When it comes to balancing extracurriculars, each runner is different

Molly Brigham and Eliza Poggi mix their running and singing. Photo: Niamh Brennan

As students at St. Albans School and National Cathedral School prepare for the cross country conference championships, many of these runners are also getting ready for the fall play.

Jim Ehrenhaft, who coaches cross country for both Washington, D.C., schools and is also the assistant track coach in charge of distance, is just one of the coaches in the region who works with students balancing other commitments outside of running and school.

“It’s something that we just have to help them manage,” he said. “Because their interests certainly should be encouraged, and at the same time, when they made choices, there are consequences or repercussions, and we just, again, have to help them understand that and put it in perspective — that’s one of the big challenges.”

Some students can handle multiple commitments without a negative effect on their running, Ehrenhaft said. For others, it does have an impact, and he works to help them understand what their running-related expectations should be when their efforts are split between different activities.

“The reality is that with the choices being made the way they are, it’s at times going to impinge upon the energy you have left to run,” Ehrenhaft said.

A pair of his National Cathedral School seniors are active in a choir, which involves 90 minutes of rehearsal after school, along with a daily class that eliminates their study hall periods.

“Rehearsal starts at 4:45 and practice starts at 3:45, so we try to go to practice but we can’t go the whole time,” said Molly Brigham. “I basically do my work during lunch.”

It’s not all bad for her. Though a track runner throughout high school, Brigham is adding cross country for the first time.

“For me, both act as a stress reliever, so even if it cuts down my time, it expedites my work ethic, and I’m not as stressed.”

The choir is serious business.

“They made us sign a contract that we would sing until we graduated,” said Eliza Poggi. “I ran in seventh and eighth grades, but I was worried about balancing it all in ninth grade so I only ran track.”

That first year back, Poggi saw her two passions collide on a September afternoon: The DCXC Invitational and a wedding, where she would make $50 to sing with a different organization.

“I finished the race and went right to the wedding, still sweaty,” she said. “I had fallen during the race, so I was muddy and bleeding a little, but the robes covered that all up.”

Balance in life is important for students, said Jesse Gaylord, who coaches boys’ cross country and boys’ and girls’ track and field at The Field School in Washington, D.C.

“In a sport like cross country and track, where consistency is your silver bullet, working with a group of kids who are anything but consistent sometimes is definitely a challenge,” he said. “But, that being said, I work with students who need additional support sometimes academically, and I’m a firm believer that kids will run better when they are confident and strong not just with their running, but with their academics and their personal lives, their family lives as well.”

Gaylord said he thinks it’s important for students to have more than one interest. If a student is solely focused on running and is sidelined by an injury, that student can lose his or her identity, he said.

Exploring various activities is particularly important for ninth- and tenth-grade students, and these help provide a break, both physically and mentally, he said. Students won’t be running at a high level for the rest of their lives, either, he said.

“I encourage them to branch out and be involved in some extracurricular activities that aren’t running so that it provides perspective for their running,” he said.

At The Field School, students are only permitted to play one sport per season for the school, but some play soccer outside of school as well, Gaylord said. He has the students work with their soccer coaches so they aren’t doubling their efforts, he said.

Kelly Deegan, the head coach for boys’ and girls’ cross country at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., said sometimes students at her school play more than one varsity sport at a time.

“The coaching staff and athletic department have always worked well with other sports to try to do what’s best for the kids,” Deegan said. “I think that we’re very lucky at our school.”

She said it is the student’s job — not the parents’ — to work out a compromise between the coaches and let them know about conflicts. The same thing would take place for a student who has a commitment with a club or a role like a class president, she said.

Deegan expects her student-athletes to come to practice when they are finished with their other activity, and if they cannot make it to practice, they’re expected to let her know.

Having a family that’s supportive of a student’s activities is key as well, she said. If the student is involved with multiple activities, they might have to miss family occasions because they run out of time, Deegan said. For example, a student shouldn’t be missing cross-country for both travel soccer games and for a family vacation.

“Then it becomes a line of, are you going to choose maybe your eighth best runner to run in the top seven over this person who hasn’t completely committed,” she said.

But it’s an individual decision that is made between her and the busy student-athlete, because each student is different, she said.

She and Ehrenhaft also said there are times when it makes more sense for a student to skip a practice because it won’t benefit them. Deegan said there are also students who will run with someone else in the morning if they miss a practice.

Sometimes, it goes the other way, as well. A student may miss part of a soccer practice because they need to be ready to run at a meet, she said.

Tai Dinger, who graduated from St. Albans in 2014 and went on to attend Stanford University, was able to be successful in his running while also being part of singing groups during high school. In fact, the year he graduated, Dinger set the school’s mile record.

He said St. Albans allotted separate times for singing and athletics.

“I think a big part of it was that St. Albans was structured in a way that allowed me to do that,” he said.

But sometimes, he’d find himself thinking about running while in chorus or vice versa.

“The part where it got difficult wasn’t necessarily the time commitment or anything like that, but just being low on energy,” Dinger said.

Dinger, who is going into his fifth year at Stanford — he just completed his undergraduate degree and will now be in his last year as a graduate student — also runs for the university. He did continue singing for two years in college, but decided to focus on running after that, he said.

Kathryn Dykas, founder and owner of KD College Counseling, said often colleges would prefer that students be dedicated to a couple activities rather than get involved in an exorbitant number of extracurriculars. Dykas doesn’t encourage students to join a club that they aren’t interested in just to put it on their resumes.

Instead, high school runners may be able to volunteer in the community helping younger runners, for example, she said.

“They’re kind of looking to see what they do with that passion,” Dykas said.

Admissions counselors may also appreciate students who are completely dedicated to their running and schoolwork, she said. Each student is different.

“At the end of the day, colleges just want students to be themselves,” Dykas said. “And I think the tricky part is finding what school you can be your best self at.”

Whether student-athletes fill their after-school time with numerous activities or are completely focused on running, there is the possibility of that affecting their running performance, Gaylord aid.

“We need to know our individual athletes as coaches, and we need to know their limits and we need to know them as people in order to advise them as runners,” he said.


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