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Running Parent: How to Support Your Kid at Cross Country or Track

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Kids are mysterious creatures, at any age. One minute they love you and think you hung the moon and the next even the sound of your breathing could send them into a tailspin. This juxtaposition makes it even more amazing if your child shows an interest in running as a hobby.

In a world where swimming, gymnastics, soccer and some form of baseball, softball or t-ball rule the 12 and under activity circuit, it’s always fun to see any youngster take an interest in a sport that so many coaches and gym teachers use as a punishment. However, if you yourself are a runner ideally you’ve already shown them the fun side of running.

Most middle schools and high schools have track and cross country teams that are at the varsity and junior varsity level and when it comes to supporting them, especially in a sport you love and possibly excel at, the stakes get high. As a runner yourself, how do you best support your child running cross country or track?

You are Two Runners

Your child may be a wonderful extension of you, but they are not you. Let’s repeat that: they are not you. Recall, and continue to recall, when you first began running. It may have been at a very young age. You might have run in school or you could have begun in your 20s or even later.  Having your child take on your running routines, stretches, remedies and nutrition isn’t going to make them an advanced or seasoned runner any quicker.

The buildup of knowledge is gradual, just like everything else in life. You might think telling them every single thing you know about running will help them or give them the upper hand, but it will just annoy them. The best thing as runners we can do is to learn our own bodies and figure out what works for us. Share that knowledge with them. Guide them to listen to coaches, experts and maybe even you on occasion; use it as a way to give them the confidence to do it their own way.

Be Strategic in Advice Giving

You are their parent, not their coach and certainly not the older runners on the team they are trying to emulate. What you say will almost entirely go in one ear and out the other. If you hear your child complain about or mention a specific struggle then you can chime in, but do so briefly and in a conversational manner. Share an anecdote that drives your point home.

For example, let’s say your child is suffering from tight calves. Empathizing and sharing what you did that worked and didn’t work then moving on will be held in higher regard than insisting they try one particular fix that worked for you. What you need to show them is the trial and error of being a runner and that there are different ways for different people.

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Support Them Their Way, Not Yours

Just like any relationship, the way to support someone is to do it in a manner that speaks to them, not that works for you. With kiddos, it could be as simple as attending meets or not.  They may perform better when left without the cheering section. If your child wants you to stay home, as hard as it might be on you, do it for them.

You might also entirely disagree with their nutritional choices, again, not your cross to bear. If they are fueling for a race with a Pop-Tart and bag of Cheetos, keep other food options in the house and your mouth closed. If your child swears purple Gatorade is the best recovery drink out there, buy it in bulk and keep your mouth shut even if you think Gatorade is the sports drink of the devil. What you are doing is supporting choices made by them thus boosting their confidence.

Be Positive

Even if you know your child is not running to their utmost ability, it’s not really for you to bring up. That’s the coach’s responsibility. What you can say is that you are proud of any number of other factors that go into running: their commitment, their sportsmanship, being a good teammate, their focus, and effort.

While you might need to address the lack of effort if your child is begrudgingly running, make sure you are not comparing it to your efforts. This should be fun and something your child enjoys and should not be taken with the seriousness that an adult would. If you are extremely competitive and take things very seriously, make sure you are not projecting that on your child.

Safety First

If you witness truly dangerous nutritional habits like not eating or limited fluids as a parent you get free reign to speak your mind. It is your responsibility to speak up. If you feel uncomfortable about something, look into it. Think the coach is driving them too hard by being too demanding or verbally aggressive? Speak up.

It is your job as a parent to support, but much more so to keep your kid safe. Keep an eye on nutrition, weight and sleep quantity. Make sure teammates are a supportive group. There can be “hazing” by older kids on teams. A little light-hearted ribbing never hurt anyone, but if you see a red flag, pay attention.

As a runner, having a child who also wants to run can be awesome but it can set you up to be a know-it-all in their eyes. Do more listening than talking. Hopefully, your child falls in love with the sport as much as you have and it can be a life-long hobby you can enjoy together as you both grow older.

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