Steve Spence, an esteemed college coach, a U.S. Olympian, and World Track and Field Championship bronze medalist in the marathon, tells parents and coaches, “Let’s not pressure children to run, or even expect them to run. Instead, let’s support them, be a good role model and be there when they need us. Don’t make their running yours. Let them take ownership, because ownership is central to children's running.”
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., one of the foremost authorities on the psychology of sport, echoes Spence when he says that children need to gain a sense of ownership of their interests, their efforts, and what they accomplish. According to Taylor, ownership allows children to engage in an activity voluntarily, “for the sheer joy they derive from it.”
Ownership defines where runners see themselves, where they fit, their special time and place. They own that moment; it offers some level of deep satisfaction, it even defines them. This is what we, the adults, need to allow our children to discover; runs that the child owns, holds important, even anticipates.
Running today is a youth sport. Unfortunately, in the world of youth sports, the model is too often one where adults are so engaged in their child’s sport they teeter on eroding any opportunity the child has to take real ownership.
For parents and coaches there are plenty of positive things they can and should do to support their young runners; the most important being to let kids own their experience, of being part of a team, to set goals, to have fun. Conversely, there are things parents and coaches probably should not do if they want their kids to own their running.
How do adults take ownership from children? It starts with parents or a coach doing what comes naturally. They want their young athlete to take on new challenges, to gain confidence, to reach their potential. These are how children learn, how they grow.
When it turns awkward is when mom or dad or the coach harbors an expectation for the child that exceeds the expectations of the child; or exceeds what the child is physically or emotionally prepared for. When adults place their expectations over those of the child, what gets eroded is the child’s sense of owning their sport.
When the adults erode a child’s sense of ownership, two things happen. First, children try to satisfy the adults – an unhealthy behavior in the long run. Second, any success earned by the child is shared, critiqued, and a new standard is set. If the new standard, the expectation, reflects the parents’ values, ownership is compromised.
THREE THINGS TO DO
For parents and coaches of young runners, here are three things that they can do to help their children achieve ownership of their running.
#1 MAKE HEALTH AND FITNESS A FAMILY VALUE
Make being active, being fit, even pursuing a sport, a family value. Eat healthy, go for walks together after dinner, maybe a bike ride on weekends; make going to the pool or the gym a family routine. When a child goes out for a sport, running or otherwise, stick with the family routine. It is what the family does. The sport belongs to the child, it is theirs to own. The parents can focus on their own healthy lifestyle and not only on the child’s.
#2 BE THERE FOR THEM, LISTEN, SHOW THAT YOU CARE
When entering a Fun Run or race, ask your child what they hope will happen, i.e., what their expectations are. On the big day, let that be what you watch for. If the child meets their expectations, congratulate them, give high-fives, even a big hug. If they didn’t meet their expectations, leave it to them to say something. If they don’t, that is part of their taking ownership.
#3 RUN TOGETHER, BUT GIVE OWNERSHIP
For a parent who runs, offer your child the opportunity to run with you occasionally. But when you do this, make the run the child’s run, not some version of yours. This gives your child the attention they need and the all-important feeling of ownership. Start with something simple like running together to a friend’s house just to say hello, or maybe going to a high school stadium to do short sprints on the track.
THREE THINGS NOT TO DO
Along with three things parents and coaches can do, here are three things that coaches hope parents will avoid doing. And then there is one last thing every parent of a young runners needs to do at least once a day.
#1 NO PROMISES, NO TREATS
Never, and that means never, make promises of getting some reward for running; of buying the latest “social media” upgrade, or having a friend sleep over, or anything else. If they jump up and put on their running shoes, it isn’t because they are suddenly motivated to run, they are motivated by the reward, and rewards are not the motivational foundation we are looking for with young runners.
#2 SHARE, BUT DON’T CRITIQUE
Proceed with caution when making your child’s running a topic for conversation. Yes, it seems natural for parents, especially those who run, to ask “How did your run go today?” This is fine. But parents should avoid allowing the conversation to become a daily critique; an evaluation, opening the door for the parent, without knowing it, to insert their values, their expectations.
#3 THERE IS NO “WE” IN YOUTH RUNNING
Ask yourself if you use the “we” word when talking about your child’s running. “We are hoping to set a new personal record today.” Or “We hope to finish near the front next time.” When parents use “we” they are communicating that a partnership exists with their child in whatever the child is doing. There is no “we” in running, at least not for parents who allow their children to own their running experience.
HERE IS ONE MORE THING TO DO
Every day take an inventory of how you (the parent) are doing on all this. Start with asking yourself how often you tell your friends how your child did in their last Fun Run or race. When parents share with others their children’s running in terms of the child’s performance, they are at risk of becoming too involved. If you want to talk about your child’s running, instead focus on their being active, for participating, for being involved, for trying. That is what is important.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION