal.

This is where my story changes from last year. First, I finished that last 4 miles of Hogpen 7 minutes faster and unlike last year never had to get off the bike and hike. I was able to ride the entire climb and averaged a mile per hour better for the climb. I got to the top and I was tired, but not spent. I took a 15-minute break and got ready to descend.

I bought a knock-off version of a Go Pro camera called a Nabi Square off of this year for $50 and I brought it along for this ride to video some of the descents. I had a waterproof, shock resistant case that I kept it in. As I got on the bike to start the long, fast, winding descent from Hogpen, I started the video and went.

Now, one of the dichotomies of Hogpen is that the road going up is smooth and freshly paved. That's good because rough pavement would make those steeper sections nearly unrideable, but the descent is much worse. It's not necessarily dangerous (or any more dangerous than would be reasonable for a steep descent where only your brakes are keeping you from hitting 60 mph), but it's rough. Bouncy. I'd gotten a quarter mile into my descent when I heard something clattering on the road behind me and I looked down to see I was missing my camera. I was going around 44 mph, but luckily, there was a parking lot just ahead, so I slowed, pulled over and went looking for my camera. First, I found the detachable viewfinder on the shoulder. Destroyed. Then I found the battery a few yards uphill. Not destroyed, but not in the camera. A good 15 yards further up the hill in the grass I found the camera itself. Surprisingly, the battery cover was lying next to it and the only damage to this part was scratches on the corners, but the lense and body were still fine. I put the battery back in, closed it up, and it seemed like it could still be working (although without the viewfinder I didn't really have proof). As I gave up looking for the case and turned around I saw the protective case lying in the middle of the road. I picked it up and noticed it had shattered the hinges. Unrepairable. I decided to reattach the camera to the mount without the case this time and video the rest of the descent and discovered the problem. The protective case had a faulty connector to the mount. My camera screwed in tightly to the mount while I never could get the case to feel secure. The camera never did fall off and unlike with the case, the screw holding it on never loosened. The resulting video is what starts off this post. Still a little sad it didn't save the video of the actual fall. That would have been neat to see.

My descent of Hogpen was actually a little slower this year. This wasn't because of caution, but because of people in the way. Every time I got to a really steep descent and could have really opened it up, I caught more cautious or lighter descenders who didn't' give me a safe line to pass for a while. This was not their fault. The road  constantly winds around the mountain and at those speeds you don't want to take the turn on the edge, you want to use the whole lane. Finding a straightaway long enough for me to pass safely was difficult, so I scrubbed a lot of rubber off my break pads during this descent.

I also realized just how tired I was after Hogpen last year. The section of the road that convinced me I was too tired to continue last year was, I thought, a flat section where it felt like I was working too hard to just be going 14 mph. When I got to this part this year I realized it's actually a visible, but easy, climb. It's not even a true false flat. It looks like you're going up, albeit slowly. It's at the end of this very gradual climb where you hit the aid station where I quit last year. I didn't really want to stop there this year because of bad juju, but I could really use some caffeine, so I stopped at a gas station a couple of miles before the aid station, drank a Coke, and then cruised by the aid station and immediately made the right turn onto the Wolfpen Gap climb.

Wolfpen is the second of the two timed climbs and it's name is incomprehensible to me. Cowpen Gap makes sense. There was probably once a pen full of cows up there. Hogpen, the same thing, but what kind of hillbilly farmer keeps wolves in a pen? It boggles the mind.

Anyway, Wolfpen is actually just as hard as Hogpen, for the exact same reasons (with the addition of adding Hogpen to your legs), but it's shorter. Technically, you're climbing without respite for about 5.5 miles, but 2.5 of those miles are like 1-2% grade and don't really count. The real climb averages 7% and lasts for 3.1 miles. It's hard climbing and you hate yourself just as much for those three as you did for most of the 6.2 of Hogpen, but the knowledge that it's only half as long makes it more bearable. I made it to the top, took another short break. Ate something and found out that the last climb was just ahead and apparently really easy. I was going to finish after all.

