Guest Editorial: Is Cross Country A Team Sport?

Is Cross Country A Team Sport?

By Dan Tschirgi

(Photo: Greg Hall)

    The significance of competition between teams in the sport of Cross Country isn't typically pondered by those in the sport. Along with the team competition, the development of team dynamics and camaraderie through the training regimen is the same as in any other team sport.  The validity of cross country as a team sport, when there are sufficient athletes participating to form a team, is sometimes debated in smaller schools where students more commonly participate in multiple sports.  Practice times, and more importantly competition times, are frequently in conflict, and it is important for school administrations and coaches to have a common understanding of team sports versus individual sports, and use that knowledge to act in the best interests of the athletes.

(Photo: John Jost)

    One way to consider whether cross country is a team sport is to look at the banners, plaques, and other awards on the wall and in the trophy case in your school.  There may be only individual awards, but if the sport has been a staple of your school for many years, there will most likely be some team recognition as well.  Many coaches believe a ball must be passed or thrown to play a team sport, but we know that golf can be a team sport based on individual performances.  Wrestling is another example - a team sport with no ball involved.  

    The way participants interact with one another is an additional way to look at a sport.  Some individuals are driven from the inside to excel at their sport.  These dedicated athletes may or may not be a "team player" no matter if the sport is running, baseball, softball, soccer, etc.  A motivated cross country runner may run hundreds of monotonous miles throughout the summer with the goal of reaching All-State status in November.  But that runner may not participate in the development of team dynamics through the summer runs, where leaders typically emerge and encourage other team members to continue in the training.  These training patterns and this camaraderie extend into the season and races, where individual performances fluctuate from race to race.  The stronger runners for each race that have the team competition in mind pull along the struggling runners.  Also, pack running when used successfully has guidelines and a purpose - to achieve the lowest possible team score.  The superior runner may well achieve that All-State status, but he or she may or may not help to pull the team onto the coveted MSHSAA stage in November.  Likewise, the other more traditional team sports may have players with superior fundamentals that don't uplift the team, but instead tend to criticize teammates when errors are made.  Their skill at fielding, batting, dribbling, etc. exceeds their ability to raise their team's performance.  A successful coach will not only teach the athlete the fundamentals of the sport and help that individual improve to the best of their capabilities, but will also teach them to use those capabilities to help their team.  This basic understanding of the importance of individual contribution for the betterment and benefit of the team is an aspect the student will use in many settings for the rest of their life.

    A highly acclaimed book about a cross country team is "Running with the Buffaloes" by Chris Lear - "A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and The University of Colorado Men's Cross Country Team."  The author observes and writes about every day of practice and every competition during a cross country season in the 1990's.  One of the nation's top college teams that year, the Buffalo runners include the premier runner in the nation and a highly-varied group of individuals that have a goal of winning the team national championship.  The day by day interaction among teammates, the impact of injuries to team leadership roles, and finally the accidental death of one of the runners are all detailed as the season unfolds.  The premier runner, Adam Goucher does indeed win the individual national championship.  The book leaves a feeling that he didn't uplift the team directly through interaction, but by example of determination and superior performance.  The team ends up in third place, a strong finish beset by numerous injuries and the tragic loss of a teammate, who wasn't a top performer, but was the athlete that most embodied the high spirit of the team.  The entire book is based on the team goals, the team training, and the success of the Colorado Buffaloes Cross Country team.

    The status of high school and college golf as a team sport has similarities to cross country.  High school and college golfers typically compete for team trophies.  In professional golf, however, the highest levels are for individual competition in the major tournaments.  One notable exception is the Ryder Cup where the USA competes with Europe.  Some of the world's best individual golfers falter in a team situation under the pressure to perform amid chants of "USA! USA!".  It is a type of pressure they only feel once every two years.  The "major" events of high school cross country are conference, district, and state, as well as other prominent meets against traditional rivals, both teams and individuals.

For staff and parents unsure of the answer to "Is Cross Country a Team Sport?", a statement in the school athletic handbook may help to resolve conflict and give a consistent message to the coaches and athletes. For example:

"An individual sport is defined as a sport where school name athletes do not compete for team scores and awards in events, or where a school name sport has an insufficient number of participants to compete for team awards in any specific event."

On a competitive level; however, if you want to know whether cross country or any other sport is a team sport, figure out what is in the heart of the athlete to find the answer.

Thank you to Russellville High School Assistant Coach Dan Tschirgi for his contribution. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me at and I will forward your emails along to Coach Tschirgi. If you would like to contribute any stories for the site, please do not hesitate to contact me with those inquiries, as well!