Run Like a Girl!: Girls on the Run Offers Young Girls the Opportunity to Shine

A rotating corps of Girls on the Run volunteers drop in on an end-of-the-season social.  The more practical goal of this gathering is to collect the coaches’ training boxes, the lessons and materials the coaches use over the twelve week course of the running program.  Inevitably though, the volunteers stop to chat, swapping season stories of their teams and discussing the 5K their girls completed the day before.

Runners Goal Lights

One coach laughs that one of her girls outpaced her 5K running buddy, often turning to give the volunteer runner, who hadn’t expected to run the race at quite so quick a clip, encouragement to finish.    Another coach chimes in that one of her team’s members had gotten her entire family to run the 5K, and that now, the family routinely runs together on the weekend.  In fact, the family was already planning for their next 5K race.  Each of the coaches are impressed with their runners’ performance the day before.  The girls all finished the race, but more importantly, they cheered each other on and thanked volunteers at aid stations and at the finish line.  Many of the girls, and their parents, were already asking when the next Girls on the Run session started.

A third coach shares that she volunteered with Girls on the Run after her daughter had gone through the program.  She was amazed by the talks the team’s lessons had enabled her to have with her daughter, talks about bullying, peer groups, and body image.   Each of the coaches nods at this assertion.  “You might not think they’re listening, but the girls really take the lessons to heart,” another coach agrees.  “I’m always surprised by the insights the girls come up with during group discussion.”

Girls on the Run is a national after-school program that provides young girls with an opportunity to participate in an organized sport in a non-competitive environment.  The program is divided into two age groups:  third through fifth grade and sixth through eighth grade (the older girls’ program is often referred to as “Girls on Track”).  Over a ten to twelve week period, the girls train to complete an end-of-the-season 5K with a designated adult running buddy or “Sole Mate” by their side.  Recognizing that life-long fitness and nutrition habits are often developed early, Girls on the Run uses a progression running program to give its young participants an appreciation of fitness and health.  However, running is not the sole focus of the program.

Each training session involves a lesson designed to foster positive emotional and social development in the program’s participants.   Girls on the Run offers its young runners a safe environment to contemplate and discuss issues they routinely grapple with at their age.  The girls are encouraged to explore and identify values that important to them, are provided with strategies to cope with bullies and peer pressure, and learn good nutritional habits.  The older girls discuss additional age-appropriate topics, such as eating disorders and internet safety.  In addition to completing the 5K, the girls also work together on a community service project.  The project is chosen, designed, and implemented by the girls, under their coach’s guidance.  The season’s curriculum is designed around three key components:  developing a positive self, fostering healthy relationships with peers, and actively engaging with their community.  All aspects of the program are directed towards one goal:  giving the girls the strength and courage to dictate their own lives and positively develop their unique selves, outside the negative dictates of peer and social pressures.

The Girls on the Run curriculum has been evaluated and certified by educators and psychologists.  Studies have found the program increased its participants’ self-esteem, body image, and fitness and nutritional habits, and educators, as well as parents, are clamoring to add the program to their schools.   The open slots on Girls on the Run teams quickly fill up, leading to wait lists and lottery systems for several programs.  Parents and teachers recognize what researchers have long found:  sports and physical fitness have incredibly positive benefits for girls.  Unfortunately, getting girls involved in athletics, and keeping them involved with fitness programs, has proved challenging, both historically and recently.

When Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in public schools based on gender, passed in 1972, the popularity of girls’ sports programs boomed.  Title IX required equal funding for both boys’ and girls’ athletics.  Prior to the passage of the law, only 1 girl in 27 joined a high school sports team, compared with 1 in 2 boys.   In the years that followed Title IX, girls started participating in organized sports in record number until their participation rates in athletics nearly matched that of boys.  Over the past decade, however, girls’ participation in sports has not just stagnated, but declined.  A 2007 study by the Tucker Research Center found girls were less involved in organized sports than previous generations.

This is especially disheartening news given that organized sport participation has been found to be especially beneficial for girls.  A University of Missouri-Saint Louis study in 2010 found that adolescent girls who participated in high school athletics reported higher rates of self-esteem and better school performance.    Similarly, a 2004 University of Arizona study found that girls who were involved in organized sports had better body images.  The girls cited less concern with their weight, more positive attitudes towards their appearance, and better nutritional habits.  The athletes were more impressed by what the athletic feats their bodies could accomplish rather than dismayed by the impossible societal standard of what their bodies should look like.  The study also found that young female athletes engaged in safer sex practices, delaying their first sexual experience longer than non-athletes.  They were also more likely to use birth control and had fewer sexual partners.

While the studies’ results are certainly promising, these study participants were high school students, and young girls tend to drop out of sports before they reach their high school years.  According to the President’s Council on Fitness, girls leave organized sports twice as often as boys, and girls walk away from sports at an earlier age, usually by fourth or fifth grade, and they’re unlikely to return.  So, the psychologically protective benefits that sports offer girls during adolescence (better self-esteem, better body image, etc.) don’t have the chance to positively influence the large population of girls who exit sports before their teen years.

