Earlier this fall at Cross Country practice, assistant coach Amanda Feldman '12 was directing the team through some agility drills on the softball field in the late afternoon sunlight. The team was standing on the right field foul line and I was standing on the far side of the field, right about where a well hit ball would clear the fence in left-center for a home run. The team was taking a quick break after completing strides, bounding, and skips. The skipping drills are called skips, but they are technical footwork drills designed to help runners build mechanical proficiency in their strides. We do three or four different kinds of skipping drills; skip for height, A-skip, B-skip, and C-skip. At the beginning of practice, Coach Feldman and I did not know we were going to add another skip to the agility drills — “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
The team was taking a short water break and from across the field I noticed a couple of the athletes continuing to do the skipping drills — but these were their own versions of the skipping drills. After a few moments, other teammates started to join in with the skipping drills, and after a minute or two, everyone on the team was doing the brand-new, just-invented skipping drill. I walked across the field to see a bit more of what was going on. The team had broken into an impromptu dance based on the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Two ninth graders who knew the dance routine were leading the rest of the team as everyone tried to learn the new dance. Lots of laughter echoed across the field as Coach Feldman and I looked on at this spontaneous burst of teamwork, camaraderie, and good old-fashioned fun.
As the dance was winding down and the water break was concluding, the runners were ready to go back to work, I said ‘no, wait, let’s do this again, this is now a new drill that we’re going to add to our routine.’ Another runner quickly found the song on her phone, turned the volume up, and the two ninth graders who had gotten the ball rolling stepped up to lead the team in a round of practicing the "Cotton-Eyed Joe" dance. Because our impromptu DJ couldn’t hold her phone and do the dance at the same time, Coach Feldman pulled out her phone, found the song on Spotify, and turned the volume all the way up. Quite quickly the team became experts in the dance. From that day forward, it became a staple of our agility drills and part of our warmup routine on race days. What a great way for runners to get themselves in a positive mindframe right before a race — laughing and dancing with their teammates and friends right before toeing the starting line!
I love this story for its own sake, but because it is also a microcosm of so many things that are great about team athletics. It showed the value of learning through play — the dance itself was actually a good opportunity for runners to do some footwork drills to help promote the agility necessary for navigating roots and rocks at high speed. Interpersonal skills were on display — the dance evolved spontaneously, with two ninth graders just taking on an impromptu leadership role. Teammates helped each other learn the dance, coaching and supporting each other to figure out the sequence of steps. Other teammates stepped in when they saw they were needed, providing the soundtrack for the dance or encouragement to try and join in the dance. Trust among teammates was deepened as all took the risk of jumping into the dance routine. Coach Feldman and I were given a reminder about a very important aspect of coaching and teaching, namely, when athletes (and students) are showing self-direction and developing important skills on their own, a coach should remember to stand back and let it happen. Finally, and most importantly, the dance was a way for the team to more deeply engage the joy of team sport — simply being together with friends from all corners of the world, having shared experiences, and building friendships.
And all of this happened BECAUSE of ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe!’