"How Young is Too Young?"
For every case of a Mary Decker there are thousands of age-groupers who are burned out before they even get to high school. But what really constitutes a 'burn out', is it simply starting too young? Doing too much too young, being too intense, too early? But then, what is 'too young'?
Running is an intense sport; physically of course, but mentally too. Doctors and scientist can wage the debate on the effects of pounding on a still yet-to-be-developed body, but taking that out of the equation, training takes a steely, mental drive.
Hard work and dedication pays off in our sport, but at the same time all of that seriousness is a bit in contrast to what one typically would envision as children at play. Or more fittingly there is a line to be toed with young runners: bolstering their confidence and introducing them to some regular running is one thing, watching a parent pull them out to the track and shouting at them during each interval is quite different.
I've known parents who, as runners themselves, encouraged their kids to play a variety of other sports, even steered them away from running. Their reasoning was they wanted to ensure their children found the sport themselves AND that if they did they were at age where they had 'had their fun' and could handle the demands of training like a distance runner.
Parents and Coaches
The role of parents and coaches as they fit into a youth's running career should be of support and guidance. The former more heavily swayed to the support end of the spectrum. This may be difficult with parents who double as coaches; navigating the minefield of that unique stress on the relationship can be tricky. It seems like it either turns out amazingly or the entire relationship may be ruined.
For parental coaches it is key to treat the coach-athlete relationship completely separate from that of the parent-daughter/son one. If something happens during training, the child shouldn't be scolded over the dinner table. "It's always important [for parents] to remember to put their [children's] happiness first," explains Emily Sisson, now running for Providence, in 2010 she set the US High-School Record for the 5,000m. "Running should always be something that you do because you love to do it. It shouldn't become something you do to please someone else."
Particularly for young, driven, and motivated runners, coaches and parents must in fact hold them back, "I attribute a lot [of my improvement] to the fact that my parents and coaches held me back a bit," shares Sisson. "I was always begging for them to let me do higher mileage when I was younger, but they told me it was not a good idea for someone my age."
Patience and looking long term will invariably pay off; it is a tough thing for runners of all ages to remember, so reminding young athletes that they do, indeed, have years in the sport is important.
Helping a young runner retain perspective and balance with their running is crucial, "I think understanding the importance of living a balanced life is huge," says Sisson. "It really keeps the successes and disappointments you experience as a runner in perspective."
Success early on brings with it a host of things young runners must be ready to deal with: recognition, notoriety, and expectations for the future. It takes maturity to properly manage and cope with these so as not to let too much pressure, nerves, or expectations derail a career. Incidentally that typically is a trait one must learn as they get older. So, you can see where things get a little dicey.
The runners that are able to properly manage expectations and pressure tend to naturally possess maturity beyond their years. Secondly, the majority of that pressure comes from within. It's their own inner desire to reach higher, and has little to do with any subsequent media flurries. "Sometimes the weight of too much pressure or others' expectations can be tough," admits Sisson. "If you just take a step back though, and realize you run because it's something you love, there comes a sense of relief...Success will follow if you love and have a strong desire for what you do."
Running should be enjoyed first; the passion must come from within if anyone is to last. The training is too tedious and, admittedly grueling at times, for that motivation to come anywhere but from within. The question may not be so much, 'What is too young?' but rather, 'For whom are they running?'
Childhood, youth, high-school, college, or beyond, a harrier must be drawn to the sport themselves.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Now a freelance writer and artist she writes about all things running and designs her own line of running shirts. You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.