Donna on the Side
special edition

Hail to the Parents

a survey of the emotions, dreams, and fears of cross country moms and pops on the sidelines at meets

story and photos by Donna Dye

Brooke and Bill Nelson, with Zoe, Kalispell MT

Bento Leal, dad of Yong-Sung, Arroyo CA

It's meet day and they are standing on the edge of the course, or they sit on the bleachers or they lean over the fence. They cheer; they yell and scream; they bite their lips, they wring their hands. Some are having fun, others are too nervous to say this is fun. They watch, they wait, they cry, they smile. But there is no doubt about it—when it’s all over they are proud no matter the outcome. They are the parents.

Parents come to meets to support their children who are runners and athletes. Their time on the sideline can be both rewarding and frustrating. This sideline scene is one DyeStat has seen many times. We wondered what parents think about as they watch the race. Do they enjoy this? Would they recommend this to others? What advice would they pass on to other parents?

Having once been new track parents ourselves and frequently fielding questions from parents, we thought it might be useful to ask parents, particularly those experienced in cross country, to talk about their experiences and provide any advice for new parents.

The response was great! Parents took this seriously sharing some personal thoughts about themselves and their athletes. Any parent just getting into cross country is going to be so much better off having this experience.

Usually on the sidelines, parents finally had the floor. They had a good time with the survey: “It was a joy.” “I had a lot of fun.” “These were very good questions.” “This was fun.”

To understand what it means to be a cross country parents, we quote one of the survey parents: “It’s a wild roller coaster ride! Buckle your seat belts and expect it all.”


“Roll with it. Stay involved but don’t try to be the coach. Protect your child keep him healthy and remind them that running is not everything once in a while. Best advice—don’t forget your other kids in the process. There is nothing worse than having your other children feel like second class citizens.”

“ Hey, it’s just a sport! Don’t run through your kids. It’s THEIR life, let THEM run.”

"They don’t need the parents ‘rubbing it in.’ Focus on what can be done to improve the next time. The ‘positives’ go much farther than the ‘negatives.’

“Never talk about the race for longer than the race itself.”

“Always support your child in all aspects of their development. ….attend races because it shows your child matters in your life…..set a good example of good sportsmanship, so that they learn how to be gracious winners and losers. Even the best athletes have a bad race.”

“Respect the coach but do plenty of research on your own…..talk to other varsity runners, coaches and parents….learn as much as possible about running and nutrition…..parental instincts are usually correct about your child. Don’t be afraid to communicate these to your coach and child.”

The advice that parents gave ran the gamut from controlling emotions to learning about the sport. While the responses were varied, the key word or most often response was “support”, with “keep things in perspective” and “enjoy the sport with your child” close seconds and “don’t push” coming in third.

There were other suggestions including: respect the athlete’s talents and skills and most of all, their feelings. More advice from parents in their own words:

“Stay up beat; the runner knows when they screwed up and when they were screwed.”

“Our daughter likes to focus before a race and visiting with her parents is a distraction, so we simply leave her alone until well after the race. Just after a race, she is exhausted and does not want to visit either—so wait until there is plenty of time to discuss the race at the dinner table that night.”

“Patience is the key. The better your runner, the more tempered the training must be. Train the great runner to be great at age 30, rather than 16. Few or no races for a nationally ranked athlete are measures of a defining moment for a teenager. Kick around—take it slow. Grow horizontally, not vertically. The vertical tower is a hard fall to the ground!”


Most parents are cheerleaders and support staff; a small percentage are coaches. One parent summed it up nicely: “cheerleader, confessor, advisor, shoulder to cry on, and sympathetic, calm ear to vent to.” Another one adds other dimensions: “I am travel agent, and baggage carrier. I also pay the bills and get her registered for the races…..I’m her biggest fan.” “We’re just supportive parents. I’m the guy with the video camera, and the guy who buys him tons of food when the race is over!” Together these quotes sum up how parents see their roles. Not knowing how or not wanting to coach, parents take to the sidelines to do what they can to help their child succeed, do their best and the Lord and the Force willing—WIN!

In addition to the cheerleading, some parents try to be sure their athlete is in good condition by providing nutritional information and membership in fitness centers. Some parents educate themselves about the sport so that they can relate to their athlete, the coach and officials.

Let’s not forget the “Team Mother” or the “Booster Mom.” These are usually moms who will always be moms--bringing the food, the treats, the blankets; she’s the one with the hugs for one and all, not just for her runner but for the team! They make the kids happy and full. These “Team Moms” take their jobs seriously as a long term commitment. It’s not unusual to see them following their runner to the college level still providing the snacks and hugs they gave out in high school.

