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A 73 year-old grandfather learns about boys from running with them after school.

Finishing my fourth season of coaching a running program for middle-school boys, I feel I have gained some insights into working with boys during this awkward time in their development.

I am not a child psychologist, nor a spokesperson for any running program; these are just a grandfather’s thoughts.

This program is a parent-pay after school program lasting seven weeks each spring and fall. There are two practices each week ending in a 5K road race. There are no try-outs, no cuts, no drops and there are needs-based scholarships as necessary.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

boys-running-mimicking

  1. Get moving. Boys need activity. They have been sitting all day and need exercise. First up, the boys and I run a slow lap on the 400 meter track. The idea is to stay in a very tight bunch, almost shoulder to shoulder. In the early weeks, it is hard for the boys not to climb all-over each other like puppies. Later in the season they settle down, but this is always a challenge for them. Next comes dynamic stretches followed by more serious running. I keep them moving as much as possible.
  2. Talk less. The boys will pick up a few valuable lessons but I avoid lectures. We huddle at the end of practice for some static stretching and talk about a “quote for the day.” A simple game fits if it is quick, then close with our cheer.
  3. Boys police boys. If the behavior is obviously offensive, I pull a boy aside for a quick chat but for the most part, boys police each other. They will fix acting out, dress codes, and other behavior on their own. We need to let them do this and we need to relax and breathe. Boys need to be boys while they are boys.
  4. Each boy has a story. Every boy has one and if you take the time to run beside him for a lap or two you might hear it. Ask about school or if he runs with his family and he will open up in time, as you earn his trust.
  5. Boys are great mimics. I can talk about proper form all day, but it is better to have a boy run beside a better runner to copy the pace, strike and stride of his peer. I have seen great improvement with this simple mimic idea.
  6. Boys group themselves. There is a spectrum. I find these boys self-divide into three categories:

    • Strong runners that understand how to move. These are experienced 5K runners. They run with their parents on week-ends and only need a little direction.

    • Boys who are here because their parents say they have to do something after school. It’s no different from childcare; they could run around in the playground, or put in their ear-buds and sit on a bench, enjoying the afternoon.

    • The sweet spot – the boys in the middle. They are not great runners but they could be; some encouragement brings out their best and by the end of the seven weeks they are different boys. These are the sweet spot; they make the program ‘worth-it’ for the coaches and the boy.

  7. boys-running-cardBoys are rewarding. These afternoons are the best hours in my week, I am totally in the moment at practice. Then there are random events that put the icing on the cake:

    • Aubry came up to me, in his fresh football uniform booming, “Hey Coach, I made the team.” He added how he could not have done it without the running skills gained in the last two seasons.

    • A parent asked if his son could stop by the house. William had a Christmas Card for me along with some home-baked cookies. He had written a card and done a sketch of himself setting a record measured mile time. William had been a boy, and had now matured into a runner.

    • Michael bounded up to me to share how he had set a PR in a 5K the past week-end. He was all smiles – his excitement made my day.

    • During a rainy and cold practice, I asked if anyone knew my belief on running in miserable weather. Will’s hand shot up and he announced, “Ya Coach, your miles count double! You told us that last year.” So they do remember, even when you think they are not listening.

These 7 a-ha’s are an oversimplification of a more complex program but they offer some high points.

My coaching is a choice. It is also an expression of gratitude in being physically able to do so at this point in my life.

What do you think? Do boys need more activity in their day?

I worry that the natural exuberance of boys has come to be regarded as a behavioral problem rather than natural energy needing to be channeled appropriately by caring adults. The labels we put on boys and girls simply because we find them exhausting is damaging.

This powerful video shows how labels do not tell the real story:

Do you find that working with younger people keeps you younger?

As always, the conversation starts here.