Monday, November 5, 2012

My next project

After years of living an example of how not to do things, I'm trying to at least point others in the right direction.

Heather sometimes cries when people pass her
Not long ago, I posted a blurb about preserving high school athletes. At the time, I didn't think I would have to address 10 and 12-year old girls. I have to admit, when reading the New York Times article Too Fast, Too Soon, I went back and forth from, "that's kind of cool" to "that's really messed up." This is at times one of those morally dumbfounding situations. While I can't say exactly all that's wrong with these two girls racing the way they are, my gut tells me there's something not right about it. Hopefully I will be proven wrong, and their growing bodies will survive the stress of a demanding sport. 

I can say that the attention the two youngsters get from their dad probably plays a huge part in their concept of "fun" at this point. Somehow, I don't think most kids would find getting bloody knees, shedding tears and experiencing frustration all that enjoyable. Then again, all kids fall and scrape their knees when playing. Maybe this isn't that much different. What worries me most in the article is the way the father reacted to a sixth place finish by one of his daughters. Sorry, but when someone tells a stranger that he was very hard on the older girl for only finishing sixth, I'm going to have to predict problems down the road. What's wrong with sixth? She's 12 for fuck's sake. In my previous post, I mention this is exactly the mentality that puts a long running career at risk. I worry that these girls will follow the same path as most of the kids in the Garritson family, racing too much at too young an age and burning out early. 

There are definitely two sides in the "too young to run those kinds of races" debate. I don't see a whole lot wrong with allowing kids to run some long distances if they are truly internally driven to do so. I would suggest that this be done with a great deal of guidance and some restrictions though. I have more of a problem with placing youngsters in big competitions with a focus on performance. A child should, instead, be focused on the basics of the sport. Moving away from quantifying and timing events should be a priority at such young ages. The problem in this case with these gifted runners is that the father has fallen into the trap of lapping up short-term success over the well being of his kids down the road. He doesn't understand how pushing kids too much at this vulnerable age can have long lasting effects. Though it's risky, the physical body might be able to handle the training. However, as I pointed out in one post already, mileage and high intensity training has to be within the capabilities of what the young athlete can handle not just physically but emotionally and mentally as well. Renowned running coach Bobby McGee states, “frequency teaches skill and long periods teach fitness, but how these are introduced depends on the mental and emotional maturity of an individual.”

We would all love to see these two young competitors head into long-term and successful running careers. What I would like to see more is the girls not missing out on so much of their young lives in order to compete. I made the mistake of not socializing and avoided staying out with friends, all so I could focus on running. We all know where that eventually got me. They shouldn't have to sacrifice so much at 10 and 12 years old in order to run. This is a sport where maturity can only help them. Let's hope that they don't grow up to regret all that they are sacrificing. Let's hope too that dad gets a clue and allows them to skip a few weekends of racing, so that these kids can go to a sleepover now and then. Maybe teaching them balance now should be more the priority than teaching them to toss all their eggs into one basket. 

I thought this blog post on the topic was very well done: Fit and Feminist- The dark side of girls who run long distances


  1. Some years ago, there was a German girl with the name "Jule Assmann" who had a marathon PB of a little over 3 hours at 12 years of age. She excelled in every distance between 800m and the marathon. Her father pushed her a lot and tried to have her compete at a higher age group (she wasn´t allowed to.)The press made a big deal out of her. 13 years old she was already injured. Today she must be in her early 20s. She has been through a lot of injuries and from what I know has lost her interest in competing...I am sorry for her, she definitely was a gifted runner and could have had a future in running if her talent was handled differently...

    1. Thank you for posting this.
      I don't know of any outstanding young runners who started with long distances like that and ended up having longevity in the sport. It's very sad to see that kind of talent and know that too much too soon ended a potentially stellar running career. I wish more people would understand the connection between the mental/emotional state and the physical state. Just because a young body CAN do something, it doesn't mean it SHOULD do it, especially given the risks.

