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.”
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR NEW PARENTS?
“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!”
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE?
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
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!
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOUR RUNNER
IS RUNNING? DO YOU GO TO ALL OF THE MEETS? DO YOU EVER FEEL GUILTY
IF YOU DON’T ATTEND A MEET?
So now what do these parents think about while they are on the
“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.
WHAT ARE THE GOOD TIMES—THE BAD TIMES?
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
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
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.”
WHAT DO YOU DO TO MAKE THINGS BETTER? HOW DO
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.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO YOUR RUNNER AT A LOSS?
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,
“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.”
HAS YOUR RUNNER EVER BEEN INJURED? HOW DID
YOU HANDLE IT? WHAT DID YOU DO TO HELP? WHAT DID YOU FEAR THE MOST?
As one parent sees it, “Injuries are a side effect of intense
training or racing. Injuries are part of the challenge of learning
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.
HAVE YOU EVER DEALT WITH AN EATING DISORDER? HOW DID YOU HANDLE
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.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH
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 SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT YOUR RUNNER?
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.
WHAT ARE YOUR DREAMS FOR YOUR RUNNER?
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
One parent puts it this way: “The sky’s the limit.”
DO YOU WANT TO BRAG ABOUT SOMETHING?
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.”
“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
“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.”
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR DAUGHTER BEING
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.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR SON RUNNING INSTEAD
OF A MORE POPULAR SPORT?
“I think running is the only real sport, the others are just
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.”
HOW DID YOUR RUNNER GET INTO
RUNNING? WERE YOU OR YOUR SPONSE A RUNNER?
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!”
HOW WELL DOES YOUR RUNNER HANDLE THE CHALLENGES
OF SCHOOL AND RUNNING?
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
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.”
WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DOES YOUR RUNNER
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.”
A THANK YOU TO THE PARENTS
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