Play is a critical part of a child’s healthy development, and well-planned sports and team sport programs are a chance for children to learn valuable life lessons, including teamwork, discipline, leadership, conflict resolution, respect, integrity, self-confidence, and effective communication — all while having fun. Coaching Youth Track & Field stresses the fun, safety, and effective instruction, helping you create an environment which promotes learning, encourages a love of the sport, and motivates your athletes to come out year after year.
According to the USA Track & Field Foundation, Track & Field/Cross Country (distance running) is the number one junior high and high school participation sport in the United States. With many local clubs and programs, parents don’t have to wait until their child enters middle school to participate in track and running. With increased awareness of youth fitness and recreation, many parents are enrolling their children in track not only for the competition but for health and fitness as well.
So how do I get little Janie (Johnny) interested in Track and Field? It is interesting you asked that question, Mom and Dad, because by nature children like to run. Children are exposed to running ever since they are young and they love to do it. However, as children start growing and developing their bodies, changes start to happen and physiologically; their bodies start to ask for new and different things. When the sport doesn’t cover their interest, kids lose interest for it. Kids at this age become more competitive, like to be successful, and don’t like to be put on the spot. It has been said, the best way to get kids interested in running track and field in middle or Junior High school is by incorporating the three most important factors of play.
The first factor is FUN. It has to be fun for kids in order to enjoy running. When play becomes work, children don’t enjoy it and start dropping out of it. In track and field more specifically, practices have to be fun in all aspects. Coaches/parents have to structure their practices in order to include specific times for games and unstructured play. For example, scheduling a game right after a long run when the runners are really tired and don’t have energy; however when the magic word “Game” is said, they suddenly find this burst of energy to play the game. These types of simple unstructured games make practices enjoyable and kids leave practice looking forward to the next one.
The second factor is that kids have to be successful at it. In order for kids to like something, they have to be successful. So, personal improvement has to be an aspect of running. Each athlete has a different ability and the ones who are less skillful are the most difficult to keep motivated; so personal improvement provides an opportunity for all athletes to be successful. If an athlete runs a mile in 15 minutes, he/she creates a goal to run it in 14:30. Once the athlete accomplishes this goal, he/she receives an incentive (e.g. a patch) and creates a new goal to continue improving. On the other hand, a very skillful athlete runs a mile in 5 minutes; he/she creates his/her own goal to develop the skills to run the mile in under 5 minutes. This incorporates success for everyone in the sport.
The third and last factor is competition. Kids like to compete at this age and without competition there is no development; so giving the kids the opportunity to compete builds a lot of self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Teams become teams and kids become athletes, so they can help their team to accomplish certain goals together. For example, in some programs, free races are provided for our teams and when our athletes see thousands of runners lined up (including adults), they realize the difference between being in the park practicing and being at a race competing (Martinez, 2011). It really provides a different view of the sport to the kids and builds their interest in progressing individually.
In conclusion, the three most important factors of play are the cornerstone to get middle and high school kids interested in track and field because they cover all the bases to keep them interested for life (Martinez, 2011).
“Just an additional thought, if your child has never been to a track meet before, how can you expect her to suddenly develop an interest in track and field? Depending on which sport you think she’ll enjoy, take her to a few games or meets to let her get a feel for the sense of school spirit, camaraderie and competition. She’ll be so excited by the games that she’ll be signing up to join in no time (Martinez, 2011)”!
Brandon Spradley was an All-SEC and Academic All-American track and field athlete at the University of Alabama currently pursuing his doctorate at the United States Sports Academy. Dr. Ted Phillips is Chair of Sport Studies at USSA. The authors wrote this piece after consultation with one of the New York Track Club coaches, German Martinez, to elicit his ideas.