The sport of track and field is certainly not new. Not only has it been around as an organized sport in the United States since the 1860s, but the earliest foot race was documented in 776 BC, a 600 foot race in the first Olympic Games. Since then, the various events that make up the sport have evolved into one of the most popular sports, by participation, in the world.
South Jersey Track & Field Club is one of thousands around the world introducing the sport to kids, and in that regard, we are not doing anything new, but rather we have stepped into a rich history of celebrating the athletic wonders of the human body and spirit. Track and Field is a sport like no other; it is actually several sports, with each seeming unique on the surface, but all linked by some fascinating common themes. As a club, we introduce and guide kids through an exploration of their own physical and mental abilities, and encourage a pursuit of ongoing challenge and improvement.
Again, participation in this ancient sport is nothing new, or even unique, yet South Jersey Track & Field Club, it turns out, is quite unique!
If you research track and field clubs, you will find many right here in our region. There are clubs in urban, suburban and rural towns. There are clubs that focus on younger kids, older kids, and even adults. A few clubs, like our’s, include field events, but most tend to focus on running. All these clubs hold practices during different times of the year, and most compete in local and regional meets when they are available. We are one of thousands.
And yet, we are somehow something quite different! If you attend one of our practice sessions you sometimes see almost as many parents as kids! You see 3, 4, 5 different events going on at the same time, with kids realizing that throwing a heavy ball off their shoulder is somehow just as fun as running hurdles. You might see whole families engaged in healthy outdoor activity together, learning about themselves, challenging themselves, coming to appreciate our fascinating sport, and just having a great time. If you look more closely you see that we are not an elite organization. We have some super athletes, and we have some kids who are simply figuring out how to move their limbs with some relative coordination. We celebrate individual ability and success, but it is not even close to why we exist. We came to be, and exist, as a way for all kids, ANY kid, to experience athletic pursuit, regardless of physical ability, or talent. ANY kid can join us, and be coached with enthusiasm and integrity, getting to experience the unique coach-athlete bond. ANY kid can practice, and get to experience the reality of improving with effort, not to beat someone else, but to compete against the one who will always be our greatest adversary, our self. ANY kid can jump into our fun competition, and experience the universal human ideal of sportsmanship. We are unique, because we operate with an equal focus on the least talented kid, comparatively, as the most.
So, how did we get here?
Like most lots in life, if we look back and ask this question, we find that so much rides on the simple concept of intention. Why on earth would someone start an athletic club? Aren’t there already plenty of options? I wish I could say that my wife, Maggie, and I started this endeavor with the above paragraph as our intention, but also like most lots in life, we just keep learning by doing.
But what we did intend to do likely separated us from other track and field clubs right out of the blocks. In the spring of 2014 we thought that it would be really fun to encourage other families to join us for summer evenings of exercise at our local high school’s brand new bouncy track. We had been taking our your kids to various tracks for months, and one of us would do a workout while the other would play soccer or tag or whatever with the kids. Sometimes the kids would run on the track, and other times they wouldn’t. In the end, we would survive another “witching hour” with our little energetic maniacs, get some exercise, and head home a happier, healthier family. And for some reason we thought it would be cool to get some friends to join us!
A logical first step was to make some social networking posts, and we quickly made some new friends. One of the first families to join us was the Ayer’s, with Jon and his son running some intervals, and eventually talking about a more formal club. The next step was to approach our local athletic association. That was interesting, and a learning experience, as it was the first time I noticed that track and field is a threat to some people. The athletic club initially reacted out of fear that a track and field club would steal kids from other sports. This “poverty mindset” would turn out to be an ongoing battle, but we were able to quickly persuade the athletic club to add us as a summer program, when no other sports were happening. The 100+ fee-paying families that registered for our first season pretty much sealed the deal that we were a good addition!
150 kids signed up for that first program in 2014. Maggie and I were expecting, or hoping for, about 30. We just had no idea. As the registrations poured in, so did my panic. How the heck would we organize 180 kids from 2nd to 8th grade? The original goal was to create a family program, so we reached out for volunteers and were simply bowled over by the response. I believe we had about 40 parents offer to help, and we threw together a plan to have the kids in small groups of 10-12, and then rotate them through 3 or 4 stations each evening. It was the epitome of “organized chaos.” But somehow it worked. I wish I had taken more photos and videos, but practice took all of everyone’s focus. The end result was a beautiful display of kids and adults spread out over the track, the infield, and the various side-fields, throwing things, jumping over things, and running all over the place. It was hot. Everyone was sweaty. It. Was. Beautiful.
It was also a little too much! The next summer we scaled things back a bit. We upped the starting age to 3rd grade, and shortened the program by a few weeks. And that summer we had 185 kids sign up. Panic again set in, but I kept reminding myself how amazing the volunteer turn-out was the first year. Once we had everything planned I realized that we could predict at least one parent would volunteer for every 6-8 kids who signed up. We were truly a family fitness program.
