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My Experience with Girls on the Run

Posted May 31 2013 11:25am

Today is our last day of Girls on the Run (GOTR). So we’re skipping the run part and having a little end of season party  instead — with snacks, music, certificates, and time devoted to finishing up their community service project. In our case, handmade fleece blankets that the girls want to donate to Boston Children’s Hospital. When I look back over the past 10 weeks or so, I can’t believe how fast it’s all gone…and how quickly these girls touched my heart.

I wasn’t really planning on writing much about my experience with GOTR. I’m a first time coach, so admittedly don’t know as much about the organization as veterans. And I wasn’t sure people would be interested in hearing about it anyway. But, after receiving a few questions and thinking there was a chance others who might want to get involved would like to hear an honest review from someone participating in a rural community, I figured I might as well write something up. I promise that I won’t be offended if you simply “Mark as Read” and move on.

I’m also going to do my best to write this in broad terms so as to respect individual privacy (that also explains why I continue to publish only pictures of the girls’ backs…I just don’t feel right posting pictures of minors without their parents’ permission.

GOTR 5K_brattleboro girls running

But first let me say — I’m not positive that my experience is completely typical. Vermont is a unique state (and I’m not just saying that because I think it’s one of the best places in the country!). Most of our communities are rural and our schools are small. In Southern Vermont, it’s not uncommon for classrooms to have 10 or fewer kids, or for schools to be regional instead of based in one community. There can also be a huge wealth disparity among kids that go to the same school. At least in my surrounding area, there is a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty — with very little in between. This leads to its own unique set of challenges — challenges that I do think the Vermont council has done an admirable job trying to overcome.

So in order to keep this from becoming a novel (you all know my penchant for wordiness), I’m going to try to present as much as I can in bullet/summary form.

GOTR brattleboro 5K_runners

First, some stats:

Program Length: 10 – 12 weeks

Although the standard length is 12 weeks, Vermont has depressingly long winters (not to mention a beautiful mud season) that makes it hard to start until mid/late March (and even then we still had to cancel once because of a snow storm). So we’re approved to hold a 10 week program. Honestly, this felt really short. Not only because of the lessons, but because it’s really hard to build girls up from barely running at all to 5K ready in only 10 weeks. I’m not sure if 4 more sessions would have made a big difference, but I guess there’s a chance…

Time Commitment: 2 days a week, 1.5 – 2 hours per day

Each lesson follows the same format, and it’s all pre-written for you (how closely you choose to stick to it, on the other hand, is up to you). We also had most basic materials provided for us. This means that the prep work outside of practices is pretty minimal, though obviously it does require some time to familiarize yourself with the lesson and tailor it to your unique group.

Lesson Content: daily themes with a run connected to a broader lesson

The GOTR program is designed to get girls active, but it’s about more than just running. So this isn’t really a program for someone interested solely in training. The curriculum focuses on the whole person — improving physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social health. Lessons are built around topics to improve the girls’ self-esteem as well as their relationships with others and their community as a whole. The run each day ties into the overarching theme.

I don’t want to get into the curriculum too much, but it does cover a fairly wide range of topics — everything from the importance of physical activity and good nutrition, to dealing with bullies, to overcoming peer pressure, and the importance of giving back to the community.

GOTR brattleboro 5K_girls running2

Observations: let’s start with the negative so we can finish off on a high note.

1.) The age difference

This is something unique to my program, but I do feel it deserves a mention. Although the GOTR program is designed for girls in 3rd – 5th grade (with Girls on Track tailored to middle school girls), the elementary school where I coached went up to 6th grade. And was super small. We couldn’t exclude one grade of girls — who would then have no access to another program, since there was no middle school in town. Unfortunately, there is a big difference between a girl in 3rd grade and one in 6th. Not necessarily in their ability (some of our 3rd graders were excellent athletes!), but in maturity levels and issues they deal with on a day-to-day basis. There were certain lessons that could have been easily derailed by our “constantly-needing-to-push-the-limits” 6th grade girls. And topics brought up that I wasn’t prepared to discuss…nor did I feel comfortable talking about in front of 8-year-old (and somehow I don’t think their parents would have appreciated it too much either).