I said usually because there is at least one Dad out there who proudly reports to being “Booster Parent.” This is a Dad whose daughter attends an all girl school that has until recently had only “Booster Moms.” Now, this Dad proudly coordinates snacks, transportation and all of the other things Booster Moms do. Those are tough shoes for a Dad to fill. But this Dad is proud to say he’s on the job!


So now what do these parents think about while they are on the sidelines cheering?
“It’s hard on the parents to watch their child run—because there isn’t a darn thing you can do about their performance…..Most of our thoughts are just that we hope that she is running well and will reach her goals for the meet.”

While on the sidelines parents experience a range of emotions and feelings and if they can think at all, it’s about the runner—how they are doing and hoping they will do their best. They are both nervous and excited and pray a lot. They pray that their child will do well, run to their ability and hope that the race is fulfilling.

One parent answered this question this way: “When I see my son run, I feel like I’m watching a miracle. He’s our precious son, who works extremely hard at all he does, and he flies like a gazelle.”

But parents sometimes look within. One parent responded: “I wish it was me.”

Parents try to attend as many meets as they can and don’t usually feel guilty if they miss a meet. If they stay away from national meets it’s usually because of lack of funds to travel.


There are many good times, exciting times in cross country and naturally the bad times. The survey parents seem to be able to balance the two; enjoying the good times, working through the bad times.

On the Good Times side most parents felt that winning a state championship or national invitational level or international meet or qualifying for Footlocker regionals and earning All American honors was the most exciting experience.

Others took a different approach and reported that the most exciting experience was: “watching my daughter accept victory with humility and respect for the field and gracing the winner in defeat make the top of the list. You can have the wins; they come in second.” On a similar note another parent said “during freshman year when our son discovered his talent and passion for running.” Or said differently by another parent, “the most exciting experience for us was seeing our daughter achieve what she wants to accomplish.”

As to the Bad Times there were many to deal with. Most Bad Times were around losing a race especially one in which the runner was favored. Other bad times deal with watching the runner experience an injury or physical problem that either prevented them from completing the race, finishing far worse than expected, not finishing and being carried off to the sidelines or the hospital or not qualifying for an important race like a state meet or Footlocker. What can be more emotionally and physically draining than watching your child crawl across the finish line? Yet the parent of one child feels that the experience “is more a measure of courage than it is a failure.” As to their daughter’s collapse 200 yards from the finish line on her way to winning the state cc title, the parents write: “While it was heartbreaking to watch, it was also our proudest moment. We really experienced what she was like as a person that day and knew at that time that she had what it would take to get through anything in life. While she was very disappointed, we talked with her about how she really was the ‘winner’ that day. The entire community was very supportive and she got cards, letters, e-mails, etc. from many people that she did not know that encouraged her to keep running and not let this one disappointment get her down.”

Before a two mile race a runner complained of a sore foot but ran anyway. After the race she learned that she had run on a fractured heel which was made much worse by running the race.

Those are very devastating times for both the runner and the parents. Perhaps winning the award for worst of all experience was when a coach did not register the team properly. The runner won the race and set a record. But, because the team and runner were not registered properly, they were disqualified and their performances did not count.

For a few parents the worst experience was the reaction of other parents and the crowd. In one race a very good runner (perhaps a good choice to win) was running although she was ill. At about 400 meters to go, she and another runner began sprinting for the win. At about 150 meters to go she had trouble and barely crossed the finish line. As the father recalls, “What was horrible about this race, was not my daughter’s effort or her performance, but the insensitive adults who were gloating on the sideline about how they “emptied her tanks”, etc. My daughter was weak and pale and was clearly suffering after her extremely courageous effort, and those idiots were so happy to put her down. Their display of poor sportsmanship and their total lack of concern for one of their fellow runners appalled me.”

Well, what stresses parents out? The race is stressful. What is so bad for the parents in cross country is so often you cannot see the runners. Often they are off into the woods or over the hill and you do not see them again for ten or fifteen minutes. That makes it stressful for parents who stand and wonder how they are doing, are they ok, are they injured?

While lot’s of things are stressful for parents, perhaps the most important thing that concerns them is the stress on the runner. Many parents worry about the pressure to keep winning; the pressure that the runner feels from coaches, parents, friends, and fans. Also, parents get stressed out and worry about injury and emotionally abusive behavior of some coaches.

