Years ago, when my brother Tim was in his late teens, I rode with he and my dad somewhere, and it seemed like every 15 seconds my dad was telling Tim how to drive. "Slow down...turn here...change lanes...watch that car..."
After about a half-hour I finally got so irritated that I blurted out: "Dad, just let the boy drive!"
Funny as it sounds, I think about that story a lot when I'm at my kids' middle school and high school track meets, when I hear parents screaming things like "PUSH IT!" at their kids, despite the fact they can see their kids are giving it all they have. Or, the parents who are runners micro-managing their kids races from the sideline, chasing them to various parts of the track while yelling brain-cluttering instructions that hurt more than they help.
I'm sure all of the parents I've referenced above mean well. After all, we all want to see our kids succeed, right? But if we really, truly want to see our kids succeed, not to mention enjoy, their running,we have to give in and let them do one thing:
We have to just let them run!
It seems like our society has been trained to the idea that every single thing our kids do should be geared towards some sort of success. Now, don't get me wrong...I'm far from an "everyone gets a trophy" person. I'm actually a pretty competitive guy who doesn't like losing all that much. Thankfully, life lessons have taught me to channel that properly and no matter what I try to act like a sportsman in everything I do.
I believe that winning and losing, not to mention success and failure, all have a place in a kid's development. But just like adults, those lessons last longer and sink in deeper when they have the chance to experience those things themselves. People can tell you about an experience, but in the end you have to feel that experience to really learn its lesson.
Ask a professional athlete what they think about during the course of competition and most of them will usually say the same thing...absolutely nothing. Someone once asked Larry Bird what he thought of during crunch time of a game, and he said often times he wondered if he left lights on at his house or if his grandma was watching the game on TV.
That's because all of the thinking came during practice and training, so that when game time arrived it was time to just shut it off and play. I don't know about you, but that's what goes on when I'm running. The focusing on distance, splits, etc., happens on training runs. When it's time to race, I just want to feel and adjust, and that's about it. Oh, and compete.
That's what good athletes do, and that's what good runners do. When my kids are running, I always try to give them positive encouragement, to let them know that I am on their side. I get pretty loud during races, but Matt, my oldest, has always told me he likes to hear the sound of my voice. Though as a three-time state qualifier in track and cross country he has accomplished way more in his career than I probably ever will, he also respects me because he knows what I'm talking about.
Even after races, if I have something constructive to say to him, I save it until later, because chances are when he's finished digesting the race he will feel the same way. I think (or hope) that what I've done is to create a sense of respect and trust between us that as runners this is something we are experiencing together.
That's the key! When you can create an air of shared experiences, it just makes it that much better and memorable for the both of you.
In the end, I just try and say the same thing to my boys as I would want said to me at a race. If I'm in the middle of a 5K the last thing I would want to hear would be my wife screaming "PUSH IT!" as I ran by. Just like I wouldn't want her to come up to me right after a race and say, "what happened in that last mile?".
When it comes to that kind of stuff I'm usually a "do unto others..." type of person. After coaching youth sports for close to 10 years, I've discovered that kids respond -- and thrive -- when they are pushed along in a positive manner. That's not to say that I won't unload on someone if they are loafing or playing like they are in a fog, because I will, but in the end they want you to know that you are on their side.
After I finished my 5K on Saturday morning, I was getting a post-race stretch in one of the tents when the 100-meter kid's race was going on. When the race started, the kids were smiling and laughing and so proud to be wearing a number. They weren't concerned about what time they were running, or what place they were in, and neither did their parents, who cheered and shouted encouragement until the last finisher crossed the line. It was so awesome to see people sharing that kind of experience with their kids. And no matter what, it should always be that way. Always.
I run because it brings me a lot of happiness and satisfaction, and that is the reason I'm still at it after 16 years. Yes I am always trying to improve and always trying to get better and faster, but the reason it's still fun is the personal satisfaction I get from working hard. I don't think I'm any different from you, or an elite runner, or even a high school or college star. I'm pretty sure most of them run for the same reasons.
In the end, we should let our kids figure out how to run the same way.