Recently there has been a spotlight in the media about New Zealand children’s apparent distaste for cross country running. A sport NZ research project showed that 27% of children between the age of 6-13 do not enjoy the practice. Whilst 73% of children said that they did enjoy cross country this was significantly less than other physical pastimes such as playing with their friends (99%) or organised physical education (94%) and club sport (92%).
It saddens me deeply that in a country with such a proud tradition of competitive runners both on the track, road and trail, and with school cross country being undertaken by an age group who are a) natural runners and b) malleable and enthusiastic, that cross country is not celebrated; rather than maligned or tolerated by the participants and organisers. Simply put, children’s school cross country sucks in its current form..but it doesn’t have to.
I love running. It is a significant component of my life. Rugby was my main sport as a youngster, and I developed my love of running later in early adulthood. At 10 years old, I would have balked at the senseless manner in which preparation for cross country is delivered by many schools. Endless meaningless laps around the block or field every day, in the name of “health and fitness”. Where is the fun in that? I can say that the probability of me developing the cross country cough would have been high. An athlete who I coach and has three primary school age children and discussed the school’s preparation for the event with a mix of incredulity and disgust. “Imagine if you were training me to run a half marathon, and the training window was really short. Every day you had me run a half marathon, in preparation for my half marathon. Then, the week of the half marathon, you had me do a couple of half marathons and then, two days before the event you had me go to the event and run it at race pace as practice. How would you expect me to perform? The kids are exhausted, dumbfounded and completely burnt out. They hate it”.
How then do we make cross country enjoyable and worthwhile for children? And in the process grow adults who have an appreciation of running and its benefits? Simple. Make it FUN.
We are mammals- established wisdom is that young mammals (of all species) learn essential skills through play. For us as humans, the ability to run comparatively long distances was a key element to our success as a species, and something that was learnt by our anscestors as children. Likewise your puppy adorably shaking that rag he loves? That is him atavistically practising breaking the spine of whatever small creature his ancestors caught for food. Does he look like he’s having fun doing it? Absolutely, because he is. In the same way as the puppy shaking the rag, let's make practice for cross country fun. Get the children playing a bunch of running related games and they’ll probably get the same physiological benefit without even realising that they have done the same amount of running as if they had been running meaningless laps. Stuck In The Mud is one of my favourite games to play with groups of kids (and adults) as it utilises agility, explosive speed is physically taxing, and above all else is a tonne of fun.
Make the race FUN! (and, yes. I believe that fun and competitiveness go hand in hand). Use natural obstacles, make some step ups or steeples. Heck, have the children do it in fancy dress if they want to (singlespeed mountain bike racing, anyone?) anything to get the children engaged and enjoying being active whether for competition or recreation.
I would suggest strongly that the role of parents and teachers in children’s attitudes towards cross country is integral to the child’s engagement. If parents see cross country as something that was forced upon them, that they did not enjoy or see sense in, then they are going to not advocate for it in an enthusiastic or authentic manner. Likewise, if the teaching staff at the school cross country see cross country as something to endure, or worse, to provide it “the way we always have” then again, no wonder significantly more children dislike it than other physical activity.
Finally, I would point out that in today’s world we have access to far more information around children’s development and what works for them (or doesn’t) at different age groups. I suggest to you that the majority of school cross country is being run on a model that was prevalent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It’s entirely possible, indeed probable, that our school cross country courses are just too long.
The Youth Physical Development model suggests that between the ages of 6-13 children have the best opportunity to develop fundamental movement skills, agility, speed, and power. The model also suggests that they are unlikely to develop endurance until towards the end of adolescence and into adulthood. As they move into adolescence and adulthood it becomes much more challenging for us to develop the fundamental movement skills that are so readily available during childhood. In a way, it’s like the old dog, new trick analogy. So instead of focusing on having our children going long because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” lets focus on fundamental movement skills, agility, speed, and power. With that in mind, the distances should be short. I understand completely that some children are going to excel if their cross country is three kilometres. Unfortunately, I hypothesise that the longer the event is, the less enjoyment will be had by the majority. The current state of school cross country is thrown into sharp focus when we consider that the Athletics NZ guidelines are for 6-7 year olds 1000m, 8-9 year olds 1000-1500m, and 10-11 year olds 1000-2000m.
The more engaged, interested, and energised by adaptive expressions of physical exertion we make our children are the more likely that those children are to grow into adaptive, fit and healthy adults. Cross country can play an integral part in this process. My call of action to you as readers of this is to engage with your local schools for the cross country program to have the meaningless repetition and boredom removed and a large dose of fun injected in its place, for the above reason and also because I believe that greater engagement garners greater success. As I said before, school cross country sucks at the moment. But it doesn’t have to.