Elements of Cross Country – Part Five: Starting Young

Do you have trouble getting your athletes or children to go to practice? Do they enjoy running? Are they running on their own? Are there times when you as a coach get very frustrated with your student-athletes?

Rod Dixon, Patti Percival, and Russ Anteronen have extensive experience working with very young children, and many of their runners have gone on to have outstanding athletic careers later in life. If you get into what they say some of the problem questions above may be answered for you!

Rod Dixon

Dixon was a four-time Olympian from New Zealand who won the bronze medal in the 1972 1500-meter run. He moved up in distance over the years and was the #1 ranked 5000-meter runner in the world in 1975. Then in 1983 he won the New York City Marathon in 2:08.59 in a thrilling come from behind victory. He is in his 15th year with his Rod Dixon's KiDSMARATHON Foundation.

He has programs in various parts of the world but primarily he works for inner-city schools in the Los Angeles Area, Nevada, Connecticut, Ireland and New Zealand. He is just as proud of the many other programs based on his ideas he has supported. Rod Dixon's KiDSMARATHON has engaged 500,000 KiDS (and many parents and families).

What I like to do is meet them in the classroom and provide a little introduction. I share with them thoughts and ideas about changing their eating and drinking habits. I share the program 5-2-1-0, which means 5 fruits and vegetables, 2 hours maximum screen time, 1-hour activity/moving, and 0 sugar sweetened drinks. During this time, I often engage the KiDS with some stand up exercises to keep them focused.

Then we go outside, and I have 3 boys and 3 girls suggest exercises to warmup the body. We then run around the school or a homemade track. What always happens is some kids start out very fast and get a big lead on the group. What I do is clap three times/blow a whistle and have everyone stop. Then we turn around and run the opposite direction with the former leaders now in the back and the trailers in front.

After doing this a few times they quickly get the idea that it does not pay to start out fast and try to leave your mates behind. This is a team effort.

I take time out to talk to the kids and find out what they want to do. I learn more from them than parents and other adults, teachers exempt though. There will be some reluctant kids, so I always tell the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. It is okay to walk and run. The idea is to run/walk each day's distance comfortably. We have the fast kids help the slower ones to get their laps done.

If a few are really struggling and do not want to run at all, I challenge them. I ask them if they can run to the tree or a cone. Then after walking I ask them to run a bit further. After a lap I tell them that was wonderful! "Look what you just did you ran most of one lap!," I'll say. When I return to that school sometime later those same kids are showing me how far they can run!

The idea of the program is to run 26.2 miles, one mile at a time. Some schools do a lot more though if it is a longer 40 week "in school" run club program. Some schools combine their student miles and might run from California to New York. The teachers can mix in some geography and history.

My Olympic medal does not sit in a case, I carry it wherever I go. There are no firsts, seconds, or thirds in our program. Winning is Finishing - Finishing is Winning, and everyone gets their very own replica of my medal when they complete their Final Mile.

I can tell you many stories of how I know this is working. Recently I went to the USA City Games where they have lacrosse, basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball, and track and field. Many kids who were entered cheered when they saw me. Someone asked me how I knew all those kids. I told them I didn't. I went down and talked to the kids and most were around 15-16 years old. It turns out that they had been in my KiDSMARATHON program when they were as young as 7-8 years old.

They said what they got out of the program was learning how fun participation in sports could be. I asked them if they were at USA City games just to participate and they all told me, NO, they were there to compete and win!

Nick Willis of New Zealand was in a similar Running Club program to KiDSMARATHON starting at age 12. He wound up winning the silver medal for 1500 in the 2008 Olympic games, and the bronze medal in the 2016 Olympic games.

Parents and Family are 100% behind our program because it is totally positive. At some schools, parents are there and that puts extra pressure on the kids to perform, and that's disappointing, because parents have expectations for their kids and kids know it.

Kids are born to move. They need to be spontaneous. You must give them their own time when they can do stuff. They need to "learn by doing" within their abilities.

I encourage kids to explore all types of movement. For example, we really need to use both feet when we run but one foot will be dominant. I tell kids that they can't get smarter if they only use one side of their brain. When you use your left foot, you are using the right side of your brain and vice versa.

I show them by having the lefties dribble a tennis ball, and the righties using a basketball how this works. We live in a right-handed world, So, I get them to put their dominant hand behind their back. Who wins the dribbling race? The lefties will win because they adapt and become skilled with their non-dominant hand. You can do the same thing with shooting a basketball. It will take longer for the righties to shoot well with their left hand.