Woody's Gap is only a hair over 2 miles long and averages 3%. When I hit the aid station at the top, I was actually surprised. What's better is that once you crest it, 90% of what remains is downhill, including a steady 6-mile descent following by 10 miles of rolling terrain that trends downward. Woody's descent is fast and really fun. I was in good enough shape this year that I was able to enjoy the descents, punch it up the short remaining hills and actually sprint for the finish line. The guilt about giving up last year has been redeemed.

I'm just going to make sure to go in lighter next year. Weight matters in the mountains.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Six Gap Again... Sort Of.

Photo: Tom Simpson, Flickr Creative Commons

Last year I attempted the Six Gap Century bike ride in the north Georgia Mountains. It didn't end well. The long, vicious climb up Hogpen Gap cracked me and not long after the descent, I loaded my bike into the trailer of a SAG wagon and hitched a ride to end my day. I was 74 miles in but I had 30 miles to go and wasn't sure I had what it took to finish the last climb of the day. This has bothered me ever since, although my recovery and subsequent wall-busting in this year's Cheaha 50k eased my wounded ego a touch. I'd had a similar moment of existential crisis at an aid station for that run, but unlike Six Gap where I packed it in, I eventually forced myself to keep going and I'm glad I did. It still didn't fully let me get over that Six Gap DNF.

To punish myself for the last year, I have refused to let myself wear the jersey for the event that I purchased last year. I plan on wearing it on my second attempt this year. If I quit this time, it goes in the trash (or more likely is given to another cyclist somewhere). There are several factors going into this year that suggest I should be able to keep that jersey. First, I've ridden my bike more this year than I ever have before. As of today, I have ridden 1,581.9 miles and my two best months were July and September (272 and 269 miles respectively). August was a bit of a rough month, but compared to 2013 when I only rode twice in the month before Six Gap (and only 5 times the previous month, I'm essentially at least twice as prepared. To give perspective, I've ridden nine times already this month and have gotten more consistent with my training the closer to the ride I've gotten. Last year I was really more focused on getting prepared for my second marathon than riding. My cardio was great, but for anyone who's ever put the bike aside to focus on running (or vice versa) has discovered, training for one does not prepare the legs for the other. There's also that guilt for quitting last year that I hope to be able to tap into when things get hard to keep me going. Finally, I have that memory of Cheaha where I felt just as bad, perhaps even more defeated, but ended up getting my head back and genuinely enjoying the second half of the race. Just because I feel done at this moment doesn't mean that feeling will last.

But there are a couple of catches. The distance was never the problem last year. I rode 100 miles in 2011 when I'd only been riding a bike for five months and had never attempted anything close. I was in much better shape last year when I attempted Six Gap. What killed me were the climbs. I simply have no way to truly train for them where I live. I have been trying to simulate something by repeating this one hill near my house where a quarter mile averages around 6% grade and gets up to 8 or 9% at times, but even repeating that doesn't match the miles of unrelenting climb I'll face multiple times Sunday.

There's also the fact that I'll face Hogpen Gap close to 10 pounds heavier this year. That may not sound like a lot, but weight really matters when the roads start to get steep. I had a rough summer in regards to self control and I came into August at my heaviest since early spring 2011. I've worked my weight down to the point where I've lost half of what I gained over the summer, but I'm not where I hoped to be. This worries me. I'll need to forget that it worries me on Sunday. Endurance events are always at least as much what's in your head as what's in your legs. Let's hope I can remember the Cheaha and not the jiggle.

Friday, September 05, 2014

An American Sports Primer for Sports Fans Not From The US

Photo: Clint Mickel, Flickr Creative Commons

I've been watching a lot of soccer the last couple of years. Before that, I watched a lot of rugby, back before the jerks at DirecTV snatched up the American rights to basically every rugby match to ever be televised, denying me and my Dish Network service the chance to watch. Paying attention to international sports has made me realize, perhaps more so than the average American, that Americans are really weird when it comes to sports. First, we don't even play your sports. Our interest in a sport is inversely proportionate to the sport's global popularity. We only care about our distantly related versions of the sports your emigrants gave us, and the only other places in the world where our sports are played are countries we pushed around a lot back in the 1800s and early 1900s. And Canada, which, surprisingly, is not actually one of the 50 states.

