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Outside the 9-to-5: Coaching

We’re standing on the basketball court at the elementary school passing a ball of yarn and talking about gossip. Each time the ball is passed, one of the girls whispers some gossip: Maggie cheated on her math test. Jodie’s brother went to the principal’s office. Emily has a crush on Ted. Soon Coach Heidi, me and all 12 girls are sewn together in a tangled web.

This is Girls on the Run, a program to help girls grades 3-5 build self-esteem through training them to complete a 5K. “So now we have a big mess,” I comment. “At any point, one of us could have chosen to stop the gossip from spreading.” I go on to explain that it’s our duty as team mates to look out for one another and set a good example. “Sometimes you may be uncertain of how to respond to gossip. Then it’s helpful to imagine what someone else might do. For example, what do you think Coach Heidi or I would do if we heard gossip about you?”

“STOP IT!” the girls all yell.

We started the beginning of the season with little connection to each other. There were a couple of small cliques from other sports, and a few BFFs, but those alliances had faded for the greater goal of working together as a team. We had learned about healthy habits, positive thinking, pacing, bullying, encouraging others, etc. The format of each 75-minute practice was a “lesson,” warm-up and stretching, running and a cool-down.  We introduced the girls to Indian runs, sprints, circuit workouts. I even revived a game I loved from first grade gym classed called Steal the Bacon.

A few weeks ago all the girls completed a 5K race, a first for many of them and for their parents that ran with them. I felt enormously proud and satisfied. Racing is a huge part of my life but I got into it a lot later. I didn’t run my first 5K until my late 20s. That’s why it was important for me to coach. I wanted to break thru to at least one girl and cement a passion for something. It didn’t have to be running. Just something they liked and were committed to doing, something that gave them pride and confidence and expanded their social circle.

It worked! We have an anticipated 100% retention rate for the spring season, with all the girls promising to return.  Some are naturals that are interested in the mechanics of pacing and form, and whittling down their times. Others wouldn’t run if they were being chased, but have gotten caught up in the friendships and cheering for each other. The one girl was a quiet transplant who moved here earlier this year. She wasn’t a runner but her parents approached me about continuing to coach her between seasons.

Most Saturday mornings I’d wake up really drained and less than enthusiastic our 8:30 AM practice, but my tiredness evaporated as soon as I saw the girls’ faces. If my daughters, ages 5 and 3 were up for it, I’d do a mini GOTR practice for them when I got home, repeating the lesson plan. I recorded a small victory when I spied Nadia doing jumping jacks in the yard. “Mom, sometimes at recess I pretend I’m you and I make everyone do jumping jacks.” Well, that’s cool, I thought. Otherwise she might be on the playground recruiting people for jobs.

On a side note, for all of us in advertising: One lesson plan was about how girls and women are portrayed in the media and what values are important. On this day, I bought in ads with impossibly thin and beautiful women, plus Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. Without prompting, the girls immediately fell upon the thin woman ads: “Oh! I want to be her!” and to the Real Beauty ads: “Ewwww, why does she have all those marks on her face [freckles]” and “Why does she have a big stomach?” I was so saddened that girls ages 8-10 were already moving toward unrealistic images of beauty.

In an effort to get across the point of celebrating what our bodies are capable of instead of what they looked like, I showed them a magazine cover of Michelle Obama and her amazing arms. This brought our lesson to an abrupt end, as the mere mention of Obama during election week sent the girls into a dizzying chatter about who their parents voted for and why (“Yeah but, have you seen the unemployment rate?!”) Ah well, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

If you’re interested in coaching or enrolling your daughter in Girls on the Run, check out their website or call me.

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