This week I started coaching an after school running program for girls. My older daughter is participating, and after the first day we both agreed that it was a lot more fun than we expected. It’s a nice group of about a dozen girls, eleven to fourteen years old, and we spent the first day getting to know each other and warming up to running. It was my first time coaching anything, so I was relieved that it went so well.
In this particular program the practices are all mapped out. All I have to do is show up and lead it along with three wonderful assistant coaches. The program is not just about running, it’s about teaching girls to feel good about themselves physically, as they begin their transition to adolescence. There are discussions worked into the activities and games that are designed to raise the girls’ awareness about negative thoughts or feelings they might have.
I have read that around the age of seven or eight, kids begin to be self-conscious of their actions. In my own experience teaching art, every six year old child seems to think they are the greatest artist that ever lived. Around second grade they begin to compare their drawings to others, and often feel theirs don’t measure up. It’s a normal stage of development but it’s also sad to watch vibrant kids who instinctively believe in themselves suddenly doubt their abilities.
By the time they are on middle school, kids are so self-conscious they often become reluctant to try anything they are not already good at, for fear of looking foolish. I have noticed this is particularly true for girls, and especially with physical activities. Boys tend to have a surplus of energy that needs to be expended and friends of mine with boys would always take their boys to the park or to a physical activity after school to run off the pent up energy they had from being in classrooms all day. Whereas my girls were very happy to go to a friend’s house and play games that involved a lot of sitting and talking. Of course there are boys who prefer not to play ball and girls who love sports, but I have noticed that boys and girls in general are different that way. It seems to me that even just having a brother can change the way a girl feels about herself physically.
There are a lot of programs out there today that are designed to help girls gain confidence in their physical abilities. It seems not only our educational system but the culture at large, subtly discourages girls from being involved in physical activities besides gymnastics and dance. I’m not sure where it happens; if it’s on the play ground, or during recess at school or in phys. ed. classes, but the vast majority of kids I know who do not feel confident about their physical abilities are girls. All these girl-centric sports programs designed to address this problem, are evidence that the problem exists.
I am a perfect example of someone who hated sports growing up and didn’t really learn how to be athletic until I was an adult. I liked skiing, and horseback riding but I hated team sports and gymnastics. There was no sport that I enjoyed year round until I discovered swimming in college. I also liked yoga, and as I got older I found I really enjoyed hiking, which eventually led to running. The best thing is that one can run anytime, and invite a friend to make it less boring. This running program aims to teach the girls that running can be a social, as well as a healthy activity for them.
On the first day of the after school program last week, we were all a little reserved. The kids were reluctant because they were afraid it would be boring or make them feel silly. I was nervous because I was afraid they wouldn’t like the activities. Reading through the first few lessons ahead of time, they seemed a little hokey to me. The language was slightly patronizing and even though I liked the ideas they were teaching, I worried that the girls would think it was all stuff they already knew. When we did our coaches training, we were encouraged to be super positive and high energy, but I am pretty low-key so that idea just made me more self-conscious. I would do it my way.
But much to my surprise, the first practice went extremely well. Even thought the girls were slightly reluctant to run around the little cones we had set up, and even though the games were a little silly, by the end they were all saying they had more fun than they expected to have. A seasoned coach from the program named Stacey was there on the first day to help get us off the ground and Stacey is the epitome of the super positive high energy coach. When she talks, her beautiful smile is always spread across her face and a bubbly laugh constantly erupts, as if everything you say is much funnier than you realized.
Stacey’s presence at our first practice was contagious. We all had fun because she was having such a good time. She was laughing at everything, smiling at all of us, not worrying about a thing and just there, it seemed, to help us relax and have a good time. As I led the practice I looked at her once and a while to get a shot of positive vibes from her smile.
I was curious to see how the next practices would go, without her infectious enthusiasm. I did things my way, which was more low-key but also, I hoped, a little more in tune with the girls. Sometimes all that gung ho hi energy rah rah rah can make some of us a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to fake it even though I had seen how Stacey’s presence had made a difference.
Our second practice was different without her there, but it was fine. I think all the girls were a little more relaxed, knowing what to expect, but they were still enthusiastic. I didn’t try to be like Stacey, bubbling over with enthusiasm, but I did realize as I was packing up on the second day, that I could definitely push myself a little more in that direction.
Some of the girls asked if Stacey would be coming back, and I said I would ask her to visit when she can. She really is a great example of having a positive attitude. And if I’m going to ask a group of middle school girls to push themselves to do their best, to be willing to look foolish or make mistakes, then I’m going to need to bring up my game, and bring more positive energy to practice with me.