Yet, out of these bad and stressful experiences come lessons learned about the importance of good habits for both runner and parents. During the state meet one runner “bonked” for the first and only time in her life. As it turned out, she was de-hydrated due most likely to being up late all week because of finals. The stress on the body took its toll. The runner barely finished the 2 mile and then collapsed. As her father says: “We were in shock. She was back to her old self within an hour but it was a very long hour! We all learned a lot from the experience, and all realize just how important it is to take good care of yourself if you want to perform at the highest level. We scratched her from Golden West, and the Nationals because we wanted her to learn from the experience. But mostly we wanted to make sure that she was medically ok. She was checked out 100% by her doctors, and surprisingly put the whole episode behind her—and did not hold a grudge against her parents for more than a week! In the end, we were all greatly relieved that there was nothing wrong with her.”

In a similar experience on the eve of the state meet, a runner was so nervous she could hardly eat or drink anything the night before and the next morning. She did poorly, collapsed and was taken to the hospital, diagnosed as being dehydrated and administered fluids intravenously for nearly three hours. The parents recall: “The doctor was shocked at how dehydrated she was. This was a big set back mentally that she has battled back from well. This much I can tell you…..this runner now drinks tons of fluids regardless of nerves or how she feels.”


Most of the parents don’t do much to celebrate because of concerns to keep running in perspective: “We just try to realize it’s just a race and it’s just running. In the big picture we’re very, very blessed.” “We’ve always kept the celebrations relatively low key praising the work and the result but not going overboard with gifts and adulation.”

For others, celebrations come in the form of going out to eat; gifts such as new clothes, tickets to a show or concert or money; staying out later. One family celebrates by going out to eat and for big meets printing up congratulation signs, notes, giving gold stars or helium filled balloons filling up a bedroom.


Parents take different approaches to this situation. Some parents say nothing and advise “Don’t say anything. Keep it down to a simple hug.”

Most parents say they try to be positive and try to find something positive in their performance to point to; don’t get angry or act hurt. Most parents let their runner know they are loved and that they are very proud of the effort. They try to soothe with words such as: “You can’t win them all;” Deal with it. It’s not the first bad day and won’t be the last;” “Good effort;” “Put it behind and get ready for the next race.”

“Losses cannot get away from you. The feelings of failure are as important as those of victory. The lesson losing is perhaps a driver for future victories. Get the losses out of the way—theses are the lessons everyone must face. To avoid them or rationalize them as a “bad day” will only delay the lesson the next failure. Put a smile on and get after it—win or lose.”

“It’s difficult to know what to say when my daughter has a bad performance because they feel badly about it. She doesn’t want to hear my sympathy or encouragement initially. I try to let her ride it out, knowing she has our support. Of course I feel badly for her and wish she didn’t have to go through the hard time. It does help her to learn, grow, and become stronger emotionally, though.”

“We talk with her about what happened in the race, take a look at her race strategy compared to the competition, and try to help her evaluate her performance. She usually knows what the problem is or was. We are just as disappointed as she is and we help her to focus on the next race and what she needs to do differently.”

“We try to analyze every loss. The training, the conditions and think about how we can do better next time. We’ve learned a lot from the losses, I feel it is all just a part of the process.”


As one parent sees it, “Injuries are a side effect of intense training or racing. Injuries are part of the challenge of learning your limits.”

The majority of parents responded that their runner had experienced an injury. Injuries included stress fractures, torn ankle ligament, bone spurs, fractured heel, and fractured foot. While not injuries, parents also reported illnesses that stopped or curtailed running. The most debilitating illness reported was mononucleosis and anorexia.
But still parents worry and get upset. The first move is to get medical help for their runner and consult with the coach. After that most parents report that they try to be supportive, encourage the athlete and urged patience.

Most parents worry that the injury will result in permanent, long term injury or side effects. Some worry or confront coaches, fearing that the coach is not sufficiently knowledgeable about coaching and may be guilty of over training to the point of injury. In one case of injury, the athlete took six months before he could run at all, and eighteen months before he was back to where he started. Still, the parents of one athlete worried less about the physical injury and more about emotional harm.


