William Bowerman’s book Jogging (Grosset & Dunlap, 1967) moved running beyond being a sport reserved just for the young and the fast, and mostly for men. Jogging empowered entire generations, athletic or not, men or women, rural or urban, to get moving. It ignited “the running boom,” now measured in tens of millions of runners who hit the roads and trails every day.
Bowerman, an esteemed college coach and co-founder of NIKE, knew running was about more than laps around the track or crossing the finish line first. Bowerman recognized that it would be the social experiences, the sense of belonging, of being part of the team, that would make running a mainstream sport.
Dr. Eric Berne, in the same time frame, authored the best-selling book, Games People Play. Berne coined the term “stroke” to mean the verbal and nonverbal communication we receive from others whom we value; the quick nod, the pat on the shoulder, the feeling of being part of the team, of belonging.
Today, adults, many who are new to running, join a running team sponsored by an athletic shoe store, a local running club, or maybe a charity leading up to some popular race. They join not to compete, but because being with others gives them confidence, a reason to show up for the Saturday morning runs. It is the strokes they enjoy, the shared experience. This gives them a reason to run, long before they see themselves as runners.
If it is important to adults, think what the feeling of belonging does for young runners. It gives them companionship, the sense of identity, of pride, of being part of something special. But with youth, belonging does not just happen.
Parents, teachers and coaches have the opportunity, and today, even the responsibility, to foster an environment where children and teens belong; where they have shared experiences, where they accomplish something together. Lisa Rainsberger, an All-American at the University of Michigan in swimming, track, and cross country and winner of both the Boston and Chicago marathon in the 1980s, refers to this as youth being with their “village”; of being accepted. She believes when this environment exists, youth will be empowered to accept others as teammates; to work together to accomplish team goals. It is this sense of belonging that motivates youth.
For elementary school-aged children who run in a mileage or fitness program during recess, Bowerman’s sense of belonging can be inspired by the teacher or parent that creates team and classroom goals, that structures runs where children are cheering for each other. Here are six tips that create belonging.
• Relays are perfect for creating a sense of being part of a team; but not relays where speed is the only factor. For this, just make up relays to suit the situation. Let’s call them Zany Relays, those incorporating some obstacle-course aspect or with kids carrying something (other than a relay baton) to be passed off to the next runner, or even loops where the runners must solve a math puzzle together before the next runner can start. For these, assign four or five runners to a relay team so no one stands out for being the last picked.
• In a mileage program, instead of each child recording only the number of laps they log around the playground, have a fishbowl in the classroom (or better yet in the school office) and award a marble to each child for each five miles they record during an eight week program . The marble goes in the fishbowl. Filling the bowl becomes a very visible goal for the class; a goal to which every child can contribute. Or, from Fitness Finders (the Mileage Club people) order a map of America so the classroom can track their miles in a run across the country.
• Encourage parents to help organize a classroom running team, one that enters a Fun Run together, all wearing their own team T-shirt. Most Fun Runs are free so just identify a time and place to meet. A parent can help organize the kids as a team on the starting line, with other parents along the course to cheer for every runner. And, of course, plan on lots of team photos after the run.
• For children who are ready to run or alternate running with walking for a 5K, pick a big charity event where they can run in groups of five or six runners, staying together from start to finish, encouraging each other. The distance will pass easily when enjoying the festive atmosphere, the crowd, the sense of being part of something important; crossing the finishing line with arms raised high, with little concern over time or place.
• If a road race in your area is looking for volunteers, consider having your team -- again in their team T-shirts -- staff an aid station along the course. Let the kids fill and hand out cups of water, and of course, clean up after. Most kids love it, and it will give them exposure to running -- far better than just watching the action from the side of the road. Best yet, it will strengthen the feeling of being part of something, of belonging.
…AND KEEP IT GOING
For teens, it is all about coaches being interested in every runner, helping them find their niche, the place where they belong, regardless of how fast or slow they run. A place where every runner is part of the family; with each runner helping support the team goals. Here are tips from five top coaches on building a sense of belonging.
• Bill Sumner is Head Boys and Girls Track and Cross Country coach at California’s Corona Del Mar High School. His résumé, at last count, includes 18 California Interscholastic Federation titles, eight California state titles and two national titles. In his team-building tool kit is the requiring (and testing) each runner on his team to name all the other runners on the team. He reports kids pride themselves by knowing every name.
• Mike Smith, 2016 National High School Coaches Association Cross Country Coach of the Year, instituted a BIG SISTER program for his Saline High School (Mich.) team. At the beginning of each season, Smith's juniors and seniors signed up to “adopt” one or two freshmen to make them feel welcome, to show them the ropes, to help them belong; to know what it means to be part of a Saline HS team. (Smith is now retired after 38 years of coaching.)
• Colleen Phelps has built the STRIVERS Running Team for Girls (Natick, Mass.) around a sense of community; that when they work together they can make positive things happen. Each season her runners undertake a community project, such as collecting backpacks or food for the local service council or assisting in fundraising for a cause the girls understand as being important.
• The late Joe Newton coached York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois to 28 state cross country team titles. At the big meets, Newton assigned a job to every member of the team not racing (recording splits, prompting runners at specific intervals along the course, etc.). His theory was by giving every team member a job allowed each member a sense of ownership in the team’s success.
• Mike Woolsey has coached his Jackson (Mich.) Lumen Christi High School Girls Cross Country team to nine state titles and a state finalist in 40 of his 42 years of coaching. At the core of the Lumen Christi success are traditions passed down to the next generation of runners, not by the coach, but the runners themselves. One is “Movie Night” at coach Woolsey’s house every Friday night through the season. They watch movies that inspire; they love hearing the coach’s great stories, and they continue the traditions, those of the team.
Photo courtesy of JUST RUN.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by
THE MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION