Teaching kids not to fear cross country

In Uncategorized by Jo Bowden

For schools in metro Melbourne, it’s ‘cross country season’ and in the primary years, grade 3-6s across the city are participating in events of two to three kilometres at their local park or around the school.
While steering clear of a discussion about the whys, wherefores and value of these particular running events – their intended purpose and the delivery model – not to mention the interminable pathway of local and regional events, as the stronger performers get escalated to the ‘next round’, it’s appropriate that we look at what parents can do to support and encourage their young runner. Let’s face it, in a typical school environment there will be some kids who relish the opportunity to test themselves, but for a majority, running the distance is hard and can be a negative experience.

The lead-up to school cross country should not be an anxious time for kids or parents. Instead, it should be an opportunity to participate in physical activity with friends and peers, that promotes teamwork, fitness, personal goals and student development. BUT……..

We hear frequently from parents who tell us, “my child HATES cross country, it is the worst day of their school year. How can I help them not make it such a miserable experience?”.
Physical activity, in the various forms it is delivered at school, should always be considered in an educational context. And it should endeavour to have a positive impact on the participant.

Cross country should be an opportunity to introduce running as a lifelong activity. The enormous popularity of recreational and community running events proves there is an appetite for this. We do not necessarily advocate children enter these runs, as physical activity, like learning, needs to be age appropriate, however the ‘fun run’ experience, can be part of the school cross country, if parents and educators collaborate. Collectively, we should assist in creating a positive experience in the lead up to the cross country, so that our kids can enjoy the day and look forward to further opportunities to continue with their running, through school and into adulthood.

To help kids feel prepared for cross country, they should have the chance to ‘rehearse’. Just as junior participation programs for various team sports, swimming or tennis lessons, or taking the stage for the school play or musical occur in the context of skill and learning progressions, so should the cross country run. If you or another adult can support your child’s preparation and create a positive experience, then there is a greater chance of your child gaining enjoyment and satisfaction.

You can help, by taking them to a local oval or park where they feel comfortable. Choose a starting point and, depending on your child’s fitness, get them to JOG for 3-5mins. Go at a pace where you can chat to each other; this is really important. Stop after your predetermined time (3-5mins) rest for 90secs – 2mins, then run back to the starting point, aiming to get there in the same time or less, than it took you on the way out. That is, pacing yourself for the duration of the run. Depending on how many weeks you have before the cross country, you can try this a few times and gradually increase the time or distance run, or, repeat the efforts, so that you are doing 3 or even 4 times 3 minutes, at an even pace or increasing pace.

Whilst completing this running session, you want your child to understand that:
• It is OK to run slowly or at a manageable pace
• Running for a few minutes and resting or walking is ok; it is a good way to develop endurance
• Running is a social activity, so chatting with family/ friends is encouraged
• Spending time outdoors in a pleasant location is enjoyable, so choose your run venue accordingly
• Be consistent in your messages around your child’s participation in all sport. If you can model and encourage enjoyment and satisfaction in the ‘performance’ rather than the result (place or time) they will understand that personal goals are the key determinant of success. This is true regardless of where your child finishes.

There are lots of reasons why kids can gain from a positive early experience of running. There is NO good reason why they should be put off because of what happens relatively early in their schooling. We all have to work together – parents, teachers, coaches and kids – to ensure that cross country, like all junior sports, is fun, engaging, team-oriented and lays a foundation for continued participation.