Let's assume you're some rando in Slovenia who, despite learning to read English fluently and living in a world dominated by American culture, doesn't actually know anything about American sports. The first thing you need to know is that we like football best and by football we mean that sport where we carry and throw the prolate spheroid ball with our hands and only use our feet to kick it sometimes, usually when our offense sucks and he have to give the ball back to the other team or settle for 3 points instead of 6. You may have been under the impression that baseball is the most American game, but unless you're in a time warp and reading this from 1949, baseball hasn't been the most popular sport in a long while. Major League Baseball brings in a billion dollars less per year than the NFL. After baseball, you have basketball and our fourth sport is hockey, although that's really more of a regional US and Canadian thing. This ranking also ignores that college football is also a huge business and no other minor league in any other sport matters, except for college basketball one month in the spring.

Photo: Harald Kobler, Flickr Creative Commons

Being a complete newb to sports in the States, this order of importance may surprise you. After all, lots of northern nations play hockey. It's in the Olympics. The same goes for basketball, which seems to be quickly turning into the world's second favorite sport after your football (which we call soccer). Baseball is played by a few countries, but mostly just countries in the Caribbean and Latin America because of proximity and our past political meddling, and then Japan and Korea because we fought wars there and then never completely left either country. Our favorite sport basically isn't played outside of the US and Canada (although the Canucks put their goal posts in the wrong place). In other words, the more likely a foreigner is to play our sport, the less we actually like it. For example, soccer, by far the world's favorite, is only a distant fourth in the US despite the continual improvement of the quality of play in the league and its popularity.

Oh, and there's also lacrosse, a sport that has been a part of American culture long before there were any Americans. American Indians from at least modern day Georgia to Canada played the direct ancestor of this sport. It's an awesome sport that sadly only rich suburbanites and private school kids play.

Photo: Tom Beary, Flickr Creative Commons

That's not the only weird thing about our sporting culture. Going back to our favorite sport, it's actually arguable that in one region of the country, the South, that an amateur minor league is actually more popular than the top pro league. This is partly due to the fact that the South was slower to leave behind traditional sporting values that held amateurism as pure and professionalism as crass and only for the poor. (Think about the origins of the Olympics and you'll remember what I'm talking about.) It's also partly due to the fact that our weather and environment kept population growth slow until the advent of cheap air conditioners (and the eradication of most mosquito-borne diseases) in the mid 1900s. We just didn't have the cities big enough and wealthy enough to host top pro teams until relatively recently, so college sports were our only option. The NFL is increasing in popularity, but it's rare to find a football fan in South whose opinions on the main college team are weaker than those for the regional pro team. Seriously, try to find a Falcon logo before you find fifteen bulldogs in Georgia. Ain't going to happen unless you're actually in Atlanta on a gameday Sunday.

Also, I realize that in most places, college sports aren't really a thing. I'm not entirely sure why, but in the US, academics and athletics became inseparably intertwined sometime in the 1800s. Every high school in the country has varsity sports teams that play other regional high schools. The high school in Barrow, Alaska, even flies their football and basketball teams to games further south in the state because they're so remote. Colleges often take athletics even more seriously, especially the big football schools. In fact, unlike you with your youth programs run by professional clubs, the vast majority of the athlete development done in most sports will be in grade school or college with a school team and coaches paid by the schools.

Finally, despite the fact that the US is one of the most capitalist countries in the developed world (although it's hard to match the level of capitalism you'd find in Somalia and other failed states), our pro sports leagues are among the most socialist. You know how it seems that every great player in Germany seems to play for Bayern Munich and how Real Madrid somehow manages to stockpile players in the top 5 in the world for their positions? That can't happen in any US league, except baseball, and not even there, really. The NFL has a hard salary cap and a salary floor so all teams have to spend more or less the same on the team payroll. There are ways to fudge the numbers, but even with those loopholes, once you start to get a great team together, the price for those players starts going up and you have to start making decisions on whether it's worth keeping that guy with his bigger paycheck and have to pay less for players at other positions or to let the expensive star go and stock up on cheaper younger players with upside. The NBA and NHL have variations of this that make it just too difficult to build an all-star team. The leagues want teams to be even and to make it feel like your team may suck this year, but eventually they'll have their chance. Unlike the fans of Queens Park Rangers.

Photo: Keith Allison, Flickr Creative Commons

Baseball has a luxury tax, but teams wealthy enough to pay it just stock up on stars anyway. This is why everyone hates the Yankees.

