Thursday, May 31, 2012

Here IT is!

kids racing, a good or bad idea? 

Finally, the one I've been threatening to put up here for the last five posts or so is below. I am working on an article with many of the same concepts, so I'm sort of killing two birds (maybe even three, but that's a secret for now) with one keyboard.

Not long ago, I read a post by another blogger about kids and running. Since then, I have read a few opinions and have also interviewed several people, focusing mostly on how much is too much when it comes to running and children. Most will agree that a marathon at age 10 isn't wise, not just because of what's going on physiologically in a growing body. A blog post that really got me thinking about all of this was one in which a lady wrote to a fellow blogger, asking whether or not the author of this blog felt anyone should put a child on medication in order to keep her running and competing in a sport she hates. As the blogger pointed out, it was never clear how, exactly, the kid disliked running, but, in addition to the great response of the one writing the blog post, there were plenty of other people who had an opinion. I don't think anyone agreed with the idea of giving the kid medication to lessen anxiety in order for her to compete. The best suggestion was for the parent to ask what the child hated about the sport. I will add that by defining and vocalizing fears and worries, they often dissipate. This is important for children, and it's essential to help them find words to describe what they are feeling. It also helps with finding the appropriate solutions.

I don't think it's a good idea to push anyone into something they outright hate. Sometimes quitting is a good thing if it means better overall health. Better still would be to help the child find a sport or activity she enjoys at least somewhat. Of course, Andre Agassi often mentioned how much he hates tennis in his autobiography, but his success was accompanied by quite a lot of negativity in his life. Reading parts of the book was a struggle, because the dread, burn-out and hatred he experienced were tangible. I've been there. Was it worth it? Only he can answer that, but one needs to realize that things didn't have to be that way. It's quite possible that if his father had been less of a tyrant, he still would have been the stand-out tennis player that he was. Again, there are times when it is OK to quit or move on, especially if it means a happier person in the end.

Before I get into my thoughts about kids and running, I have to throw it out there (and I'm sure some have already figured this out); I'm jaded when it comes to this topic. Of course my response is going to be biased based on my own experiences and what I saw. However, I interviewed Bobby McGee and had periods of sensible coaching throughout my career. Therefore, what follows will hopefully be at least somewhat balanced. Obviously, I have much insight on how not to do things, but I believe that there is a way for young athletes to compete at a high level and survive to have healthy careers into adulthood. Plus, in my case, I can't deny my own internal pressure. That's separate from any external pressure I was feeing.

Me in tears shortly before my first state cross-country race. My mom was trying to console  me. After a big sigh, I made my way to the start line.

Perhaps the biggest point I can make in discussing children and training is the idea that it takes a well-rounded and balanced person to make a great athlete. That and it can't hurt for the kid to have a team of people, not just a coach, supporting him or her in all ways. It takes addressing and understanding all aspects of the athlete- his emotional, mental and physical states- to help improve his efforts in athletics. Every single elite athlete, coach or parent who has chimed in on the matter agrees that putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea, though I'm sure there are still hard-nosed individuals out there who think it's essential. They probably also adhere to the old and not so helpful "No pain, no gain" adage. It's easy for a coach or parent to want to take advantage of early talent, pushing the athlete to achieve great success before puberty or other changes occur. Though it comes in the guise of being for the child's sake, it's often more for the coach's program, the school, a club, and/or the team. I was fortunate that my parents were trying to help me put the brakes on a little bit in my training. They didn't care if I ran, but I did and my high school coach did too. It was at times too much pressure. Had my coach taken my mental and emotional state into consideration, perhaps he would have chosen to coach me slightly differently, though it's possible his own attachments would have gotten in the way anyway.

Speaking of attachments, this is the next big issue I want to tackle. Anyone who tries to coach with a focus on outcome risks making bad decisions. Again, the athlete has to be in good working order on all levels first in order to be put in the best possible position to work on fitness. The idea of a person first, athlete second is good to keep in mind. This is an area in which I feel most of my coaches failed. As long as I was running well, I got the attention and support I needed, but wow did I feel abandoned when I was injured, struggling with racing or emotionally down. Oddly, as one of my better coaches once told me, it's likely that I would have run well under pretty much any coach when I was young, because I had the talent and determination. What I needed was someone to hold my hand through the though times when I couldn't run, wasn't running well or was facing hard transitions. The "come back and see me when you're running well" approach usually won't make a great athlete, but, unfortunately, that's how many coaches operate.

Rather than get into a big debate of whether or not kids should compete, or how much mileage kids should run, I will give my thoughts on what I feel is the best approach. Most of these ideas are based on how Bobby McGee trains his athletes. Many people agree that competing in running races at a high or elite level before the age of twelve is not a great idea. Seeing kids as young as seven running longer road races always makes me cringe. I do believe competition has its place for kids, but the focus should be away from any highly structured program. Instead, the focus should be on fun. This doesn't mean that that the basics of the sport can't be taught. On the contrary, as long as the pressure is kept to a minimum, kids can be taught to become great athletes. They should engage in drills, learn how to start and finish a race and discover different training methods in a healthy way. This is done by keeping the attention away from quantifying their experiences. In other words, don't put a time in their heads, just let them run and compete for the sake of the experience. A kid doesn't need to know that his time in the 400 is slow or fast, he just needs to learn HOW to run an 400. All children are naturally competitive, but despite there being a winner and a loser, at a young age at least, we can celebrate participation in the sport. Teach a kid to be a well-rounded individual, and that is the true basis of a good athlete.

I realize that I'm cutting this off before coming to a real conclusion. There is so much to be said about kids and running that it's impossible to get it all out in a brief blog post. As soon as I put the other thoughts I have on this topic into an article, I will put up another post. I also don't want this to be a part of the June blogger challenge that I am doing, so I'm posting two posts in one day. Holy crap!


  1. Lots of good thoughts here. This one particularly resonated with me: "A kid doesn't need to know that his time in the 400 is slow or fast, he just needs to learn HOW to run an 400". Yes! Take some of the time pressure away (and stop ignoring the slow kids) and discuss: how did you feel during the race, what did you do when, how do you want to do that next time. My high school coach did a little bit of this with us, and really tried to tone down our time obsessions, but of course I was such a snotty little bitch that I only appreciated it like 10 years later :)

  2. Thank you!


    I wish my high school coach had done more of this. For me, my entire career was all about times, but that's probably at least partly why I was under so much pressure. There were always these time-related goals in addition to needing to be first place. 2nd place was "losing" after all, at least in the eyes of newspapers and spectators. From what a few other athletes and coaches have told me, it's not like that as much in other countries. There's more celebration for every runner.

  3. Good post Lize. I think parents should encourage their children to try many different sports/activites at a young age so the child herself can find out what she enjoys doing. The parents should offer what I'd call 'quiet encouragement' and not get carried away if the child shows talent for a particular sport. If that sport happens to be track & field or running, have the child taught (coached?) firstly the skills of the sport. How to run with good form for example. Having a goal of personal improvement is always better than one of winning.

  4. Thank you, Ewen, I couldn't agree with you more. In the interview I did with Bobby, he said some similar things about learning running form and the skills of the sport. I love the way you put that.

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