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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

Cross Country is Not "Just Like Baseball"

For an NCAA Division I Cross Country athlete, college is usually the first time they aren't regularly amongst the top finishers at every competition. It's the first time they really meet their match, and have to deal with finishing in the middle or near the back of a race.

Oftentimes, the kneejerk response is to point to baseball.

"Even the best hitters failed 70% of the time and still made the Hall of Fame!"

Here's the problem. The comparison is apples and oranges.

Baseball players don't even bat 1.000 in Little League. Sure, they probably hit for a better average than they do in high school, which is still probably better than what they go on to hit in college or the pros. But failure - if you want to call it that - is normalized at a young age, and gradually increases as the competition gets more elite.

Cross country is a different thing altogether.

According to the NFHS survey on athletics participation in 2018-19, there were 269,295 boys and 219,345 girls who ran cross country at the high school level in the U.S that year.

By my count, there are 319 men's and 349 women's cross country programs at the NCAA Division I level.

For the sake of estimation, let's say each team has an average of 20 athletes. If there is even an distribution of age, each team would be adding five new recruits every year.

319 men's programs x 5 recruits = 1,595 boys coming into NCAA Division I Cross Country every year

349 women's programs x 5 recruits = 1,745 girls coming into NCAA Division I Cross Country every year

If we assume Division I programs are taking the best athletes, then:

1,595 boys/269,295 total = 0.59%

1,745 girls/219,345 total = 0.80%

Now, I recognize that's a conservative estimate because there will be some high school sophomores and juniors who may be better recruits than the seniors who do get recruited, but the point is clear. Virtually every NCAA Division I Cross Country athlete comes from the top 1% of high school distance runners in the nation.

Yes, there are national meets like NXN and Foot Locker for those athletes to meet their match in high school, but those kind of competitive opportunities only come around a couple times per year. Once they get to college, that level exists every single day at practice.

If the measure of success has been wins, top tens, or just doing a workout the fastest, the going gets tough real quick. That's probably why "control the controllables" and "trust the process" are among a college coach's favorite refrains. The determinants of success have to change abruptly if an athlete is going to stick with it.

So no, this isn't "just like baseball."

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