Oh, and this all happens because the clubs aren't independent entities. The teams are franchises of the leagues. They have their own owners, but they can't go play anywhere else unless the league tells them to. The league makes their schedules. The league set safety and behavior rules. The league takes in most of the money and then distributes it to teams as it sees fit. In contrast, the Barclays English Premier League has almost no real power over the teams.

Photo: woodleywonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons

Then we have the MLS, our soccer league. Despite pro soccer in most countries being basically capitalism in its purest form, Americans took soccer and made it a communist state (although, much like Mikhail Gorbachev in the 90s, they've started introducing economic reforms). While the other leagues have drafts, salary caps, and profit sharing to spread the wealth among the teams, the MLS actually owns all the players and distributes them based on a pecking order so the worst teams get the best players and the best teams have to wait their turns. The league had good reasons for this system as the previous attempt at a premier league in the US ended with bankruptcies as spending on players grew more quickly than income. The MLS, hoping to avoid the bidding wars, made sure that the teams were staying within their means. This actually could be why the league has survived and had a chance to grow in popularity instead of flaming out in a blaze of Beckham encrusted glory. It's been a long time since a team in the MLS folded. It's only happened twice and both teams folded in 2001, only five years after the league was founded. Also, both were in Florida and Florida sucks.

Photo: Francois Meehan, Flickr Creative Commons

So, dear foreign friends in sport, you now have a beginner's understanding of the bizarre world of American athletics. To sum it up, we like sports inversely proportionally to the popularity of the sport outside of our borders, we get really worked up over kids playing football for schools we did not attend, and our pro leagues are socialists functioning in a capitalist state. Enjoy. Take this weekend's break from club soccer for international friendlies and watch Michigan State at Oregon (both excellent college teams) on Saturday or Indianapolis at Denver on Sunday (the NFL's Peyton Manning, our Messi, versus his old team). See what it's like for us American having to watch commercials every 10 minutes during a game.

Seriously. It's ridiculous. If they score, it's score, commercial break, kickoff, commercial break, next offensive series. The NFL even created an special two minute warning at the end of halves exclusively so they could show more commercials. What the hell? How do people without DVRs who can watch on delay to skip commercials even live during football season?

Friday, May 23, 2014

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

Photo: Christian Yves Ocampo, Flickr Creative Commons

First, before we get any further into this post, if you're a regular reader of this blog (do I actually have any?), could you take a moment and post a comment below and tell me what type of writing and writing topics are my best? I recently applied for a part time editing position with a publication I actually respect and my rejection e-mail included a line suggesting I come up with some freelance ideas and send them to one of their editors. It even included an actual email address to someone with an actual name for sending said pitches. The forms of writing they suggested were pretty broad (from essays and news to humor and lists), so I'm having complete idea block just coming up with something I do well.

Actually, let's face it. There's a chance that the veil of self-effacing pessimism and ironic detachment that I developed in the 90s may have to do with some serious self esteem issues about my writing, this despite the fact I was accused last year of having an excessively large ego for having the gall to express differing opinions and trying to explain my positions with facts and logic.

I may also be harboring bitterness about that incident as well, it turns out.

But anyway, if I've ever written anything you like (or a type of writing that you like), let me know so I can figure this thing out. So far my only idea is about being a semipro rugby team groupie. I could write about teaching, but there are many problems with my writing on that topic, especially if I'm trying to be funny and wanting to keep my day job. You know, food costs and everything.

Insert transition that makes the sudden change in topic and tone make sense here.

This is going to seem like a weird thing to include in the same post as a light-hearted request for suggestions, but two of the guys who graduated high school with me died this week. The truth is, when I heard, I didn't really feel anything. Despite growing up in a very rural area and graduating with a class of only about 120 students, I didn't really know either kid. I actually recognized the name of the first one to die and had a vague impression of the kind of person he was in school, but the second was a name I don't remember and even a visit to his Facebook page where he had photos of himself didn't ring any bells. This is normal for me. I've never been very outgoing and unless we're close, share some major interest or you make an effort to keep in touch with me, I spend very little time thinking about you. It's not elitism or dislike. It's just that social interaction is work for me and I'm a naturally lazy person. I'm only really comfortable with relationships where I know exactly where I stand and the other person puts in at least half of the work. In other words, if I've ever e-mailed or texted you, you're really important to me. If I've ever called you without having a very specific and practical reason, then you're probably my wife. If you're not my wife and remember an actual phone conversation with me that wasn't about a specific need or question, you called me.

