'Exercise that is work is worthless...
... but exercise that is play will give you health and long life.'
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve begun coaching my son’s soccer team. If you’ve ever tried to hold the attention of just under a dozen 6- and 7-year-olds, then you know how challenging this can be!
Thankfully, over the weekend I got to attend a coaching workshop on how to structure the hour-long practices we hold with our teams each week. Because you can’t just go out there and ask the kids to do random drills; every activity has to have a purpose, and build on the one that came before.
If you want them to learn the skills they need to play the game, that is. And to actually have fun.
The coach who held the workshop — a man in his early thirties from Trinidad, who played professionally in the U.S. from the time he was in his late teens — stressed a few things that left a deep impression on me.
(I promise these have a connection to running, just bear with me for a moment.)
Here’s what he told us not to forget:
‘These are kids you’re coaching, and they’re just learning how to move their bodies’
Kicking a ball with the inside of your foot — better yet, trying to catch one that’s coming at you across the grass with the inside of your foot — is not a natural movement to make. You have to train yourself to do it, and allow yourself time to make lots of mistakes as you learn how to do it.
With time and practice, it’s the kind of thing that becomes second nature. (If you ever played soccer as a kid, then you know how natural it becomes.) But it’s not natural to anyone trying it for the first time.
Likewise, moving around on the field with the ball at your feet — but with your head up and looking around, not staring down at the ball below — isn’t natural either. But it’s something we can learn to do, it just takes time.
‘You need to be patient with them. They’re not going to pick up everything the first time you teach it to them, and maybe not the 10th time you teach it to them.’
Our workshop coach emphasized this over and over. That it should never be far from our minds that we’re coaching little kids here, kids who are mostly learning the game for the first time. So the impression we make on them might be one they carry with them their whole lives.
What that means for us as coaches is that we need to be intentional about our activities — by breaking them up into 10-minute segments that give the kids enough time to do what we’re asking them to do, but don’t tax them too much mentally.
So we start with some simple agility exercises, like jumping in and out of training rings. Then we move on to dribbling the ball around in a circle. After that, we move on to passing. All the while, we’re spending no more than 10 minutes on each thing — to help them stay fresher and more attentive, which in turns helps them learn.
‘The energy you put out to the kids is the energy you’ll get back from them’
During the workshop, when we adult coaches would go through the drills he was showing us how to do, I kept hearing “amazing,” and “great job!” I heard the coach say “that’s how to do it!” over and over and over. Basically, it was a constant flow of positive energy and affirmation.
And you know what? It worked! It made me feel good, like I was getting it. And I’m a grown man who has been through this routine with coaches of my own, many times in my life growing up. So you’d think I’d see through it, right? Nope. Not at all. It worked on me like a charm.
That impressed on me yet again how important it is to remind them all the time how awesome they are. That they can get it. That even the tiniest bit of progress in the right direction is something worth celebrating.
Last year, my son had an experience with a very different kind of coach. His spring baseball coach yelled and screamed, he threw his glove down on the field when the kids didn’t execute a play properly. (And bear in mind, these were 5- and 6-year-old kids on the team.)
Aside from the fact that this behavior is insane, let’s imagine the message it sent to the kids about baseball: that this game is very serious business. It’s not just for fun — it’s for keeps. And if you’re going to play it, you’re going to have to play by my rules and do things my way, or you’re out of here.
Ask yourself: if you were 6 years old and that’s the way a coach acted with you, would you ever want to play baseball again? Well, my son sure doesn’t — and that’s a big part of why we’re playing soccer now.
We don’t have to approach running and exercise like that either
As I was listening to our soccer workshop coach, what kept coming to mind wasn’t only what I’ve just described. It’s that, far too often in my own mind, I’ve been just as critical of myself with my own running progress as that baseball coach was with our kids.
And I’ve treated myself as harshly as he treated our 5- and 6-year-olds. And beyond the fact that it makes me feel bad about myself, what possible progress did I make toward anything by beating myself up?
Why not treat my own running as play — mixing in fun workouts, just for short periods of time, celebrating even the tiniest wins, and always remembering to praise myself?
That’s what George Sheehan, the cardiologist who took up running when he hit his 40s back in the 1970s and ended up writing the bestselling book Running & Being, said is the only way to approach it if you want to do it for your lifetime:
“I am ready to start a new religion, the first law of which is ‘Play regularly.’ An hour’s play a day makes a man whole and healthy and long-lived. A man’s exercise must be play, or it will do him little good.”
Sheehan emphasizes that it’s not hard effort that does your body good, necessarily — it’s the spirit with which you do it:
“So it is not effort that reduces heart attacks and degenerative disease. If it were only effort, then effort on the job would do the trick. So it is not running, but running that is play, that is necessary. Exercise that is work is worthless. But exercise that is play will give you health and long life.
Exercise that is not play accentuates, rather than heals, the split between body and spirit. Exercise that is drudgery, labor, something done only for the final result is a waste of time. If I hated to run and ran only for longevity and was killed by a truck after five years at the sport, I would have a right to shake my fist at Providence, or at the doctor who advised it.”
I love this. Running doesn’t have to be a grind, it doesn’t need to be punishing. It’s something that can expand us, can grow our sense of who we can be — not limit it.
That’s what I’m going to focus on, anyway, as I try to absorb more of the lessons our soccer workshop coach taught us. Because he’s a wise man.
I hope you are having a wonderful week and getting out to run in some of this amazing (almost) spring weather we’re starting to have — as always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going. 😃
Races you might love running
Memorial Day weekend brings this 👆 gorgeous half marathon, 10K and 5K run along the shoreline of Idaho’s stunning Redfish Lake. In the late summer, run “one of the most beautiful and peaceful half marathon courses” along wooded trails and through the wide-open grasslands of this working farm in eastern Minnesota. If tunnels — and beautiful downhill runs through Washington’s Cascade Mountains — are your thing, this mid-September run features a 2.4-mile stretch through the Snoqualmie Tunnel. In October, take in beautiful views of the Verrazano Bridge, Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty on this run through Brooklyn. And though it’s debuted to some controversy, the Boston Marathon plans to host a virtual event alongside its legendary in-person race — giving 70,000 runners (who wouldn’t have been able to otherwise) the chance to be a part of it all.
A running read I loved this week
Why I Stopped Running During the Pandemic (And Why I Started Again). The New York Times’s Lindsay Crouse, who before the coronavirus was breaking 3 hours in the 26.2-mile distance, shares how and why she stopped running completely during the lockdown in New York City, and found herself slowly retreating into her own (very) small world. What brought her back? The realization that wanting to feel better, or even just different, wasn’t going to happen on its own — she needed to act.
“You don’t need to feel good to get going. You need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good.”
🏹 By the way, I stumbled across this article thanks to The Small Bow, a lovely newsletter I’ve recently discovered. It’s definitely worth a read.
Words to run by
“It is easy to work when the soul is at play.”
— Emily Dickinson