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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

A Season Isn't Necessary. Our Teams Are.

Last week, I was driving home from a morning run in Forest Park when I had to pull over. No, the flashing lights weren't in my rearview mirror. They were going off in my head. If there were sirens, they were coming from a podcast playing on my phone in the passenger seat.

“The strength of a community is hard to quantify, which makes it hard to advertise, but like good music, you measure it by how it moves your spirits and how you feel in its presence.”

That's it!

I paused the episode to transcribe the line in my Notes app before continuing home.

Since coming to the University of Portland three summers ago, the strong community on our team has always been apparent and openly acknowledged. But while we've tried to use descriptors like "selfless" and "fearless" to label it, or attribute our two men's podium finishes in 2017 and 2018 to it, words always seem to fall short of appraising its value. To know our community, like many others, you have to feel it.

And that's where it gets tough. Because any time you start talking about how something feels, a common perception is that the conversation has gotten “soft” and too subjective to be a definitive assessment. And so, too often, we back away from trying to describe just how vital our communities are. But now, we must dig in.

“People feel the least present when they don’t feel seen," writes Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Business School, in her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. "It’s impossible to be present when no one sees you. And it becomes a self-perpetuating process, because the more people don’t acknowledge you, the more you feel you don’t exist. There’s no space for you. Conversely, you are the most present when you are the most seen, and then people are always corroborating your sense of self.”

A community is what allows someone to feel seen. It's a place where their contributions are appreciated, where they build relationships, support one another, and provide an overall sense of belonging. Perhaps most important, a community can safeguard against loneliness.

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy describes loneliness as "a gap between the social connections one needs and the social connections one has in their life." He has categorized loneliness into three different forms: intimate loneliness, relational loneliness, and collective loneliness. That third type - collective loneliness - occurs "when we lack a sense of community, a sense of shared identity and purpose with a group of other people." Murthy asserts that connections need to be built in all three categories to avoid feeling lonely.

Yeah, so a cross country or track team can provide a community, and make a person feel less lonely. Why does it matter?

Loneliness puts us in a state of stress. Over the long-term, this prolonged state of stress can cause chronic levels of inflammation in the body, which in turn, can lead to an increased incidence of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. When he dug into the data, Murthy found that loneliness was not only associated with an increased risk in heart disease, but also an increased risk in dementia, depression, anxiety, premature death, and sleep disturbances. In fact, he calculated that the mortality impact of loneliness was comparable to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Today, more than three in five Americans are lonely. That's according to a study by Cigna, and reported by NPR earlier this year. And the numbers are going up. The report found a 7% increase in loneliness since 2018, when Cigna began the study.

One of the reasons for the increase in loneliness? A decrease in communities. Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard observed as much in his book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman:

“A certain void exists now with the decline of so many good institutions that used to guide our lives, such as social clubs, religions, athletic teams, neighborhoods, and nuclear families, all of which had a unifying effect. They give us a sense of belonging to a group, working toward a common goal. People still need an ethical center, a sense of their role in society.”

New York Times Bestselling author Sebastian Junger echoed a similar sentiment in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It's time for that to end.”

Having cross country and track teams on college campuses isn't simply about winning races and competing for championships. For those who take part, it's one of our greatest vehicles for community. Unlike the academic component, where classmates and professors change every semester, the team is a constant in a student-athlete experience. That stability provides a foundation to build relationships and collectively pursue long-term goals. Due to the demands of our sport specifically, actively affirming a place in our cross country or track community becomes an almost daily activity. You might get away with daydreaming in the back of a geology class, but you can't fake your way through a six mile tempo.

For our team in the fall, an average day becomes just as much a wellness practice as it is physiological. Most are spent out in nature with teammates, device-free, sharing a purpose, volleying thoughts and ideas, and strengthening ties with one another. As Amy Cuddy would say, practice is a place to be present, because it's a place to be seen and heard.

In the short-term, we can do without a normal race schedule. But as we look beyond, to an uncertain future of collegiate athletics, our teams - our communities - are a necessity. Just as others have done a great job articulating the opportunities our sports provides for underrepresented populations and the financial benefits to a university that includes a team in their athletics portfolio, we must add the strength of community to the list of reasons cross country and track deserve funding at schools across the nation. Our place in collegiate athletics depends on it.

As we navigate the absence of a typical cross country season, there is an ample opportunity to lean into that sense of community, a sentiment that has the potential to slip in times when there’s a push for competitive success. We don't need trophies right now. But we do need each other. Whether it be Zoom meetings, small group practices, or a new creative idea to bring our teams together, we need to make connection our top priority. At a time in our country when unity seems to be an increasingly foreign idea, it becomes more important than ever.

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