While eating disorders are prevalent in cross country, particularly for girls, only one parent reported dealing with anorexia. However, a couple of parents reported concerns about it. To prevent problems, parents reported teaching their runner about good eating habits, a balanced approach to life and the pitfalls of perfection and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Most parents reported that they have an excellent relationship or get along extremely well. Most parents say they trust their runner and are rarely disappointed with their behavior. Sometimes a runner may have a stronger relationship with one parent or the other but the relationship is still good with both parents. One parent said it this way: “We are having the time of our life. I love my daughter and she loves me. Nothing else can be said.” And another: “We get along incredibly. We have spent countless hours in the hot-tub discussing running and life. He is my best male friend.” One parent reports: “I actually like his punk rock and hardcore music! Sometimes we go on late night drives together and maybe grab a burger somewhere. Those are special times for just sharing and listening to each other.”

As far as taking advice, most kids do well, although there are times when parent and runner don’t agree—which of course is normal with teenagers. “As far as taking suggestions from her parents, come on, she is a teenager.” “We are long past the time I could make suggestions about her running, so I just try to be supportive and I let her coach make suggestions about which meets to run in and how to train.”

“We get along exceptionally well. Mostly because I don’t offer too many suggestions. Teenagers don’t like to be bugged by their parents, but, you still have to point out something that appears to be irresponsible—fortunately that doesn’t happen too often.”

“I’m very close to my daughter and she takes my words nearly like the gospel which can be a problem.”


What seemed to surprise or impress parents the most about their runner was some aspect of character such as courage, ability to stay focused; resiliency in the face of adversity; consistent self control and discipline; determination and a fighter and the ability to stand the pain of distance running and racing.

Other parents were surprised that all of a sudden sports became so important; that their runner has achieved elite status; state champion as a freshman; how easy success came and so good so fast.


Most parents dream for happiness and dreams come true. They want what their runners want. They want their runners to be satisfied with themselves and achieve their goals. They want their runner to have fun with running. “I want my daughter to get a great education and if running can help, so be it, but it is not necessary.” A couple of the runners want to be Olympians. So parents hope they achieve their goals and are 100% behind them.

Others would love to see their runner have a successful college career and possibly qualify and compete in an Olympic event. “However, if none of that happened we’d be very satisfied with what his experiences have done for him during high school.”

“We have never had dreams that our daughter might some day achieve. We have never felt like we needed to place expectations on her that may never be realized. We just hope that she will continue to be able to run well, take good care of herself, and enjoy her sport throughout her life.”

“My dreams are for my daughters to have fun with running. That is all that matters. If the pressure to win or to run at an elite level is so great that they are having difficulty coping with it, I want them to feel assured that if they decide to back off, they are making the right choice for their own protection. If they wish to continue, that’s great—as long as it’s what they truly want and not something they are doing to fill other peoples’ expectations.”

One parent puts it this way: “The sky’s the limit.”


While not everyone answered this question, the responses we received were very moving. Here are several:

“I would brag about my older daughter’s willingness to encourage others. Hundreds of people wrote to her after the (newspaper) article, and she tried to offer support to those who needed it. .She is always cheerleading for her teammates, and they say that they really appreciate it. I admire her courage in trying to conquer her problems with eating, perfectionism, and other issues. I admire my younger daughter’s ability to take charge of her life. She decided to graduate a year early so that she can go to college, run, and be with her boyfriend (of course). It was a surprising decision, but has given her goals and helped her mature. There are many worse things she could be doing! Both of my daughters are genuinely nice people and that pleases me.”

“When he was in the 8th grade he won a junior high race. During the race that day a down syndrome boy was running and finished last. He was crying at the end telling his dad ‘I didn’t stop.’ Later that day I saw my son talking to the kid. I asked him ‘What did you say to that boy?’ He said, ‘I gave him my medal, Dad, I will win a lot more and he will never win one.’ That is more important than being a Foot Locker finalist (but we would be proud of that as well).”

“She the most loving child a father could ever have. When my knees went bad, she dedicated every race to me and gave me the first place medal I never got in 35 years of running.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Nothing to brag about. We’re just grateful, and want to support him every step of the way.”

“We think she is a terrific kid and we are very proud that she is our daughter! The thing that makes us the happiest is not only that she is an outstanding athlete, but also that she puts the same kind of dedicated effort into her studies which had produced straight As, and has an active but trustworthy social life. She has learned that it takes a great deal of effort to succeed in athletics and academics. Her running has helped her work ethic which has helped her academics.”

“She has been able to compete at the highest levels both locally and nationally, and we are very proud of that. However, we are even more proud of the fact that every opposing coach we have met and many competitors have gone out of their way to tell us how nice our daughter is as a person. She always has encouraged her teammates and competitors to do well, and no matter how far ahead of others she finishes in a race, she always waits at the finish line to congratulate other runners as they finish…Simply put she is one of the nicest and most caring persons we know, and we are thrilled that she is our daughter.”

