When the air turns crisp and cool and the leaves begin to fall, I always think about my years as a middle school cross country coach. It is probably the most bizarre sport to coach or watch your child compete in.
After a thrilling start where your runner or runners are swallowed in a sea of jersey-clad competitors, you may once or twice (if you are lucky) see them dart out of the woods for a moment during the race. Finally, they will emerge again from the woods for a big sprint to the finish. The total time of the whole 3K event is usually under 20 minutes (and sometimes as fast as 11 or 12 minutes) — of which you might get to see one minute. It can be a helpless feeling as a parent or a coach because there really is not much you can do once they hit the starting line except offer the occasional shout of encouragement. Which, in true middle school fashion, they will likely pretend not to hear or acknowledge in any way.
Unlike many other sports, cross country running provides some valuable lessons in raising our children. In an age of helicopter parenting, here are some ways that our children can benefit from us parenting more like a cross country coach.
1) Focus on “training.” When our children are young, we should spend time with them “practicing” the disciplines of faith, just like a coach teaches the skills involved with running. We must not rely only on time spent at church to impart all the important lessons either. We “train” them by worshipping with them at church but also teaching them how to pray, telling them the stories of our faith, serving others alongside them, and helping them navigate difficult times. As parents, we must trust in the biblical wisdom: “Train up a child in the way in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV). As I often yelled during cross country meets, we should all “trust our training.” We must teach our young adults to lean into the muscle memory of the practice that they have put in through the years. At some point, though, we know that they will head off alone and make their own decisions on the faith journey. We just have to pray we have prepared them for what lies ahead and that they will find their way home again.
2) Make them run some hills. Just like cross country coaches make their athletes practice running hills to build stamina for the difficult parts of the race, parents should teach children how to run the hills of life — to struggle and persevere with the strength gained through Christ and community. We must stretch them both physically and mentally to handle the challenges ahead. Making “practice” too easy will not benefit them in the long run. We must not swoop in to be our children’s savior for every problem they encounter. We cannot run the race for them.
3) Encourage good running buddies. We can also help our children choose the right running partners. Cross country running is a mental as well as a physical sport, utilizing the pacing of teammates and competitors is important for a successful race. The runners must choose who they run with carefully. Too speedy of a runner will burn them out quickly and leave them with nothing left in their tank. Too slow of a runner will cause them not to reach their full potential. We should teach our children how to choose good running-mates that will challenge them without leaving them behind or dragging them down. As Proverbs 27:17 says, iron sharpens iron. We want companions that can both encourage us and hold us accountable. As parents and coaches, though, we are often confined to the sidelines as they go and run their own races. When the time comes, we must trust that the spirit will be their guide in selecting their running partners.
4) Focus on “PRs.” Cross country focuses a lot on “personal records.” Athletes find themselves running against their own prior times and tracking their own success based on past performance. Each week, I used to give a “Golden Banana” jersey to the runner that dropped the biggest percentage in mile time. Inevitably the slowest runner would at one point gain this honor. Thus, even runners that may finish near last were celebrated for making huge strides to lower their times. In a competitive world, sometimes we focus too much on what is going on around us rather than running our own races. We get caught up trying to keep up with someone we have no business trying to emulate. God has gifted us all differently. Focusing on “PRs” helps young people remember the goal is for them to work to be a better version of themselves. It allows them to have a “bad day” and know that they can rebound. There is nothing like hearing a young person say “that was a really good run for me.”
5) Teach goal setting. Runners have to know the different paces at which they need to run as they train. After gauging an early benchmark of ability, it is important to set a goal that is obtainable with consistent practice. Running can teach this skill tangibly to athletes as they see their times drop over the course of the season. One cannot just go out and be faster without taking small steps to improve. This same principle can be applied to their work in the classroom or activities. It even can apply to their faith journey. Setting tangible goals for spiritual practices can help immature believers establish a rule of life that includes connection points such as service to others, attending worship, scripture reading, or prayer. Can they try to find a time once a week to serve others? Can they read one Psalm a day? Can you lead them in daily prayer?
6) Don’t forget to taper. Protected time to rest is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children. Runners know that you cannot go out and run your hardest right before a big race. Tapering is part of most running plans as we reduce mileage and speed before a competition. The rest ensures fresh legs to propel us forward when we need it most. Just like we often overlook Sabbath rest, tapering is counter-intuitive to a world that thrives on procrastination and cramming. Teaching kids to balance working hard with scheduled rest is a gift that will help them manage future life and career demands.
Thus, raising children should be much like coaching them to run a cross country race. While they will have others around them, at the end of the day, the choices will be theirs alone to make. It is not a sprint. They must watch their step so they do not stumble, and they should finish as strong as they start. As our children grow to young adulthood, we see them line up on their own starting lines. We become like those cross country fans watching the pack go off into the woods, saying a silent prayer that they will trust their training, rely on a higher power, and return to us, strengthened by the journey. Our job will simply be to exuberantly cheer them on — determined to embarrass them with our enthusiasm!
Sarah Blackwell is a 2020 graduate of the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. She is a former deacon and volunteers with youth and young adults at Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Her favorite part of being a middle school cross country coach was carb-loading for meets that she did not actually run in. Follow her writings at www.proximitytolove.org.