"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." ~ Margaret Mead
There are certain beliefs I have about sports: 1) opportunity to compete should be fair and equal to all; 2) competition is healthy; and 3) it should be fun. Though as adults we view running as something we can all do regardless of our age, shape, or ability, we often fail to provide this opportunity for our kids. In a sport culture where professional sports have become spectacles of violence, stories of bad coaching practices dominate news headlines, and children forced to sit on the sidelines while the "good" kids play, as parents we might wonder whether sports, or competition more generally, is bad for our kids. For families who can, the recent trend is to enter children in non-competitive, alternative sports or leagues where there is no physical contact, no winners, no competition. Having fun is important for fostering long-term participation in physical activity, and I agree with a shift in perspective. I also think competition is important, it is not the root of the problem with sports, as competition is necessary for human development and success. Simply we need to learn how to win and lose in our lives and sports can provide a safe environment to gain this knowledge and experience. We have not sufficiently organized competitive sports for our children, often only focusing on the values of winning, not on opportunity and fun, or the art of performance. In the hierarchy of school sports, only the "good" kids get the chance to compete. Admittedly, I was one of "those" kids who developed talent for running early, and know the lifelong opportunities these experience can bring. So why do we limit participation by only selecting the top kids to compete in organized, competitive sports? Will taking competition out of sport change the problems we see in sport?
Literacy: Running & Reading
I have been volunteering for a non-profit, after school program that helps children break the cycle of poverty. Start2Finish is an organization that provides opportunities to school aged children to equally and fully participate in education - the Backpack Program is one example where kids receive all the learning materials they require to participate in class. The Running & Reading program takes place each week from October to June, where mentors like myself go to the club to run and read with the kids for 2 hours. Our goal at the end of the year is to complete a 5 km race. Each child signs a contract to help them achieve their running and reading goals. Literacy is a significant social issue in Canada, however, so is physical activity. Physical literacy is a concept that recognizes not just the physical abilities, but the range of physical capacities that: enable individual persons to make the most of their embodied dimension; enable them to interact with the world and to awaken the huge wealth of potential capacities; help them to become richer persons both in themselves and in respect of that which they know about the world (Whitehead, 2006). This program develops both forms of literacy.
Upon arriving at the school the morning of our 5 km race, I was greeted by a little girl named Sara. She had been eagerly waiting for me to arrive, and when she noticed me walking in the door she immediately ran over, quickly saying "Coach Melanie, you're my running buddy. I am so excited to race, I ran to school this morning so I wouldn't miss the bus". She was already wearing her race t-shirt and was waiting for me to help her pin her race number to her shirt and tie her shoes. Each child receives a pair of running shoes on race day in recognition for completing the program. This year New Balance donated the shoes and I happened to be wearing mine that day to race. "Coach Melanie, I am just like you", Sara beams as we sit on the ground while I am tying her shoes. Mine are much bigger than hers, and as I tie them I am reminded of the old logo used for the program, a kid in adult shoes.
Almost 1 million Canadian children live at or below the poverty line. Statistics indicate that obesity, lack of physical fitness, and low literacy are on the rise, especially among children living in low-income families. These families do not have the economic means to enroll children in community/sports activities or tutoring programs, purchase school supplies, and provide adequate nutrition. The Running & Reading Clubs operate directly within local inner city schools to improve physical, mental, emotional and social health by fostering discipline, goal-setting and literacy (information taken from Start2Finish website).
I first learned about the program when Silvia Ruegger was the guest speaker at the Canadian University Cross Country Running Championships in Guelph, Ontario in 2004. She talked briefly about her successes as a runner - she was humble and I only found out later that she still holds the Canadian record for the marathon - and focused on the role running has played in her life, and the program she was involved in called Running & Reading. A couple years later I had moved to Edmonton, Alberta to start my PhD and started volunteering for Running & Reading club.
We got to the race site via a school bus, a treat for kids who don't often leave their neighborhood. Sara and I walked around. I took her for a walk around the start/finish area so she knew what to look for. I do this before all my races, and shared this trick with her - "when you hit this point, smile and run because you are done!". When we were called over to the start, Sara followed her older sister Saba close to the front of the crowd. Saba is a great runner and will have a good chance of winning the race. She has done this before and this is her last year before she graduates into grade 7 , but she plans to come back as a junior coach next year. Sara, who turns 7 later this year, admires her older sister very much. I remember the first couple weeks of the program, Sara was so shy because this was her first year, she would often hold Saba's hand during the run portion. Sara is holding my hand while we waited for the start of the race.
I gave her advice adults often give kids - don't go out too fast, remember to pace yourself; and no matter what the outcome, I am proud of you. During the race, Sara was breathing heavy, so I reminded her it was OK to walk, we have a long way to go yet. She did not slow down, this seemed to make her go faster. Clearly she was determined to run the entire way, and I got teh message to should shut up and let her run! I remember a few weeks back, we did a 20 minute practice run. Sara ran the entire time, and Saba reminded me that she ran 64 laps around the gym while Sara ran 60. I noticed Saba ahead of us, and let Sara know we were catching her, that if we maintained the same pace, we might catch her by the end of the race. This seemed to motivate Sara, so I regularly encouraged her by letting her know our progress instead of telling her we can walk to catch our breath. With 1 km left, we caught up to Saba who had to walk to relieve a side-stitch. Sara kept going and Saba decided to start running again, ignoring the pain by "pretending it is dust blowing away". The four of us, sisters Saba and Sara and coaches, finished the race together. Saba finishing 3rd and Sara 4th. These were not just kids filling adult shoes: their sense of commitment and achievement to a goal, focus and self-determination was enviable to any adult who had ever laced up to ran a 5 km. The new logo for the program shows that of a kid growing up. Both were happy with their performances because they have been training and measuring their progress. We cheered on kids as they finished their race, enjoyed some dancing and music, and ice cream popsicles.
I am a runner, and like most runners, I run to become more than a runner: we run to become better selves and improve the quality of our lives. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, which we work with together in training and racing. We try to (and like to) win, are competitive, and strive to get faster (which sometimes we don’t). As adults, we enjoy being active, doing something we love, being cheered on by loved ones, hanging with friends and enjoy each other's race stories. Why do we not provide the same for our kids? This concept was foreign to most of these kids, who in the first couple weeks asked "I get to run the race too, but I'm not fast!". Unlike school sports teams, all these kids got the chance to compete, and 36 of the 40 kids in the program made it to race day, and all of them who started finished their 5 km race. I wish all kids had the opportunity to participate on sports teams like the Running & Reading Club, and learn to compete with compassion.