Goals are part of youth running. There are classroom goals, like tracking on a map the miles run during PE or recess, a journey to a landmark or across the country. There are goals built around earning awards, the finishers’ medal, or the T-shirt or water bottle. And, of course, goals set by a coach or parent for the child to aspire to; a faster time or completing some run, or winning a trophy as the best team in some local race.
And then there are the goals that kids set for themselves; those that satisfy some personal expectation, not a reward. Goals that the young runner owns.
A TOOL FOR LIFE
Learning to set goals is one of the most important lessons we can teach today’s young runners. Goal setting fosters the discovery of independence; of realizing he or she can decide what they want to experience or accomplish and then go off and do it; not to please parents and teachers and not for awards, but for their own satisfaction. Goal setting is a tool for life.
MEET YOUNG MELODY FAIRCHILD
Melody Fairchild was only eight years old when she announced to her parents her intent to run out to and around a large rock formation just down the road from her home in the rural Four Mile Canyon region west of Boulder, Colorado. That was her goal. Not someday, not next week, not even tomorrow, but right then. Her parents smiled and told her to be safe.
Melody recalls the excitement, the energy, the challenge as she stood on the threshold, looking down the road, getting ready to run.
Even though the run was shorter and less challenging than she expected, Melody remembers the wave of satisfaction as she finished, for having accomplished what she set out to do, for meeting her goal.
The next day Melody had a new goal, to go just a little farther. She used a stick to scratch a line on the ground where she stopped to turn around and go back. Every day, every run, Melody added a little more distance, scratching a new line in the dirt.
FROM SCRATCHES IN THE DIRT
Melody Fairchild continued setting goals, from scratches in the dirt to becoming an 8-time Colorado state high school champion and first-ever repeat winner at the Kinney (now Footlocker) National Cross-Country Championships (1990, ’91). But it was winning a third-place Bronze Medal in the Junior Women’s Race at the 1991 World Cross Country Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, that rocked the American running scene. Melody was, after all, still only in high school.
Melody went on to earn NCAA honors in 1996 at the University of Oregon and was a member of the U.S. World Track and Field Championship Team in 1997.
Today, Melody is still a star, winning national age-group titles at the 5K, 10K, 15K and the Trail Half Marathon. In addition to her own running, Melody coaches the Boulder Mountain Warriors Kid’s Running Club and is Director of the Melody Fairchild Girls Summer Running Camp. Central to her coaching is communicating the importance of setting goals.
COACHING GOAL SETTING
Melody Fairchild sits down with each of her runners and draws a pyramid on a piece of paper. With first-time goal-setters, she asks questions, listens and writes the runner’s goal at the top, starting with goals the runner can accomplish, maybe in a week; not long-term goals.
Then she and the runner start filling in the lower parts of the pyramid with things the child needs to do to reach his or her goal. Things like eating healthy, getting enough sleep, being at practice every day. She also makes notes on the runs the team will be doing that will build the strength, endurance or speed to meet the goal. What she is doing is helping the child understand that to accomplish their goal they need to visualize the steps needed to reach that goal.
The coaches of the Strivers Running Club for Girls (Natick, Mass.) feel formal goal setting can be intimidating to new runners. Instead, they take time getting to know each girl -- running side-by-side, building trust. With those relationships built, the coaches can draw out from each girl what they want to get out of running. Sometimes they are not even running goals, but another sport, which is fine. The coaches, keeping it casual, share ideas with the runners on ways – hints – to attain their goals.
Coaches of the Eagles Running Team (Lansing, Mich.), on a day when the kids will run up and down a hill or do repeat runs on an obstacle course, follow up by giving each runner a 3x5 card and pencils to pass around. The runners write down how many times they completed the course. They then write down their goal for the next time they do this run. They sign the card and give it to their coach. The next time they do the run the coach passes out the cards first, reminding the runners that what they wrote on the card was their personal goal for today. The card is a visual reminder. The goal is theirs, one they own.
GOAL SETTING 101
Research tells us that young people who work through the process of setting personal goals are more likely to work through setbacks en route to accomplishing their goals than if the goals are those of a parent or coach. The trigger is the goal must be owned; a goal the youth has set for themself.
If the coach and child have worked on goal setting, it makes sense for the parents to be cognizant of their child’s goals. But going beyond being cognizant, i.e., encouraging the child to commit to new or additional goals -- ones that are faster, longer or more competitive than the child’s goal -- may cause stress. So can making the goal so important the child feels pressure to achieve it.
With children, pressure to accomplish a goal, even one they own, puts the entire exercise of teaching goal setting at risk of being a negative experience, one that children will avoid, often by dropping out of the activity or sport the goal is part of.
GOALS KIDS CAN VISUALIZE
An Indiana University research study validated what most coaches already believed; that kids do better with short-term goals than those somewhere off in the future.
Big goals, like a coach telling kids the very first day that they will run in some big charity 5K at the end of the program, even before they can run a half-mile, may be too big of a leap. It is hard for most kids to visualize and too distant to have any meaning.
Such goals could in fact be a negative. When a child is unable to visualize the goal, to take ownership, the default is to accept the adult’s goals (parents, coaches, teachers) but with little responsibility to satisfy the goal.
In the business world and that of motivational speakers, the term SMART is the acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. All these apply to youth running. Running three times up the hill is specific. The goal is measurable, three times up the hill, not two. The goal is achievable – twice last week, three times this week. It is relevant to building strength to run longer and faster. And it is timely, here, tonight, not next week.
Goals are important, but not so important that if the child fails to satisfy the goal it distorts the child’s enjoyment of running. When children’s goals are set in stone, failure to reach the goal can be a disappointment, one kids may not have the maturity to put in perspective. It is up to the parent, teacher or coach to keep the focus on achieving incremental goals, not goals that may be out of the child’s reach.
Melody Fairchild also warns us that hypercompetitive, goal-oriented, talented young runners can be put at risk when matched with coaches who themselves are hypercompetitive, layering their goals on top of those of the young runner. A worst-case example is the unfolding story of teenage track star Mary Cain and hypercompetitive coach Alberto Salazar.
Melody also sees too many parents pushing their kids; making the child’s goal an expectation; subjecting them to the pressure to perform at a higher level than what they are ready for. She says coaching children to compete, to accomplish team goals, to earn awards, to set records, should come later, much later.
Melody Fairchild is co-author of Girls Running, being published by VeloPress. It will be in book stores in 2020.
To learn more about Melody Fairchild, go to https://melodyfairchild.com/
PHOTO - Melody Fairchild at age 17 competing in the Junior Women's World Cross County Championships, Antwerp, Belgium.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION