Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 17 Jan 2014 05:41:31 -0500

Make Them Play

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from November 1988.)

George Sheehan’s solution to the unfitness epidemic among kids sounded un-Sheehan-like. “Make sports mandatory in school,” said the Runner’s World medical editor during his visit to Marshalltown, Iowa.

Was the original free spirit of running saying that we must force kids to play? Yes and no. He thinks they should be required to stay active but allowed to choose their own sport.

“Give them a choice of sports,” said Sheehan, “and they’ll gravitate to the one that best fits their body type and personality.”

He added that “play is the key word. Kids don’t want to work at fitness. They want to play, and mandatory sports would encourage them to find their special brand of play.”

St. Alban’s School in Washington, DC, already has this requirement. Skip Grant, a longtime running coach, oversees it as the school’s athletic director.

“The realities of modern life demand structured programs,” says Grant. “I’m quite disturbed by the national trend toward unfitness in our young people.”

Grant grew up poor in the nation’s capital. He and his friends played in the streets, inventing games that automatically kept them active.

Activity is optional for today’s kids. Grant says, “We’ve made modern life too easy for them with motor vehicles and sedentary entertainment. They don’t just pick up activity on their own. It has to be provided for them. Now it’s left up to the school or other program to give some structure to the play and make some demands on the young people.”

St. Alban’s requires its students to begin playing at organized sports midway through elementary school. In fourth grade, children are introduced to a variety of sports. They aren’t permitted to specialize or to compete against other schools at that age.

Interscholastic competition starts in a low-key way during sixth grade. But not until the sophomore year in high school are students allowed to focus on a single sport of choice.

This is not an elitist program, designed merely to train winning teams for St. Alban’s. It makes room for everyone, and aims to produce lifelong athletes.

“As athletic director,” says Skip Grant, “I’ve always made a special effort to involve the young people who at most schools wouldn’t be considered athletic material. I state very clearly at athletic assemblies that ‘you don’t have to be a champion athlete. I don’t want you to feel that greatness is required. What I want you to feel is that you have a responsibility to yourself to be fit.’ "

Cross-country is Grant’s favorite sport to coach “because of the number of kids who are involved. We invite everybody who can walk to come out for the team. Some are gifted, some are average, and some sort of stumble along.”

No one is ever cut from the St. Alban’s cross-country team for lack of ability. Grant says, “What attracts young people to running is that they can all see improvement in this sport. If they persevere, they can progress from running, say, one or two laps on the track to where they can run four or five miles.”

This statement reflects Grant’s philosophy as a coach and athletic director: “If you are diligent, you can become much better than you were before. That creates a real sense of pride.”

He adds, “I’ve always preached that beating other people is not the most important value of the sport. There are times when I said that and didn’t really believe it, but over the years I’ve become a real believer in the long-term values of athletic activity.”

When athletes graduate from St. Alban’s School, Skip Grant’s last words to them are, “If I don’t see you for another 10 years, I hope you’ll still be fit then. I hope that exercise has become an enjoyable and permanent part of your life.”

He tells departing students that “the ultimate winners are not the young athletes who finish first this week or this season, but those who learn early that they never want to stop.”

UPDATE FROM 2014

A dozen years after writing this piece I started teaching running classes at the University of Oregon, and still do so today. These P.E. classes are required of no one, yet they fill up each term with elective runners. Most aren’t much older than Skip Grant’s St. Alban’s students of the 1980s.

Until rereading his final words to them, I didn’t realize that I say much the same on the final day of each class: I don’t measure your success, or mine as a teacher, by what you’ve run this term. It will be seeing you in another class, at a race, or running the streets and trails a year or five or 10 years from now, and still wanting more.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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