Another thing I teach to both kids and adults is to "ground yourself." By this, I mean there should be times where you go barefoot. Kids can have races over soft surfaces, grass fields, sand and they love it. You do have to ease into this, especially if you are an adult. The main premise of our programs is to teach them to love movement. It can be walking, running, or drills but let them do it for fun. Let them decide when to become competitive. I'm convinced this is the best way to get KiDS active and healthy from K-5 at Elementary school.

Let them determine how fast and long they will run when they are young. In high school you can do long runs up to 8-10 miles, but not often, and do them at conversation pace or slower. I have talked to Peter Snell, a top exercise physiologist and three-time Olympic Gold Medalist for New Zealand. I asked him what he would change about Arthur Lydiard training. He said, "very little."

Why is running important? One out of every three children are obese and 70% have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Research has shown that there is an undisputable correlation between daily activity and academic performance. Yet what we do is cut Music, Art and PE, sports, and recess for math and science.

The Centers for Disease Control reports the following benefits of physical activity for children: cerebral capillary growth, production of neurotrophins, growth of nerve cells in the hippocampus, brain tissue volume, neural network density, all equated to improved attention span, a better, faster memory and enhanced coping.

If you want to know more about Rod Dixon's programs, contact him at info@kidsmarathonfoundation.org or visit www.kidsmarathonfoundation.org

Patti Percival

Percival is the head girls cross country and track & field coach at White Bear Lake High School. She became a member of the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 2016. She began coaching at White Bear Lake as an assistant in 1988, then became a head coach at Mounds View in 1990, where she had three teams finish second in the state cross country meet. In 2007 she took the head coaching job at WBL. They have made it to state in cross country 8 times. Both Patti and David Percival have been teaching middle school physical education and coaching at the high school level for 26 years. As Patti Walsh at Mounds View High School her times were 14.9 for 100 hurdles; 2:17 for 800; 5:07 for the mile; and a 58.5 split for a state champion 4 x 400 relay team. Then "Walsher" was a scholarship distance runner for Gary Wilson at the U of MN with a personal best of 16:50 in the 5K.

Success can come easy for 7th and 8th graders. Then around 10th grade many girls have body changes that occur, and this can make it much more challenging to run fast. This can become disheartening. Unfortunately, they might start to lose confidence, feel the pressure to perform and potentially lose their desire to run.

This is not what I want for them. I want running to be something they feel good about.

There are states that do not allow 7th and 8th graders to compete at the varsity level. I kind of wish our states had that rule. The big argument about that in our state is that small schools feel that they would not be able to field enough runners. But what do other states which follow this rule do? They also have small schools.

I do have mixed feelings though about this. Since our state high school league allows 7th and 8th graders to compete at the high school level I feel the pressure to run these young athletes to stay competitive. We would not be as good without them. However, I do pay attention to their age and keep expectations and training volumes low. I feel that the younger athletes do not need as much training as the older athletes.

At White Bear the middle school runners come to practice at 3:30 while the high school kids are there at 3:00. So, in many cases I can have the older group do a bit more while we are waiting for the middle school athletes to arrive. Our training groups are ability-grouped, so of course this is not true with every young runner.

It is very hard to find that healthy balance when it comes to young runners. We have had good young runners in recent years. Our number one runner won our section meet last year, eighth grader Maggie Blanding. Sometimes you forget and treat them like the older kids!

You asked me when a young person is ready to run at the varsity level, and I think it's truly hard to say. It is a case-by-case situation. 7th and 8th graders come in all levels of maturity. The main thing is that you want them to be doing it because they love it, not just because they are good at it.

I started cross country running in 10th grade and sometimes I think that I would have been better if I had started sooner. However, I enjoyed basketball, soccer, and tennis too. I think I started at the right time. We are too one-sport specific these days.

It's sad that so many kids at the middle school level feel they must give up all their sports for one. They should get the chance to try everything they want, then decide later in high school. We have more and more kids choose one sport from a really young age and that is sad.

Because how do you know at 12 years old that you will not be better at another sport? How do you know if you might like a different sport in a few years better? In two or three years of playing one sport all year, how do you know whether you will still like it down the line?

I feel fortunate to grow up when I did. I was also able to play a variety of sports like basketball, soccer, tennis, Nordic skiing and of course track and cross country. We did not train in the off season. We played each sport during that season only and then when the season was over we moved on to the next sport. I think this was much healthier than what we are now doing with kids today. Being in other sports helped me develop other skills such as my speed which later helped me in distance running.

