I have had the pleasure of coaching young Delaware runners for nearly 15 years, in both a high school and collegiate setting, and both cross country and track & field. And (I’m not making this up), nearly every day before practice starts ‘Youth Gone Wild’ is the coaching walk-up song that plays in my head. Who doesn’t love a good Skid Row tune.
Working with young runners, especially high school athletes, reveals two types of participants; those who want to be there and those who don’t. It’s a pretty cut and dry split. Track & field athletes can usually be coaxed into trying different events, but cross country is, well…. Cross country. You either run three miles or you don’t run three miles. There is no high jump pit in a 5k. However, that gives me an idea…
Youth runners need to be nurtured. Running is by its very nature a one-dimensional pursuit. We run. I was recently sent an Instagram sketch where the comedian questioned why cross country was called ‘cross country’, rather than just ‘running’.
That I ever became a runner is a mystery. I had no role model; my family had no real athletic prowess (two of my brothers were not very good wrestlers but my sister was a decent hurdler). But once I did start (in 1978), I found a tribe of friends, coaches and a local running club filled with mentors, partners, and competitors. No one pushed, no one insisted, and no one shamed. It was a very supportive network.
I recall a Peach Festival 5k event several years ago. As the official race starter, one of my jobs to make certain that faster runners were up front, and ‘less zippy’ runners were further back at the start line. It’s a safety thing, people! One very young runner (maybe age 10 or so?) was in the very front, middle. I asked him if he could run a 6 minute mile and before he budged an inch, his father started yelling at me that indeed he deserved to be there and that I should mind my own business (parental gloater, take a bow). You can guess what happened next. Fortunately, the young runner was not hurt or knocked over, but he finished nowhere near the front. I wonder if he’s even running today.
Young runners, heck young athletes in general, all deserve our support, praise, and, when appropriate, constructive instruction (NOT criticism and not being forced). What ends up happening can affect not only them, but those other young athletes around them.
I am not a fan of the ‘everyone gets a ribbon for participating’ in athletic competition. ‘Competition’ is the operative word here. There’s a reason some youth runs are called FUN RUNS. But when the competition starts, the young athlete needs to be prepared, because winning and losing are realities. It’s a skill many aren’t prepared for.
Youth athletes need to be nurtured and guided in the skills of athletics. It comes from parents first, coaches second, tribe third. You can call him arrogant all you want, but Joe Namath once guaranteed a victory. But he was getting paid to do that. Guaranteeing anyone will be victorious isn’t the way to make them victorious. But it could make them the Youth Gone Wild.
I hope to see you on the roads, tracks and trails.