September 28th – Middle School Running – The Foundational Years
By: Ben Houston
Scott Lasiter, Jason Crist, Renee Wellman, Zach Snider, Cooper Williams, Ben Veatch.
What do these names have in common? If your answer had something to do with each one being a state-caliber runner, then you would definitely be correct. However, they all had to get their start somewhere, and before they competed on the road to Terre Haute, they were also highly competitive middle school runners. The journey to the top of the Indiana high school cross country pyramid often begins before the freshman year of high school. In Indiana, thousands of middle school and junior high athletes from Evansville to South Bend and Vincennes to Richmond participate in the sport of cross country each year. While athletes will (typically) not achieve their peak performances at ages 11, 12 or 13, the impact and experience gained during this time is critical to the development of becoming a successful high school runner. There are any number of reasons for this to be true.
For the vast majority of participants, unless they have taken part in local club activities, middle school athletics are often their first introduction to formal, organized running and training. Therefore, participation in cross country is often as much about education as it is competition, with coaches devoting just as much time to the basic mechanics of running as to meet-specific training.
“I deal with a lot of mechanics, initially because these kids may have never run before” says Jim Blackwell, 5th year head coach at Pendleton Heights Middle School. “A lot of it is just learning how to push through the pain of running.”
Blackwell’s philosophy revolves around creating a welcoming, positive environment for his runners to grow and thrive in. Seeing himself as a motivator coach, Blackwell believes in the potential of each one of his athletes. Emphasizing close, personal attention and a solid foundation in healthy living and fundamentals, he strives to create lifelong runners who will commit to the training process and running lifestyle. Special emphasis is also placed on having fun, and associating running with a fun experience. From the standpoint of wanting to keep kids involved in the sport, this makes perfect sense. If all a kid understands about running is that it is consists of a lot of hard and painful work, then they may be less likely to stick with it for the long-haul. Thus middle school coaches must strike a fine balance between training competitive runners and fostering interest in the sport. “I think it’s more difficult than high school coaching,” says Bruce Houston, who has been a coach at Fall Creek Valley Middle School for over twenty years. In his opinion, high school coaches often get individuals who have usually already been part of a running program, whereas middle school coaches must work to develop runners almost from scratch.
Training at the middle school level is (obviously) also a physical key to the development and potential of athletes. Once again, this involves careful balance and understanding of the individuals in question. Training should be age appropriate, but at a high enough level where athletes still progress and obviously get better. “You don’t want to overwhelm them with mileage, but you certainly don’t want to bore them to death with the basics” says Coach Houston. Overtraining at an early age not only runs the risk of burning out or peaking an athlete too early, but can also threaten to drive them out of the sport by overloading them with too much too soon, both physically and mentally.
When asked about natural talent, many coaches were in agreement that while it is a definite boost, it can only take a young runner so far. With a greater emphasis on technique and mechanics, a runner can have the best speed/endurance in the state, and still burn out or quit if they simply do not want to put in the work. According to Coach Brienn Miller of Carmel Middle School, “a successful middle school runner is someone who is still open to being molded but is also dedicated. I can work with or without natural talent but dedication and absorbing what is being told is a big part on the runner.” Coach Houston also echoed these sentiments, commenting that “it takes a commitment and a willingness to trust us [the coaches]” and that his program has been lucky to continually get athletes who are willing to put in the work necessary, regardless of natural ability.
While making running fun for the athletes is a definite draw, many schools have built their own traditions of excellence. In some cases, these program expectations may be enough on their own to entice young athletes to join, perhaps to be a part of something larger than themselves. The Trojan and Cougar XC Clubs (Clay and Carmel Middle Schools) have developed a reputation of finishing at or very near the top of the team standings at the Middle School State Meet each year. Pendleton Heights Middle School has finished in the top-8 three out of the past five years. Similarly, the Bearcats of Fall Creek Valley Middle School have won the Marion County Championship for five years straight, and consistently finished in the top 5 at middle school state prior to 2009.
Matt Wire, the assistant director for the Indiana All-Star Running Club, believes that the importance of the middle school years cannot be emphasized enough. In his opinion middle school is the building block and foundation for high school programs, and that to have “a strong middle school program which challenges the kids age-appropriately” makes identifying with and becoming a part of the high school program that much easier. Echoing a view shared by many other middle school coaches, Wire felt strongly that a solid relationship between middle school and high school teams is also critical in developing successful runners and programs. Building relationships between not just the high school coaches and the middle school athletes, but also between high school and middle school runners can be a way of motivating the younger athletes to continue to work hard and set goals to push themselves. These relationships are also important as the younger runners transition into high school, as they will have already developed a familiarity with their new coach and program.
Middle school is a time of transition, as the teenage years set in and a whole host of social, psychological, and physical changes begin. For many, this list of transitions also often involves becoming involved in organized school athletics. Middle school coaches thus have a unique position in which they can greatly affect the growth and development of the individuals under their care. By developing a proper work ethic, teaching healthy lifestyles, and teaching proper form and mechanics, middle school running not only grooms athletes for future high school athletic success but also sets up a lifetime of character and confidence. It’s not just about getting kids “hooked” on running early, so to speak, but instilling in them the desire and ability to achieve their potential, in both life and running.
Be sure to check out my upcoming overview/preview of the Indiana Middle School State Championship coming up on October 4th in Carmel!