The money and time spent by parents is also a limit on kids whether parents realize it or not.

Kids do not "play" anymore. Sports have become highly organized, high stakes competitions. We act as if our kids are professional athletes, or that they are going to become professional athletes. "Play" is an important word if we are thinking of their best interests' long term. Let it be play first, later they can get serious if they so desire.

Athletes are running faster now. I believe it's a combination of more consistent year-round training, better/smarter training, along with better nutrition and hydration. The technology of running has improved greatly which helps improve performances. Athletes now have access to personal trainers, physical therapist, massage therapist, sports doctors, etc ... I think all of things factor into faster performances.

I would like to think that I have become wiser as a coach when it comes to making decisions about athletes that are injured or sick. You can never err too much on the side of caution in most cases. Taking a little time off when you first have any injury can ultimately save you time in the long run. I have learned that in most cases one or two days off will do a world of good for the injury or illness.

I would tell parents of very young children who want to know how to train an elementary school child to not have them run every day and keep things fun and at a very low level. It should be totally about fun at that age. Instead of having them do a specific workout like 8x400, let them tell you how many they want to do. Or better yet, take them out to the track and have them just run and stop completely when they want to. Have them run at the speed they desire.

As far as giving a young kid a vision for running it is important that we keep in mind that genetics do play an important role in what they will ultimately do. When I recruited for Gary Wilson at the University, we spent a lot of time speculating what the potential upside of an athlete might be. We had questions such as, were they undertrained in high school, can they handle work, have they ever been injured? Wilson was once asked the secret to recruiting the right athlete and he showed a photo of our All-American runner Heather Kampf's parents! Once they get to the college level they usually only improve 1-3% every season. Body changes and weight gain/weight loss are also factors that impact the success of collegiate athletes.

It can be very hard to determine a young person's ultimate potential. If you are a parent reading this, you should know that even if you know as much or more than the coach, you really do not help the situation at all by interfering. The best thing you can do is to be supportive of the coach, the runner, and the sport.

Russ Anteronen

Anteronen a 1966 graduate of Minneapolis Central High, had these times: 100 yd 10.6; 220 yd 23.8; 400 52.5; and 800 2:05. Post high school he ran 11.1 100 meters hand timed, and a 220 in 23.3 vs Mark Lutz who ran 21.3. Lutz went on to run the same event at the 1976 Olympic Games. He paid his own way to compete in Five World Masters and in 1989 ran the 100 vs 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist Eddie Hart. He was an assistant coach for two years at Minneapolis Washburn, and is currently in the middle of a 14-year stint at Minneapolis Southwest. He has also been with the Hospitality House Striders (now Eagles Wings Track Club) for 22 years.         

All youth have tremendous potential which we start to develop as early as 6 years old in summer track. We have many events (including Hammer, Javelin, Racewalk, Steeplechase, and Multi-events) and most youths will find an event that is fun or challenging. Even though the trend for distance is just easy mileage in summer; some would benefit from at least one year of Minnesota and/or National Junior Olympic running to work on skills and build confidence.

We encourage our athletes do a variety of sports until at least the age of 15; as they tend to be more well-rounded and not burned out. Some of our kids that don't do a winter sport do some easy plyometrics, strength, and specific form work preparing for some fun introductory indoor meets. In some cases, we do body weight exercises to prevent injuries.

We let kids have some say in what they do. We have had athletes who were middle distance runners turn out to be high school sprinters because they had the advantage of specific speed endurance that many kids do not develop. We have also had some distance runners such as Emily Covert who did a lot of the sprint drills and technique work. She knows how to find an extra gear at the end of a race partly because of those skills she practiced from a very early age. We were not serious though at all with her when she was a beginner. We let her decide when it was time to get serious.

Covert has been on the podium consistently but culminated her 2016 Junior Olympics with first in the nation in the 15-16 girls 3000 and a second in the 1500 meters. We had athletes earn 4 medals in 2017 at the nationals. What I wish people knew is that our program is very low key, and we have kids from other sports train with us. We only practice two days per week. Practices are free; however, you do have to pay for the meets.

Because of our well-rounded approach with a staff of nine adults, many of our student-athletes have went on to gain college scholarships. In 2017 alone, the following kids from our program received either an academic or athletic scholarship - Chauntel Fleming, Esther Ojebode, Honour Finley, Tyarra English-Paulson,  Jada Lewis, Selin Dikmen, Malachi Lossow, and Javien Versey. We believe in teaching the whole child, not just training athletes for the pros.