Before I moved to Boston I thought a lot about getting involved with a program called Girls on the Run – an after school health/fitness/mentorship/leadership program that teaches young girls about health and body positivity while training them to do a 5k with a group of female mentors. I wanted to get back into running, get to know some girls, and pick up a new skill. My only coaching experience was coaching debate (definitely not running, but arguably involves just as much endurance) and my only experience mentoring a group of girls was a very informal weekly leadership club in India that was wonderful, but I wanted to learn more.
The hours GOTR required unfortunately didn’t jell (gel?) with the hours available to me at Match, BUT I found out that Match Charter School was going to be attempting its first ever cross country season with students grades 5-8. I was on the fence, but figured – why not? The school needed someone to help out and the kids only run a mile and a half. I thought, even though I haven’t run in a year, I can totally do that. I became one of three young women to volunteer (later joined by a few other brave souls).
I was excited to spend some time with the kids outside of class, but frankly, I felt inadequate as the inaugural coach. I felt kind of like Kevin Costner in McFarland, USA (an uplifting sports movie about cross country) right around :45.
“You’ve coached cross country before?”
“But you ran? Competed in high school, maybe?”
“No.” (haha definitely not)
“Well, you sound perfect.”
So I didn’t really know what I was doing and neither did the kids. On the first day of try outs one of the kids looked at me with a pained expression and said, “Why are we running so much?!” Dude, what did you think we were going to do? This is running club! Cross country running! Woo. But up until the very last practice, the kids still called it ‘track’. I’ve learned a lot in the past eight weeks and I’ve tried to condense the lessons into ten words or less.
First Coaching Lesson – Cutting kids from a program is hard.
Over 50 kids showed up to try outs and it was too much. It was insane. Kids were running everywhere (except on the course where they were supposed to be running) and the other coaches and I knew that the team needed to be smaller. Even though it was pretty easy to sift through who was there to socialize and who actually wanted to run, it was still the first time I ever had to tell a child that they did not make the cut for something. That they were not chosen. We didn’t only choose the fast kids – we chose anyone who looked like they wanted to be a part of a team and learn how to run. For most of these kids, though, this was their first time ever hoping to participate in a school-affiliated sport. It may have been the first time they tried out for something. Children observe and absorb so much more than we think they do and, moving forward, I need to work on helping them work through failure. Because it does not feel good to be the one to tell them they have failed.
Second Coaching Lesson – Culture has to be created, it doesn’t just happen.
Ten to thirteen year olds don’t bond with each other very well on their own. They are moody, afraid to be vulnerable, and they usually join larger groups with a few friends by their side. Too late I realized that team building is just as important as practicing whatever sport you’re coaching. The practices were only an hour long, and we only met twice a week. I think that with such limited time, we felt pressured to spend all of our time running. That is what we were there for, right? To make the kids better at running. I should have realized earlier that we were not going to make them champion runners in eight weeks, but we could have taught them more about sportsmanship, leadership, and teamwork. Coaches teach young people how to become better people first and athletes second. And, when we started adding games and cheers and team races, we saw more improvement. Kids were willing to push themselves harder if someone else was depending on them and that was something they never truly understood about cross country. It isn’t easy to see how others are depending on you as you truck along for a mile and a half and have to motivate yourself to keep pushing. Similarly….
Third coaching lesson – Running a mile is hard, especially when you’re ten.
The word “perseverance” takes on a whole new shape when you are telling a kid not to stop running than when you are pushing them through a tough problem in class. These kids would sprint their hearts out whenever we did short distance practices. If they could see the finish line, if they could hear people cheering for them, if they could tag the hand of the next runner….they would push until they had nothing left. Pacing yourself is hard though. Often the kids would shoot out of the gate, struggle in the middle, and sprint when they saw the end was close. I don’t know when we start to view life as something that requires pacing and steady steps, but it definitely isn’t when you are ten. As hard as it was to watch them struggle and not know how to make them understand the concept of steady, it was amazing to watch how hard they pushed themselves during relays. Even when they were exhausted after practice, they would race each other in the parking lot as we waited for parents to come and pick them up. Running like a kid, for no other reason than because you want to fly, is joyful. Its free. And I should do it more.
Yesterday was the last race and the conclusion of the eight week season. We had great weather, lots of snacks, and a full day of cheering on teammates who were registered in different races throughout the day. The course was condensed so that we could track runners as they went and then greet them at the finish line. Most of the students were finishing the 1.8 mile course in 18-20 minutes (the fastest came in at 15:30!), but one student called me to the finish line as I was getting water. The most recent race had started 14 minutes ago. I wasn’t expecting students for another few minutes, but the kids at the finish line were pointing and cheering at some of their teammates crossing the finish line in 14 flat. Could they possibly be going that fast?! I called the head coach who was in the middle of the course and she broke the news to me.
No. They were not going that fast. The course had a loop in it that needed to be done twice before the course monitor allowed the students through to the stretch of field that led to the finish line….and our students got lapped. They got lapped by the kids who have been doing this for years, training every day. They only did the loop once and then ran straight on through to the end with the rest of the pack. When I heard what happened to our band of misfits I could not stop laughing. Match definitely didn’t win that race, but for all they may have lacked in endurance, my heart smiled when I heard them chanting at the back of the bus on the way home.
“WHO ARE WE?!”
“HOW DO WE PLAY?”
“HOW DO WE PLAY?”
“HOW DO Y’ALL FEEL?”
“MATCH ON 3!”
“1 2 3….MATCH!”
Other notable quotes from this season include:
“Can we just get pizza instead?” – Nope. We are running a mile.
“We still have a man out there!” – One little boy said this to me on Saturday when a teammate hadn’t crossed the finish line until most of the runners were long past finished and the officials were getting ready to stop the clock. I thought – Relax, kid, we are in suburban Massachusetts, not a war zone. But talk about team loyalty!
And, of course, the title of this post. The little girl that said this went from coming in last at a meet to sprinting across the finish line in the middle of the pack, shaving minutes off her time in a matter of weeks. Yesterday, as we were walking up a hill towards the bus she looked at me and said, “Ms. Smogard, you’re doing this all wrong. We don’t walk up hills, we do high-knees.” Apparently this is something I had said in the heat of a motivational speech at practice one day (but let me clarify – I didn’t actually make 10 year olds do high knees up a hill. Don’t do that). I smiled and thought of Kevin Costner shouting at his own misfit runners – “When we see a hill we’re going to smile!” And if I were Kevin Costner, I would have tilted my head at that little girl and said, “Damn straight, kid.”