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The Best Runners To Coach Are Middle Schoolers

Illustration by: Angelica Alzona

What I do at the middle school is generously called cross country coaching. To the untrained eye, our program looks a lot like goofing around, like BS, like a waste of time. I’m pretty lucky to be able to pull this off.

You know these kids—the ones that take the SAT sophomore year. They’re scheduled, medicated, tutored, pressured. They’re 12 years old. When we pass a playground, they still want to play on it. Here’s how our program works.


We do a bit of jogging, sometimes farther and slower, and sometimes shorter and faster, and then I take suggestions for circuit exercises. This devolves very quickly into someone grabbing someone else by the arms and legs and swinging them, while someone else jumps over their swinging body. At first I tried to stop this abusive behavior, thinking they were bullying some poor fool, but no—they beg to be the one grabbed.

Another day, I was demonstrating a hamstring stretch and looked up to see two of my scholars sticking their heads through the soccer goal net in a manner that all but ensured strangulation. I asked what they were doing. They said, “Nothing.” There are just all kinds of bad decisions which, as the responsible adult, I should put a stop to. I know it’s wrong and it’s going to come back to haunt me when some parent sues me and the school, but gosh we have a good time.

I imagine we get along really well—the sixth and seventh graders and I—because, individually and jointly, we know nothing. Absolutely nothing—how far the race is, when practice is over, what we’re supposed to be doing that day, how to get back to school from the river. I don’t know why their leg hurts and neither do they. We are very upfront about our ignorance. Not proud of it, but not ashamed either. Blame is not placed—we just voice our issues, put them into the universe, and if anyone feels they have some expertise in that area, they can opine.

If it involves pain, I usually ask if it’s lupus or kidney stones, and they’re not sure, so we walk for a ways just in case. And sometimes pick up a stick and trail it along. That has cured almost every injury. When we get back to the school, we do 10 burpees—the kind with the pushup—that I know (ok, one thing, I know one thing) to be beneficial, and then some useless stuff they suggest.


Besides ignorance, the other thing we have in common is that every morning we wake up, and overnight weird stuff has happened to our bodies and our hormones. I get that. I really do.

There’s this bell curve of competence which I imagine reaches a peak for most people when they’re in their 30s or 40s, and have a job and colleagues and make big ticket purchases. I may or may not have skipped that competency phase, but regardless, right now, my 12-year-old runners and I are directly across from each other on the curve, sort of low down. I imagine them reaching out and me reaching out, and we put our hands together in that void of competency and do the Inka Binka. (A bottle of ink / Inka binka boo / Inka binka bottle of ink / Out goes you)


I spend two hours a day with my people, Monday through Friday. It’s pretty good. I’m like, “See you tomorrow,” and they’re like, “Okay.”

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