Experts puzzle over the reason for this sharp decline in girls’ athletic participation.  Some blame the onset of puberty, believing some girls may become uncomfortable with or unsure of their developing bodies.  The physical changes and growth spurts girls undergo cause their bodies to react differently during fitness activities.  Adjusting to a rapid change in height may make girls a bit more ungainly for a time.  Developing breasts and hips causes girls to alter the way they throw or hit a ball, causing a relearning curve for sport skills they’d already developed.  Some girls may get discouraged with their temporary loss of athletic aptitude, leading them to leave sports.

Other experts note that sports become more competitive and less inclusive as children progress to higher level athletics.  Not everyone plays an equal amount of time anymore nor are they even guaranteed a spot on a team as tryouts, with cuts, become the norm and not the exception.  Girls drift away from their sport rather than sit the bench (if not endure outright dismissal), and continue feeling “not good enough” to be an athlete.  An ironic twist as research that shows athletic participation would increase self-esteem in later teen years.  And, the loss of guaranteed fitness workouts, in the form of practices and games, when girls drop out of sports leaves them vulnerable to poorer nutritional habits and decreased physical fitness, further impacting self-esteem and negative body images.

The trick, then, becomes designing a sports program that intervenes when girls are at their highest likelihood of abandoning athletics, while simultaneously creating a program that focuses on the individual physical and psychological benefits of fitness rather than on athletic competition.  And, that’s where Girls on the Run steps in.  The program first targets girls in the third, fourth, and fifth grades, when they’re most likely to abandon organized sports, and the program continues through girls’ junior high years, another time when girls are more likely to quit sports, and staying physically active, altogether.  The added genius of the Girls on the Run program is their lessons which further address the issues that keep girls from pursuing athletics.

Each after-school session begins with an introduction and warm-up, usually a brief game that gets the girls’ muscles ready for running.  During the introduction, the volunteer coach introduces the topic of that day’s lesson, say gossiping or dealing with bullies.  The warm up incorporates the day’s message.   For example, during the lesson on cooperation, the girls may play a jump roping game, where pairs of girls take turns turning the rope while their teammates run into the revolving jump rope, take a few hops, and run back out.  If the girls are having problems successfully navigating the jump rope, the team can work together to find better ways to accomplish the workout’s task, maybe giving the rope more of an up-and-down motion rather than a circular one.  Or, maybe the girls offer encouragement and advice to team members new to jumping rope.

After the warm-up, the girls stretch out under the coach’s guidance and are asked to reflect on and discuss the day’s topic.  For the lesson on positive self-talk, the girls are asked (in turn so all the girls, even the shier group member, have a chance to share) to make a positive statement about themselves.  Girls also have the opportunity to discuss situations they’ve encountered that pertain to the day’s theme.  When talking about peer pressure, one girl might share her fear of going against the ideas of her friends.  Another girl might chime in that she feels the same way.  Other girls may offer solutions or methods they found that help them think and act for themselves.  Or, the girls may evaluate the coping strategies offered by the day’s lesson.  The coach is close at hand to offer advice and guide the conversation, keeping the talk going in a positive and meaningful direction.

Following the stretching session, the girls then commence the day’s workout.  Like all beginning runners, the girls start with a mix of short distance walking and running, based on their individual fitness levels.  The workout distances increase as the weeks progress.  Near the end of the season, the girls complete a practice 5K to give them additional confidence to run the three mile distance at the end of the season event.  Competition among the girls is discouraged.  Instead, the coaches advise the girls to run their own pace and stress that internal satisfaction is preferable to external recognition.  The girls are urged offer one another encouragement during the run, fostering a positive team atmosphere.

As during the warm-up, girls are asked to think about the day’s lesson.  When the team covers the section on gratitude, the girls are asked to think of one person or thing they’re thankful for as they complete each of their laps.  At the end of the run, the girls cool-down and stretch out as a group.  Any final thoughts from the girls are shared over a nutrient-rich snack, and the session concludes with a positive statement from the coach and a team cheer.

The end result of the program is a team of girls who are excited about health and physical fitness, who have completed a three mile race (a feat many adults haven’t accomplished), and who have been given an opportunity to explore and share strategies for coping with the rigors of adolescence.  The girls emerge from the program with higher levels of self-awareness, self-esteem, and fitness, and as the Girls on the Run program states, “inspired to take charge of their own lives and define the future on their terms.  Girls on the Run is a place where girls learn that they can.  No limits.  No constraints.  Only opportunities to be remarkable.”   Each new running season is filled with many faces from previous seasons.  Girls love the program, and parents love the attitude and outlook Girls on the Run inspires in their daughters.

If you’re interested in enrolling your daughter in Girls on the Run or Girls on Track, please visit www.girlsontherun.org to locate your local chapter.  Girls on the Run largely operates through its volunteers, and the program continues to expand through volunteer effort.  If you’re interested in getting involved with Girls on the Run, please visit www.girlsontherun.org/Get-Involved/Volunteer to learn how you can help the program grow.

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