A child’s teenage years can be some of the most difficult. With their developing minds, personalities, and bodies, we parents often struggle right along with our children during this time. Many parents seek activities for their children that they will not only enjoy, but within which they will thrive. Throw in today’s challenge of keeping teens healthy in a world of unhealthy temptations like junk food and a sedentary lifestyle of electronics, and we have our work cut out for us.
But there is a terrific solution for these challenges that seems too easy to be true, but actually is true.
That’s it. OK, there’s a little more to it than that. I’m a high school cross-country and track coach, and I have discovered that this purest of sports provides one of the best solutions for many ills associated with teens.
What is cross-country? Sure, everyone knows what track & field is, but what about its less glamorous cousin? Some of the images we conjure when we hear “cross-country” are accurate. We run in the rain, in the mud, up and down hills, on trails, and so on. But here are a few things you may not know.
Cross-country is a true team sport. You can’t really hide someone out in right field, hoping no one hits it there. Every team has to have at least five good runners to score well because team scoring is simply the sum of the finishing places of a team’s first five runners. In fact, it is often the 4th or 5th runners’ placing that determine whether a team makes the podium or is left dreaming about next year. Runners who are the 3rd, 4th, or 5th best on their team are often racing amid many more competitors than the guys or gals up front, so these runners can shave more points off of their team’s score by running a little faster, simply because there are more runners nearby to pass.
Time doesn’t matter. What? Don’t all runners obsess over times? Remember the scoring system described above? All that matters is one’s place. This is a key element that separates cross-country from most other running. What it means is that cross-country runners know that they can’t worry about what their time is during a race. Whether they are running slower or faster than expected, the only important thing is to finish ahead of others.
Sportsmanship and camaraderie are organic. This is something I only noticed about the sport since I started coaching. In a world where we seem to have to teach kids to be respectful of each other, support each other, and show good sportsmanship, it seems like these kids don’t have to be taught. Go to any high school cross-country meet and you’ll see dozens, or even hundreds of young student-athletes supporting and cheering each other, shaking each others’ hands – essentially doing everything we hope to see in every youth sport.
One thing that we all could probably have guessed about cross-country is that it’s a great way for teens to stay healthy. Every coach knows that runners need to have healthy “fuel” and water just to do the bare minimum at practices. And getting young people into a habit of exercising – a lot! – every day is a sure fire way to avoid childhood obesity. Seeing dozens of 14-17-year olds happily bounding off onto 6-, 8-, 10-mile runs never fails to renew my hope for the next generation!
- Marty Beene, owner of Be The Runner, is Assistant Coach for the Alameda High School Cross-Country and Track teams in Alameda, CA. In addition to coaching, Marty has been a competitive runner since 1978, and has competed in events from 60m to the marathon. Just this year, he has competed in the 800m, 1500m, 5k, 10k, and 12k, and is nationally ranked in the 800m and 1500m in his age group. Marty writes a blog oriented toward an audience of teenagers new to cross-country called “So, You Wanna Run Cross-Country?”