There were two things that really struck us during those first two summers. The first was simply how many families were looking for summer recreation. But the second was more specific to track and field — a lot of parents were also looking, some desperately, for alternatives to the existing field sport programs (soccer, football, baseball, softball, field hockey). We have an amazing array of sports to choose from in our area, but lots of kids literally get left on the sidelines in those sports. Our own daughter signed up for soccer, and then just refused to play no matter how we or her very nice coach tried to coax her onto the field. It just wasn’t her thing. It didn’t make any sense. Her older brother will play soccer all day long. But, the moment I set up some hurdles on the track and showed my daughter how to approach them she never turned back!
It turned out that lots and lots of other families have had a similar experience, and like our daughter, their kids still wanted to be outside doing something organized and athletic. And suddenly they were also part of the biggest team in town!
The biggest learning experience of those first two summers was almost embarrassing. I had been coaching high school track and field for several years, but it wasn’t until I began to see how quickly kids learned the various skills that support each event that I realized how much I love and appreciate the sport. Yes, all athletics are about training, competing, and to some extent, winning, or at least trying to win. If you remove the goal of winning from any game it loses its purpose and intrigue. But so much of the value, and even joy of participating in a sport has nothing to do with competition. Competition is the whipped cream, and winning is the cherry on top. But maybe this metaphor only works if you eat that sundae from the bottom up!
Every single kid in the world deserves to experience good life-long health. Studies have proven that children who get a healthy amount of physical activity at a young age are more likely to experience good health throughout life. We also know that the ideal time to instill healthy, complex movement is between the ages of 3 and 6. In that age range, kids should be playing lots of different games on playgrounds, and the science tells us there is little need for it to be organized, or sport-specific. From 6-12 we ideally introduce kids to more and more refined movement technique instruction, and this is when it becomes appropriate to introduce specific sports. In fact, an organized sport becomes an ideal way to build higher level mind-body connection. These are basic developmental concepts that have incalculable value to a human being’s entire lifespan, and while they have everything to do with the enjoyment of sports, they do not require competition, talent or special genetic ability. On one hand we should be mindful not to remove the goal of winning, but at the same time we should fight tooth and nail to prevent winning from somehow allowing every kid to benefit from sport.
Sports like soccer and baseball inevitably lead to a culling of less talented kids. There is nothing wrong with this. I am not opposed to any sport, as long as its rules are continually adapted with a goal of safety and life-long health. Field sports provide excellent ways of engaging kids in those critical movement years. Youth clinic soccer for 3-6 year olds can help supplement playground play with fun team learning. Travel and town soccer programs are well-equipped to serve the higher level training that is ideal for 6-12 year olds. But by 12, the vast majority of kids who played clinic soccer at 6 are no longer involved.
Those are the kids we sought to serve with South Jersey Track & Field Club. There are plenty of organizations that, by their intention, seek to find, serve, and showcase highly talented athletes. As I said, we celebrate success, but it is not our intention or reason for existence.
But here lies one of the most fascinating aspects of track & field! There is no reason whatsoever that a club cannot serve kids of all abilities, helping less able or talented kids learn to move with more competence, while at the same time coaching highly talented athletes to higher levels of performance. Track and field is the most “democratic” sport. Even at the high school level, where only the most talented kids on the team get to compete in the varsity events, most leagues still allow an unlimited number of junior varsity kids to compete. College track and field has a surprising array of talent, but even if some athletes are not qualified to participate there, adult clubs continue to support all athletes regardless of talent, and we know that local 5Ks, marathons, triathlons, mud races, etc are available to all of us as long as we hang on to that “youthful” competitive spirit.
To continue the story, after that second summer we realized that we should bring this sport to a wider population. The athletic association was happy to allow kids from other towns, but we wanted to add fall and spring programs, and that fear I mentioned early came roaring back. Sadly, we found that the key leadership in our local school district does not support track and field, or our mission to provide athletic opportunity to kids of all abilities, and we have been consistently blocked from using the high school facilities. At the same time, the athletic association saw no reason to support our goal of expanding, so we formed a new organization, our current South Jersey Track & Field Club.
Under this name, and our own independent organization and leadership, we have successfully added a summer youth track and field program located at Cherry Hill West High School, a fall cross country program in Cherry Hill, a free winter running program, and our spring track and field program which will hold practices in multiple towns. We have grown to serve over 200 families throughout the year, and maintain our commitment to serve all kids, regardless of physical ability or financial means. And we look forward to someday celebrating some future Olympians!
Look out for future posts, where I will explain what connects all of the events in track and field, and some of the different ways we can learn about ourselves through the sport.