“My daughter is a wonderful person who happens to also be a good runner.”

“I really appreciate the fact that to my daughter her team members come first. She goes out of her way to be a leader.”

“No bragging is necessary. Watch the faces of the other runners in the field—the peer respect earned by her opponents. Watch the last place runner come across the finish line in agony. In many regards it is physically easier to win than to come in last, and most certainly emotionally. If bragging breaks down the heart of the last place runner then get rid of it. Lift that runner up, and she will brag for you.”


Parents were all proud of their daughters. In fact, one said “FANTASTIC.” Several felt that athletics has given their daughters a lot of confidence and character. One parent felt that it “has helped her avoid the pitfalls that a lot of other girls have problems with—namely drinking and random hookups—just to be popular.”

The only downside mentioned was from a couple of parents who were concerned that their daughters measured their worth too much from their performance as a runner rather than who they are as individuals.


“I think running is the only real sport, the others are just games.”

Parents were comfortable with their sons running instead of another sport and supported their sons as they moved from football or soccer. Parents were proud of their sons for going with the sport in which they did well. In fact one parent said: “I am thrilled that he is not interested in football!!!!”

“Personal passion is the answer. Flying airplanes, social work, singing, whatever. If you love it, you have a great change to succeed at it. We never considered the number of people in the stands as a directive to participate.”


By a small margin, the majority of parents responding to this survey were runners of one sort or another. Most run for fun and/or fitness; but none were elite runners, though a couple ran in college. And most did not try to encourage their child to run competitively.

So how did their children get into running? People and experience influenced the kids. Physical Education or Gym teachers, particularly those that doubled as coaches had a good eye for kids with talent. For others it was an experience with running at a young age sometimes with a parent. Many kids started as young as kindergarten running a local event or jogathon. Some were encouraged by parents to participate in extra curricular activities, many starting out in soccer, basketball or football. One girl decided she wanted to do running after watching a practice, and another because her friends were running.

One young lady started out running with Dad, eventually outrunning both him and his friends. “I used to run with my friends in the morning. She was really interested in joining us one day. That meant getting out at 6:30 a.m. She was the happiest one to be out on the street. She was 9 years old! We could not believe that she was that motivated to run with a bunch of 40 year old men. Pretty soon she was pushing our pace and a few of the men dropped out!”


Many say that cross country runners are generally good students, smart, disciplined. The kids of the parents participating in this survey fit that profile. Almost all parents reported that their runners were excellent students, with straights As or nearly so.

Most of the runners are excellent in both academics and athletics. Such achievement does not come easily. Parents attribute achievement in both areas to: a balance or juggling act; working hard as a student; juggling both homework and running; up well after midnight; and being relatively organized. Parents believe that self discipline, hard work, extreme focus and excellent time management skills help runners deal with the challenges of handling both running and school.

“Self-discipline runs hand in hand with being a distance runner.”

As one parent put it. She “works hard, is well organized and does not have much time for many other interests when she’s in a season. Her social life is within cc team.”


Parents reported that in addition to being excellent students and elite runners, their runners have varied interests and talents in many areas. Of particular note were the many runners in this group that excelled or participated in music and the arts.

Some of the interest and extra curricular activities include: playing and/or watching other sports; art; theatre work; volunteer with church and civic groups; writing; editor in chief of school newspaper and literary magazine; horseback riding; 4H club activities. Finally, a favorite of many kids: running around with friends and talking on the telephone.

These runners are an interesting group and include: not only playing an electric guitar but playing in two bands; playing the violin since preschool; an artist that also plays the guitar. One girl loves not only surfing but waterskiing and snowboarding. Cooking and nutrition are the interests of one runner. Her Mom says “She is a great cook and wants to attend gourmet cooking schools in Europe. When she’s through competing in running, maybe years from now, we’ll see her competing on the Iron Chef. She also likes music, dance, art and fashion.”


There are some very good parents in cross country that have raised some very special kids. They have shared their thoughts, feelings and desires with us. Hopefully this information will be helpful for other parents watching on the sidelines wondering what to do or what to expect. We thank all of the parents for participating. Good luck to them and their runners.

Donna on the Side index

home | US news | states | rankings | calendar | features | youth | archives | TrackTalk | chat | shop |

DyeStat is published by John Dye, Baltimore MD

2002 - 2003