Olympic Track and Field icon Peter Snell once described his early successes as a runner as motivating. Patricia Cunningham and Richard Allington, authors of books on how children learn, understand Snell's thinking. They believe success precedes motivation. Once children see they can be successful, they will become engaged, ready to take on new challenges, motivated.

Cunningham and Allington work on the theory that to motivate children, adults need to create the opportunity for children to succeed. That does not mean hand them success, but simply offer experiences that allow children to realize that they accomplished something in the end; they succeeded.  


Coaches, by a wide margin of those surveyed by the Center for Children’s Running, agree that fast times and high finishes by young runners are poor values for measuring success.  Greg Meyer, a sub-four-minute miler who went on to win the Detroit, Boston and Chicago Marathons in the 1980s, understands that success is a powerful motivator in children. Meyer says, “Success does not have to be some big success that takes weeks to accomplish, but little successes every day; those that will give children a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and confidence.”


Success will be different for each child. For some, it will be simply finishing a run. For others it may be running farther or faster than last time or mastering some new skill like passing off a relay baton. For yet others, it is as simple as being recognized for their effort, for showing great determination, for just doing their best.  

Children running with a friend or a parent, the kind of run where the distance passes easily, where conversation trumps speed, can be counted as a great success. But so can taking on new challenges, finishing exhausted, with arms raised high in the air. Both are integral to success, each with equal weight.


Bill Sumner, coach at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California, agrees on the importance of success, but often uses the word winning when talking about children and running. To Sumner, when a child succeeds by running just one second faster than a week before, the child wins, just as a child improving their grade in the classroom is a winner. In this context, winning and success are one in the same. For example: “Kendra, I know you can do this obstacle course three times today.” As simple as that is, it gives Kendra a goal, one you know she can achieve. When she does it, and she will, congratulate her. She experienced success. She is a winner. 


Stan Lambros, coach at Cheyenne Mountain HS in Colorado, tells us to keep our focus on what the child is doing that day and that time. Along with this, keep the focus on their effort; their determination. Why? Because for many young runners, where they finish in terms of time or place may not reflect their effort. They ran smart, paced themselves well, had a strong finish, but their time and place may distort their feeling of success. By placing the focus on their effort, on what went well, they can come away from the run feeling they succeeded regardless of their time or place. 


It is incumbent on the adults, those who give structure to children’s running, to recognize the importance of children experiencing success so each child can go away from each run feeling they accomplished something. Forget about the drills, the warm-up routines and the distances to be run. Just concentrate on creating, i.e., engineering, opportunities for children to accomplish something each day. 

Engineering for success starts with identifying simple goals; ones that young runners -- those who are just getting started -- can achieve. Like how to finish together as a team, or how to run a short distance at the same pace every time. These present an opportunity for all young runners, those in an after-school or summer program or those running with mom or dad, to experience immediate success, all in one afternoon.



Engineering for success in every run takes thought and a little imagination. And occasionally, even when we try, the run doesn’t turn out as planned. This is okay, providing we don’t allow a run to result in a feeling of repeated frustration or failure by any child. 

How does repeated frustration or failure happen? Well, just about every time kids run in a group, someone charges to the front and others follow. The field eventually stretches out and, inevitably, the slower runners -- mostly the same ones every time -- finish far behind the leaders. The consensus, at least as reported by runners who have been there, is that success and motivation are seldom found at the back of the pack.

Have a plan for children who are always bringing up the rear. One way is to create two or three loops of different lengths with the shortest one being for newer, younger, or slower runners. Have the kids  run "their loop" four or five times with a short rest between runs. The kids who are running the short loop may do it in, say 1:24. The other runners, those on the longer loops, also may be hitting the 1:24 range. Although the kids aren’t racing, they generally respond to the challenge of running fast like the others, even when recognizing that their loop is shorter.



When we talk about success, we need to be talking about real success, the kind kids actually earn. Coach Bill Sumner says we should praise children for every positive result and be sincere, but don’t just make it up. When kids accomplish something they were working at, then it is time to give high-fives, fist-bumps or whatever fits the situation. The kids will enjoy the attention; the simple acknowledgment of the coach knowing they succeeded. 


Goals, like telling kids the first day they are going to run in some big charity 5K three months from now, even before they can run a half-mile, are not relevant for most kids. It is too hard to visualize and too far in the future to have any meaning. This does not mean cancel the charity 5K, but just don’t make that the target. Let each day, each run, offer an opportunity for kids to gain, as Greg Meyer says, a “…sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and confidence” on their way to the 5K. Later, when they can run two miles, start mentioning what comes next, but save it until then.

Douglas Finley


The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the