  2. What troubles me isn't the fact that these and other young girls are tackling tough trail races and marathons per se. It's the cluelessness of the parents, or at least the dad. Same with the Garritson brood. I don't necessarily see an issue with pre-teens training for and racing 5K and 10K road races, within arbitrary limits, but when you have a dad who is ignoring the fact that his kid is in obvious distress and is more concerned out on a great chance to be sterilized before they got married.

    1. I agree. Done in the right way, racing at a young age doesn't have to be a bad thing. That said, it takes great guidance and understanding to allow kids to run in a healthy way. When the emphasis is on performance, the results could end up being dangerous, and the dad in this article seems overly concerned with place and time.

  3. Great post.

    I *think* I have seen where pre teen kids have been pretty heavily self motivated in distance running without a strong push of a parent. I don't think this is highly unusually actually, and we have come to accept it in a bunch of other sports or activities.

    I *think* we get a bit worked up this with running because unlike other sports, the downside (injury, burnout, eating disorders) can be so down. Or maybe veteran runners are just more insightful about it? I mean we don't hear these concerns about the hyper motivated soccer player at the age of 10.

    Of course, playing devil's advocate a bit ... is the parent who pushes their kid in this direction worse than the parent who ignores their kids health and contributes to their obesity with Mickey D's?

    1. You definitely bring up good points, GZ. It's just that it's so rare to see or hear about any young kids who were pushed in running at a young age succeed long term. Running is a sport in which maturity is a benefit, especially in women's running. The problem, especially in the case above, isn't so much self-motivated kids, it's parents who focus on performance and outcome. Something tells me that these kids aren't getting their true wants and needs met with running. This seems to be more about the father, and I would be (pleasantly) surprised if these two run well or at all after college.

      With running in particular, we need to remember that the muscles of young athletes don't develop in the same way as adults. That puts kids at a greater risk for injury in a demanding sport. Remember, these girls are 10 and 12, not 16, and they are running long distances, not a mile or even a 5K.

    2. *I meant to say: and they are RACING long distances, not...

    3. Completely agree that those pushed or are that even heavily self motivated in running at a young age often do not make for good runners later in life. I can only think of a small handful that have - and they usually go through a tough trough in the middle years there.

      To your point, the age turn (somewhere in the teens) and the distance (mile, 5k versus marathon) are important considerations.

      If I could hypothetically make a choice of whether my kids run now in MS / HS competitively or not a step and become runners for general health in their 20s for life - I'd always choose the later.

      Hmmm ... I think that nearly all the guys I started running with competitively at 13 are not running now. Makes for interesting facebook moments when I "friend" them and see them at +140 lbs of what they were.

    4. Definitely.

      I think this is a really extreme case, but it does bring up many questions about age, racing and even running in general. I believe that it's fine for kids to run, but I don't think they should be doing so in any high pressure environments. There's just such an unhealthy focus on winning in this country. Kids are naturally competitive to some extent. If parents could focus more on the basics of running- form, race starts etc. and less on times and outcome, I think healthier runners would be produced. There has to be an element of fun or the sport will become a chore.

      In my own case, I started a little bit later (13), but my outcome was pretty predictable.

      Wheww. I'm rambling, but this article has caused so much debate!

  4. Hmm ... had a longer comment and it seems to have went into the ether.

    Great post.

    Basically, I think about this a lot with my kids. I find it interesting that most runners tend to err on the side of the conservative with their kids - not doing anything to push them into the sport. At least the most I know.

    A typical thing I hear in CO is about the Scholl family. I have no idea who they are or what their situation is, but when I tell running people that Tyler ran sub 16 for 5k at the age of 11 they immediately get concerned that his parents are pushing him. Again, I have no idea if that is the case or if the kid is 100 percent self motivated. I can certainly see that he could be - as I see this sort of attitude by a lot of 11 year olds on the soccer pitch. Makes me wonder why runners are more (appearingly) sensitive to it than other sport parents.