While I’m normally constrained to an office, this fall, I’ve coached a team of eleven third through fifth grade girls participating in Girls on the Run of Northeast Indiana’s ten-week program. Girls on the Run of Northeast Indiana (“GOTR”) is a nonprofit council of the national nonprofit, Girls on the Run International. Our mission to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident using a fun experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running.
During the GOTR season, teams of 8-20 girls practice twice per week. Each lesson incorporates a topic or life skill pertinent to pre-teen girls, such as goal-setting, being assertive, resisting negative peer pressure, conflict resolution, choosing good friends, making healthy choices, and contributing to the community. Each of these lessons is intertwined with discussion, running games, and a running workout geared toward preparing participants to complete a celebratory 5K event at the end of the program. Each girl is paired with a running buddy (often a parent, sibling or family member), so the whole family gets involved with her goal of completing a 5K. GOTR’s curriculum is intended to give participants skills to deal with the issues that plague adolescent girls, and to counteract the significant loss of self-esteem girls often experience during their middle school years.
To most 8-10 year old girls, completing a 5K (3.1 miles) is a daunting endeavor. When we mention the goal at the first practice, girls who are new to our program seem intimidated. So do many of their parents, who have signed up as “running buddies,” but haven’t run in awhile! Many of our girls also profess that they “don’t like running.” Our workouts usually start with a game (it generally involves running, but don’t tell the kids!), followed by the girls setting a goal for the number of laps they’d like to complete in a given time. We use lap counters (jelly bracelets, beads, stickers) to count laps, and also encourage the girls to think about a certain topic during each lap of their workout (such as potential service projects, things for which they’re grateful, things they like about themselves) and write them down on a poster as they finish each lap. My team will do just about anything—including running—for a bracelet or an opportunity to write on a poster board!
Coaching has been an incredible experience with a lot of laughter and a lot of glitter. My team is adorable and precocious and noisy and smart and so enthusiastic about everything that I can’t help but be pulled into their excitement. I’m often surprised by the boldness and depth of the contributions my girls make to our discussions, but also by their willingness to be vulnerable by sharing feelings with the group and tackle a new goal. Coaching is simultaneously inspiring, exhausting, and hilarious—a refreshing break from the daily grind and a reminder of how much more exciting and amazing this world looks through the eyes of an eight-year old.
Paradoxically, I’m finding that this group of girls is actually coaching me, and making me want to be better. My team is VERY excited about its coaches—treating us with the enthusiasm normally reserved for celebrities and rockstars. They want to sit by us, braid our hair, try on our shoes, make us friendship bracelets, take laps with us, tell us all about what happened at school, show us their school projects, and on and on. I hear them using phrases that I’ve used or tell me that they bought shoes “like mine” or that they want to be a lawyer “like me,” and I realize that they are imitating me. What big shoes to fill! I want to live a life and make choices that are worthy of that imitation.
Watching my girls grow as a team is exciting—they are good friends who encourage one another with the bizarre inside jokes that only exist in fourth grade. Seeing them gain strength, endurance, and confidence as they run farther and farther is exhilarating. On a gorgeous fall day last Sunday, all of the GOTR participants and their running buddies completed their “practice 5K,” a long run in a setting like a 5K race. Some girls loved it, and some girls hated it, but they all finished, and those big proud smiles and hugs at the finish line were priceless! As we approach our actual celebratory 5K—this fall, the River City Rat Race, my hope for my team as they cross that finish line is that their GOTR experience empowers them to realize that they are wonderful and capable, that they can do hard things, and that it is within them to work hard and tackle all of their big goals and dreams.
written by Hillary Knipstein of Girls on the Run of Northeast Indiana