I coach middle school cross country, which is not a glamorous job, but it is uniquely rewarding. For young distance runners, the hardest part is embracing the pain that creates stronger legs and faster times. I try to make practices and meets fun, but there is no way of getting around the fact that running really fast for 15-20 minutes is going to be painful, especially for growing little bodies.
Most of the kids who run cross country learn that without a healthy dose of pain every day they will not improve. No pain, no gain. Convincing kids of this is no easy task, but over time the sport tends to naturally reward those who fight through physical pain and emotional weakness.
When a young person develops some mental and physical toughness, they are growing up well. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the progress that these kids make over a season.
Some of my fellow coaches, Doug and Jennifer Meyer, use a fairy tale metaphor when explaining the need to persevere over a long distance. It also applies to many of life’s challenges that require stamina.
Parenting is a distance run, after all.
Somewhere in the middle of the race, there is a big bad wolf lurking around the corner. He will try to get you to slow down.
He sneaks up next to you and says things like, “Slow down. You’re hurting yourself. This is crazy. What’s the point of this? It’s not like you can win the race. You’re not very fast. Doesn’t this hurt? Just take it easy. No one will notice.”
The wolf doesn’t want you to work hard to achieve your goals. He is cunning. He wants you to slow down and just be a nice little boy or girl who is mediocre. He is sly and preys on the weak-minded.
But you aren’t just a nice kid. You are an athlete. You are a distance runner, which is something special. Your sport is the other kids’ punishment. You are a fighter.
TAME THE WOLF
- Breathe well. Loosen up your shoulders, arms, and face. Breathe well.
- Speak positive thoughts to yourself. Say, “I’m a runner. I’m strong. I’m a finisher. I’m fast. I’m light. I won’t be stopped.”
- Check your technique. Be efficient. Stand up tall. Pull your feet up under you. Fall forward at the hips. Make it look easy.
- Break the race up into smaller races. Beat the next runner. Get to the next tree. Pass two more racers before the top of the hill. Etc.
- Remember your strategy. Keep your race pace, then kick it hard at the end. Don’t leave any gas in the tank when you cross the finish line.
- Remember: Pain is not your enemy. Laziness is your enemy. The Marines are right when they say that pain is just weakness leaving your body.
Whatever your distance race may be, consider how you can run the distance well.
Dealing with the internal and external wolves is a central skill for all kids and adults.
This was an absolutely amazing article. I am trying to implement a sports program in my school (I’ve no background in sports). Can i ask you some absolutely stupid questions/seek your advice?