Middle school track may not be the typical place where you think good memories can be made, but perhaps time has granted me the privilege of being sentimental in adulthood. Our track program was certainly not the most rigorous in the district, but to me, a relatively introverted kid with no other hobbies — excluding the parent-demanded orchestra and Chinese school—it was my first real taste of what it was like to have close friends and social events every Friday night.
Our track practices happened twice a day: in the mornings, we would do a mile-long run and then maybe lifting or Pilates. In the afternoons, we would break off to focus on our special events — for me and the other long distance runners, that meant being sent off to do long distances around the elementary, middle, and junior high schools in the area. Sometimes, we would do shorter track work, which was less fun and more rigorous, because the coaches would be there timing and watching.
On the longer runs, especially during those hot Texas summers, I would really relish the time that I spent training with my friends. I would look forward to, for example, passing by the school garden of our middle school, which had large willow trees around a small river. Or, I would spot one of our teammates practicing the shot put — spinning around in circles like a whirling dervish in a dust bowl. We would talk about whatever middle schoolers talked about, and, at the risk of dating myself, we wouldn’t have anything else, like phones or music, to distract us.
On the days where the rain made it too wet to run outside, we would actually do practices inside the middle school itself, utilizing the top hallways and stairs to our cardio advantage, as the drama club rehearsed onstage in the central part of the school.
But my absolute favorite time was when we would pile into the school bus on Friday evenings to go to track meets — for me, it was always an exciting time to wear special uniforms and travel to a different school to run against other girls, spend cash to buy hot dogs at the concession stand, and drink watered down Gatorade (I had never had Gatorade before track).
We would always pile our stuff in a giant stack on the bleachers and cheer on our teammates. Since I ran long-distance, I never had to run any heats, and so most of my time was spent relaxing after my events were over.
I recently thought about eighth grade track this past week in the days before and afte my jiu jitsu school’s 2nd ever in-house tournament. If you haven’t been reading my blog for a while, you know that I have a very tortured relationship with competition and jiu jitsu. I flop back and forth about whether it is good for me, my emotional state, and my wallet.
It wasn’t until I was watching a video about someone discussing their middle school experiences in wrestling and their eventual jiu jitsu journey that I suddenly remembered that I had been an athlete way before I found jiu jitsu, or any martial arts.
Now, the word “athlete” is a loaded term for me — more accurately I would be considered a jiu jitsu hobbyist, or a jiu jitsu practitioner. Still, eighth grade track was my first taste of competition in a sports context, so it counts in my book.
The funny thing about my track experience is that even though we competed every single week, I would never be nervous about the competitions. I did relatively well given the amount of preparation in my events — only later did I recognize that the girls who always placed were being bred to be future Division I athletes — so it wasn’t like I didn’t care about my performance. And, I was generally anxious in other classes and life.
The single biggest asset that I had was the fact that I had zero expectations or pressures on me to do well. Track was something that I could be kept busy with until my parents got home from work, and they only cared about my grades when it came to anything performance-related. My coaches wanted us to do well but within reason because they recognized that most of us were going to quit the sport anyways when we got to high school.
So, it was really just about me, and what I thought of my experience, and how I defined it. I was truly excited for every single track meet; I loved the whole journey from start to end, with the uniforms, the cheering, the running, and the post-meet team dinner. I loved tracking my numbers on a chart when we went lifting; pilates was weird to me but gave me a new challenge to tackle.
When I think back to my track experience and compare it to my jiu jitsu one, there is a stark contrast with how I train and feel in the competitive context. In jiu jitsu, I am much more serious — way less playful, interested in the social aspect, and way harder on myself in terms of performance. Running, no matter the distance, did not feel like a chore, even though it was often challenging. Jiu jitsu sometimes felt like a chore for weeks, even months. And competitions were gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing tornadoes of I-just-want-this-to-be-over.
This past weekend, I tried something different at the in-house tournament. I did breathing exercises and tried to focus with music, but more than anything, I told myself that I wanted to be there. That I had certain reasons to participate, and that I could try my best. I thought of how, during track, not one moment did I spend agonizing about whether I prepared enough for the meet. It was just a matter of showing up to training, competing, and then training again.
A mentor of mine reviewed the footage from the matches, and even though I had lost a few , still commented on how calm and assertive I had been. There had been prior times in training that I had tried to force being assertive, but all it left me was frustrated and annoyed. I discovered that there is no other better salve for anxiety, no better catalyst for focus, than the idea that I wanted to be there to do jiu jitsu, consequences be damned.