17 May 2009

Inspire a Kid

Amidst frustration, gems appear that makes the journey worthwhile. Put in the time and effort, bear the frustration, and you reap the rewards. Working with kids is a great example.

Two autumns ago I fell into the role of assistant coach for my daughters’ middle school cross country team. The volunteer athletic director of our small Catholic school organizes the school’s entire sports program, but he’s not exactly the runner type. Since my daughter wanted to run, well, you know how that goes. Two cross country seasons and now working through our second spring track season later, I guess I’m pretty much hooked into this.

I admit that I love playing up the “I’m not just your coach, I’m a runner,” part to show the kids that a fit lifestyle should last a lifetime. My daughter tells me the team has decided I am of another species, and I take that with pride. Call us Runnus Humanus, we who think 5 miles is a short day. I want the kids to see that they shouldn’t be afraid of it. I want to give them a little inspiration by what I do, to help motivate them in what they do.

Any group of kids is bound to present a mix, and the middle school age adds another dimension of mix. At this age, the range of physical maturity is measured in feet of height difference, which makes planning workouts a real challenge. When I ask them to run a lap, they stumble in several minutes apart – on one lap. Since a big benefit of any interval workout is to not wait too long between reps, not let that heart rate drop too much, well, you can see the challenge here.

I know you’re saying, that’s simple, put ‘em in groups, right? No, that’s not right. It’s like herding cats. We hold these truths to be self-evident, Mr. Jefferson said, something like the fact that people must know basics like starting lines and so on. At this age, many don’t. Just getting them to do the same thing at the same time is tough. For that matter, getting them to do anything can be tough. Getting them coordinated to do things in ability-related groups? Very funny.

The level of emotional maturity is actually pretty surprising, considering we’re dealing with fifth through eighth graders. They’re pretty sturdy. But at least some of them have the attention span of gnats. Did I mention it’s like herding cats? Now, quiet down and listen up! …Generally, no attention is paid. Organizing the relay teams? It is to laugh (though they do usually get it done).

Motivation? In any bunch of people, let alone kids, motivation levels vary. At this age, motivation just for being there varies wildly. Some are definitely into it and want to work to improve themselves. Some joined the team mostly for social reasons. Hey, whatever gets them out is fine with me. I’ll take a kid who at least gets in a lap around the track over a couch potato any day.

Finally, remember this is middle school. We’re not about winning, though we don’t mind if we do (and for a tiny school, we’ve had a pretty good run of it). We’re about getting exposed to the sport, we’re about improving fitness, we’re about feeling proud of what we’ve done, and having fun along the way. So we’re not going to put in killer workouts. We only meet twice a week for practice, and attendance even then is spotty, with no consequences. This is a no-pressure environment.

Now, take this mix and imagine trying to get these kids to do a simple interval ladder. First, just explain what it is. Maybe, if you’re lucky, with more then half of them listening. I had them run a ladder that reached up to a single 800m, and you’d think I was the leader of the Spanish Inquisition. EIGHT HUNDRED METERS? No, don’t collapse after each one, walk it off, put in a good effort, be proud! No, you will not die. Yes, you can do this. You did, after all, come out for the track team!

But from the moans and groans emerge the gems. On a recent evening I shocked them: Tonight we’re doing a timed mile. “OH MY GOD, A MILE?!” But they all did it. Every one of them. Some finished it the following Tuesday, but that was fine with me. And the lead boy knocked half a minute off his best. Yes, with Coach pacing him, but he wasn’t working that hard, and he was deservedly proud afterward. Which gave him the confidence at our next meet to smote the field in the 800 like they were standing still (mind you, he didn’t smoke ‘em, we’re a Catholic school, he Biblically smote them). And at that same meet, the girl who moans the loudest, protests most bitterly about anything over 100 meters, and who has never met a finish line before which she can’t slow down or stop before arriving; who, with only my strongest urging jumped into the 800, likewise smote ‘em. And at the other end of the scale, there’s the smallest girl on the team, a tiny wisp of a thing, always at the back of the pack, but she never gives up. Look at what you can do, kids!

Of course, it’s easy to be proud of our best achievers. We’ve got one eighth grade girl who, if she sticks with it, has high school champion written all over her. But it’s even more satisfying to be proud of the ones who rise up to new efforts and realize what they can do. I’m proud of my kids – not just my biological ones (to think that my 70 pound daughter is tossing the shot? Love it!) – but all of them. In between complaints I hear them call me Coach and it sinks in that this frustrating service has its rewards both for them and for me.

Give one forward. Get out there and inspire a kid.

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