I have a non-profit in Maine that uses distance running to help kids live happier lives. We support run clubs at local elementary schools, and I meet with the kids once each week to run and play active games with them. They are designed to be both fun and challenging.
Almost every session I have with almost every group is all Seven-Up and daisies. The kids are happy; they’re working and playing hard… appreciating each other and what’s happening around them. They laugh at my jokes. They listen to me. The time just sails away, and we’re done too soon. The kids say, “Thank you, Coach,” when they leave. I feel warm inside and whistle a happy tune as I drive home.
But not always. I had a group this spring that vexed me from the first time we met. It started as mostly boys, then became all boys. When the kids weren’t complaining, they were fighting with each other. Every kid wanted to be the fastest and would go to pieces if he didn’t finish first in warmups. The kids confused effort with punishment. There was cheating, lots and lots of cheating, in games where nothing was at stake. Every session, and I kept track, at least one of the kids would say: “This is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.” It is fair to say that such comments would leave a dirty little smudge on the shiny armor of my self-esteem. I whistled sad Scandinavian funeral dirges on my way home, if I whistled at all.
But I still looked forward to meeting with them. Eagerly. These were the kids I signed up for.
As the weeks wore on, I’d learn a little bit about the kids. They did not have easy lives, especially for kids. Most of them had never been in competitive environments before, so they had no idea how to compete, even in simple, friendly games. They knew they wanted to win, and that’s as far as they got. They needed to learn how to win and how to lose (lesson 1). Very few of them had any athletic background, so moving athletically was new and difficult. They needed to learn that new and difficult is good, not bad (lesson 2). They suspected and feared me, and they suspected and feared each other. They needed to learn to trust and appreciate me, and trust and appreciate each other (lesson 3). Three simple lessons.
Those were the same three simple lessons I needed to relearn myself.
Working with a group like this was new and difficult for me, and I needed to accept that new and difficult was good, not bad (lesson 2). This is an absolute core principle in Team Long Run’s mission, and believe me, it’s much easier said than done. I needed to trust and appreciate the kids… unconditionally (lesson 3). Again, much easier said than done. Once I committed to this, though, each session became valuable and meaningful, if not easy. I began to see the progress the kids were making, and it was real. Lastly, lesson 1: how to win and how to lose. I hated the feeling of not reaching a kid and winning them over on the spot. It felt like a failure. It felt like a loss. I began to learn from those interactions, from the “losses”. I’d review what went well, what went poorly, and how I could do better the next week. It caused me to think and plan with much more creativity than I had before. It tested my patience, and it tested my resolve.
The kids made progress. Lots of progress. There was still a lot of complaining, even on the last day, but less of it. There was still bickering, jeez there was bickering, but less of it. The kids could run farther. They could run far enough on the last day to reach a bend in the Cold River on a trail in the woods just about a mile from their school. The shallow water rushed through the boulders and stones and shimmered in the afternoon light. The boys threw stones into the river just to throw stones into a river. They smiled and laughed and for a while nobody whined and nobody cried. They had run there together, and they understood that running there was the only way to get there.
I let them stay in the deep pine shade of the bank for ten minutes before turning them back to catch the late bus. Nobody said it was the worst thing they’d ever done. Again, those are the kids I signed up for.