Knowing running theory and what it takes to help kids to run fast is seen as a prerequisite to coaching young runners. But of equal importance is knowing how to motivate youth; to get them excited about running; willing to put forth the effort; and comfortable with the coach/athlete relationship. How to help kids run fast will have its time and place, but getting youth to feel accepted, to trust the coach, to simply want to run, comes first.

Here are 12 things coaches and parent-coaches can do to be a leader, one that kids will want to run for. For parents looking for a coach for their child, here is what you should expect from someone coaching children.



To be a great coach starts with knowing why the children are running. If it is because they love to run, great! If it is because they are with friends, having fun, also great. But if they run because they want the water bottle or T-shirt, or because the parents want the child to run, the coach should know this. The coach can then work with each child on setting appropriate goals, those within the child’s reach. More can come later.


The best tool a coach has is the ability to lead. It starts with the coach’s message, their demeanor and caring, that will cause children to want to follow. Coaches must show confidence; be someone the kids (and adults) will respect, even want to be like. And be excited about what the kids are doing, knowing that excitement is contagious. Most importantly, coaches should demonstrate in their own life what they want the children to do; to always be on time, to meet challenges head-on and to be a team player.


Coaches of young runners need to think in the long term, not about how fast or how far kids can run in elementary school, but about children discovering running is more than just laps around the playground or prepping for some end of the program run. Youth running is setting a foundation for running as a healthy lifestyle, as a sport, or for simply enjoying the natural endorphins runners experience every day. But it’s also about the child’s welfare and who they will become years down the road, whether that road includes a lifetime of running or not. 


Coaches must think of themselves as teachers. They are teaching running. Before every run, tell the kids in simple terms how what they are going to do will make them better runners. If they are running hills, tell them how this will make them stronger and faster. After a while, ask the kids what benefits they will get from the run they are about to do. Coaches will quickly find out who is listening, but more important, questioning them causes them to think, and “thinking” runners are good runners.


When children run with the expectation of some tangible benefit or reward -- the T-shirt, water bottle or some fancy finisher’s medal -- there is a risk that the simple enjoyment young runners experience through running is lost, or soon will be. And yet, awards are ingrained in youth sports today. Even running. It becomes incumbent that coaches focus on the joy of running being in the activity itself, of having accomplished something; of being with friends, belonging; the approval of peers and the coaches; of successes, even little successes each day. 


When the kids are going to do something new or that will be a challenge, get them excited about doing it. Mike Parker, coach at Iowa City West, said “Don’t just assign them what to do, challenge them to do it. Build it up as a big event, worthy of accomplishing.” A good way is to name certain runs. Then, when you talk about these runs, it gives them special status and, perhaps, a bit of mystique.


Kids need to see the coach as a responsible, professional adult; but also, one with a good sense of humor, one that can have fun. Show tolerance when kids are just being kids and understand that if they laugh at the coach it is a sign of trust. When a child tells the coach something, no matter how trivial it may seem, listen carefully, look them in the eye, and ask them questions. And don’t forget to tell them thanks for sharing their story.


Kids don’t want to sit around waiting to run. Coaches need to be on time, have a plan, explain the plan quickly and get the kids moving. This means any equipment needed is on-site and set up before the kids arrive, and the volunteers or assistant coaches know their assignments and are ready to go. And be ready to coach, no matter what. If the coach has a personal or work problem, they need to leave it behind long before the kids arrive. The kids need the coach’s full attention; their full commitment to what they are doing. What they don’t need is a coach who is distracted or stressed. 


For parents that coach their own child -- be careful not to bring the coaching home with you. Kids need to do other things, have other thoughts, to take a respite from running so they, like the other kids, can come back fresh, energized. Every time the parent asks some question about how their child felt about today’s run, or talk about the next run, it takes away the “time out” that kids need.


Every child needs to know the coach cares about them and about their success as a runner. This means coaches need to show that they care. Be genuine, take time to talk to each runner, telling them what they did right and be specific. Not simply “you did great today,” but what they did that was great – running an even pace, doing one more trip up the big hill, or staying together as a team.


Kids want their coach to be a good person, not just to them but to all their teammates and friends. When the coach feels the need to correct a young runner for a behavior issue, no one else needs to hear what is being said. Do what the late Joe Newton, coach at York High School, Elmhurst, Ill. did – “do it quickly and quietly.”



Coaches need the kids to follow their directions, to trust their coach, to work hard for them. The quickest way to undermine that effort is for the coach to mostly focus on the fast kids or those who are more athletic. Kids will quickly spot if the coach has favorites and just as quickly recognize if they are, or are not, included. Also, if the coach has a son or daughter on the team, the coach must hold them to the same standards as every other child, not more and not less. 

Douglas Finley


The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the