We can all agree on the value of kids running simply for the fun of it, and for the development of healthy bodies and sharp minds. During road races, adult runners and spectators often speak words of encouragement (and sometimes, amazement) as fleet-footed youngsters zip past. Despite all of these motivators, it's no secret that many kids find their greatest joy in competing. For them, there is nothing more satisfying than collecting some well-deserved hardware (a medal or trophy) at the end of a gutsy race.
To better motivate young runners, most of whom participate in races of 10k or less, race organizers should offer multiple youth age divisions. Unfortunately, many races still feature "14 and under" and even "18 and under" divisions. Imagine being an outstanding nine-year-old runner, able to beat the majority of the pack at road races, yet competing for awards against teenagers and young adults twice as old, twice as tall, and twice as strong. Where's the logic and motivation in that?
Pre-adolescent bodies and physical abilities differ greatly within a narrow range of ages. With the onset of puberty, all sorts of physical disparities occur during the development of young hearts, lungs, muscles, and bones. Most of that biological barrage takes place between the ages of 10 and 14. Incredible differences in height and muscle development are usually obvious as kids gather at the starting line, and age has much to do with those differences. Doesn't it make sense to demonstrate our understanding of these facts by providing more equitable age divisions for youth - to deal with what we're seeing?
Young runners and their parents should ask road race organizers to consider adding more age divisions in the future (e.g., 9-10, 11-12, 13-14, 15 and up). Race organizers are good folks who love runners and running, but some of them may not have considered this issue. What we're talking about here are easy changes to make a good thing better. Money (the cost of additional awards) is sometimes claimed as the rationale for limiting the number of youth age divisions. That argument simply isn't good enough. Where there's a will to reward and motivate young runners, there's a way, and some race directors are making it happen successfully.
Special awards should also be given to the top finishers of "fun runs" for kids (e.g., ages 10 and under running half mile). Who doesn't enjoy winning an award and applauding those who do? A token ribbon for all runners is wonderful, but some small speedsters take their running very seriously. They deserve something special for getting in shape, running hard, and finishing in front. It's hard to imagine a positive message being conveyed to them as they watch adult top finishers being the only ones recognized at award ceremonies.
As kids get older, there will be many sports and other activities from which to choose. We should begin rewarding kids now in order to encourage them (especially the best of them) to stick with running later. If motivated properly, outstanding young road racers may go on to represent their schools and communities proudly in cross-country and track. Once that happens, they are more likely to return to the road race scene. Distance champion Steve Prefontaine once said, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift". Talented youth will find motivation in running only if they receive our very best support.
Run The Planet thanks Jay Harris for the permission to reprint the article "Attention Race Directors: Reward and Motivate Those Young Runners!". Jay Harris coaches middle school cross-country and the Distance Demons (distancedemons.homestead.com), a running club for kids in the Green Bay area (Usa/Wisconsin). He also organizes an annual 5k run for kids.