Because of that, I'm often embarrassed when approached by former classmates or get asked by my students if I remember their mom/dad/cousin/brother/sister/aunt/uncle/whatever. Show me a picture and I may recognize the person, but probably not the name. I don't remember them. They weren't important to me, not because I looked down on them but because I had no more reason to emotionally connect with them than I do some random dude in Syria. Sure the civil war there is depressing and I hate the loss of life it entails, but I can't get too emotionally worked up about it. I only have so much social capital and I have to be careful where I invest it. The deaths of those two guys who happen to be my age and from the same hometown feel the same to me as the deaths of a Syrian villager or a South Sudanese refugee. This may seem cold, but tell me how many tears and thoughts you've spent on specific individuals in Syria or South Sudan.

This social detachment makes it ironic that I got my feelings hurt at a school sports banquet last night. At the end of the banquet the seniors made their farewell speeches and they always make sure to thank the coaches. This year I didn't coach the high school, I coached the middle school so I was there for the middle school portion of the banquet, but I had coached those four seniors for three years before this. I liked all of them. These are kids whose names I probably will remember in four years. These are kids whose fates will be of more personal interest than random Syrian strangers. That's why when only one of them actually thanked me in their speech, it bothered me a little. Even though I was sitting right next to their coaches for this year and even though the kid who actually thanked me went first, two didn't mention me at all and the fourth only thanked me by way of showing just how awesome the woman who replaced me was.

Except that's not an accurate portrait of what happened. It's an accurate portrait of what that emotional intuitive part of my brain felt and I've always been extremely skeptical of that part of who I am. My feelings were hurt, but I have trouble ignoring multiple sides and explanations for things. This makes me annoying if you're trying to talk through your feelings with me and it's even more annoying when it's me with the stupid emotions. This slight can easily be explained away. First, these are kids. I know from ten years' experience how tactless and accidentally mean teenagers can be. (They're rarely capable of being this subtle when they intend on being mean.) I also had almost no contact with these kids this season. I went to a couple of matches, but I don't teach seniors and never went to practices. They probably thought about me no more than I thought about them and that would be fair. Second, being used as an example of how great the new coach is shouldn't be insulting. The girl's entire point was that having another woman there who could understand her better was a nice change from the all male coaching staff she'd always had before. It's an entirely valid point. I am not a woman. I don't think I come off creepy, but it probably was nice for our girls to have someone of their own gender in a leadership position for them. For any kid looking to personally connect with their coach, I'm not the best candidate. I understand that. I don't go out of my way to make connections with people. I stay in a social comfort zone, and don't reach out to them. When I was coaching the high school, I was just about tennis. I didn't concern myself with their social lives. When I talked to them it was always related to the team and the sport. Because I don't talk about my personal life with them, they're not going to come to me with theirs.

I should be immune to feeling this way. After all, I understand it's my fault. If I'd been more outgoing, more personal, more open with them, they would have liked me better and thought of me more when I left. But I think this taps into something that was part of why I left the high school team to start with. The other male coach is just like me in his social connection with the team, but he sits higher in their thoughts. Why? He's the tennis expert. I was a competent coach by small-school standards, but I wasn't the expert. I never played or coached at the levels he played and coached at before retiring to be a part-time high school coach. The kids knew that. I knew that. I was okay with that. The problem is that the only way to make up for that deficit is to be more parental, the guy who shows true warmth and caring and makes them feel a part of a greater group, but I'm not that guy. I actually did feel that way about most of my players. I cared about their success on and off the court, and that's why I think this hurt a little. The feelings weren't mutual because I wasn't able to make them mutual.

Luckily, at the lower level where I coach now, I am the expert. I don't have to be the daddy. The other guy can do that. I just have to coach. And if you're worrying about my kids, don't. I have no trouble being open and warm with them, no more than I do with my wife, but then they make it easy. I know what a dad should be. The aloof, reserved man my athletes have always known will always be a stranger to my own kids. That's the way it should be.