2.) The curriculum

…seems super repetitive! Apparently there are several different formats of the curriculum that GOTRI rotates every year. However, from what I’ve experienced those curricula are not all that different. Not only do I say this because I had an old copy of a book used in a past year to look at (and the biggest difference was a revised workout for the same topic), but also because there were many times when we’d start to introduce a lesson and some of the girls who had been in GOTR before would say “Oh! I know what we’re doing today!!”

I’ll admit that this wasn’t always a bad thing. The girls love certain lessons and were excited for a chance to repeat them. But honestly — if you’re paying for your kid to participate in a program 3 years in a row, I think you’d want them to be exposed to unique lessons and topics. I also don’t know how coaches feel about presenting the same thing year after year, but I can imagine it would get old.

3.) The individual lessons

…can also be repetitive. Although each practice focused on a different topic, some of them (along with their corresponding activity) were incredibly similar. And I can tell you first hand that that doesn’t always hold a girl’s interest. Also, some of the workout activities just didn’t lend themselves to a longer run. The girls got bored quickly, causing us to improvise…or risk the entire practice falling apart.

Another note about the lessons — there were times that I thought certain topics weren’t quite age-appropriate. I don’t know, maybe I’m being naive here, but it didn’t seem right to me to talk about body image issues with 8 year olds (for example) who didn’t seem to have any sense of the concept yet. Why even put that idea in their heads? Obviously this will vary based on your population, but we had to use some discretion in what was discussed.

4.) The workouts are built on the fact that girls will run laps around a track

But we didn’t have one. The nearest high school was 20 minutes away — not exactly a feasible option for a practice that lasts less than 2 hours. I understand the rational behind this — you can easily keep track of the girls and the distance they are running, but it’s just not realistic for small schools. Also, I can imagine that it would get pretty boring if that’s all you did, day after day.

5.) The program fees

I bring this up with one caveat — in my opinion, the Vermont council does an excellent job of trying to make the program affordable for all families, regardless of economic status. Particularly due to the issues I mentioned above. They subsidize the cost for all participants, and have a large scholarship program (funded by donors, statewide sponsors, and other fundraising efforts) that they’re proud of.

However — it’s not cheap to participate in GOTR. This isn’t an after school program designed to get at-risk/low-income youth involved in something positive. And I’m not sure how well each council fundraises and promotes the scholarship program. So I can see how it could be exclusionary in certain areas of the country.

That brings up another issue that I wish I knew more about — how the financial structure of GOTRI works. I don’t really want to speculate on this (but if anybody reading has more information I’d love if you shared!), but it seems as though each council must operate financially independent of the main Charlotte office. However, I know that councils have to pay a fee to GOTRI to be considered a part of the organization, and I don’t really know where that money goes…or what kind of support the individual councils get besides the curriculum.

GOTR 5K finish

1.) The focus on each girl moving at her own pace

Again, while it’s called Girls on the Run, this is not a strict running program (which may make it less appealing to some). We had girls at all different levels of fitness participate. A handful of them loved to run, but there were some who needed to be prodded quite a bit to move. One of our girls pretty much walked every single workout. But that was fine by us, as long as she kept moving and tried her hardest. In my mind, any program that encourages kids to be more physically active (no matter what level) is a success.

2.) The sense of pride in being a Girl on the Run

Despite the repetitive lessons and the fact that the girls clearly didn’t love every single activity/workout we had them do, it was clear how much they valued being a Girl on the Run. Most of our older girls had participated since they were in 3rd grade, and wore shirts from past years to almost every practice. They developed their own cheer unique to our group. Supported each other in ways that sometimes made me want to tear up. It was pretty incredible to see.

3.) The increases in self-esteem and confidence as the season went on

Although most of the girls knew each other before joining GOTR (since the school is so small), there were some who were very shy at the beginning of the season. It was wonderful to see them come out of their shells over the course of the past 10 weeks. And I loved watching their confidence blossom — in themselves and their ability to accomplish anything. Girls who had a hard time running at the beginning (or at least had difficulty motivating themselves to do so) surprised themselves by how much they were able to run during the 5K. One of our younger girls told us that the 5K was “life changing” for her — it made her feel good about what she could accomplish and has inspired her to run more.

Another thing that I found particularly noteworthy was the fact that several of our 6th graders were very self-conscious at the beginning (as most 6th graders are). They embarrassed easily, and didn’t want people outside of GOTR to see them doing some of the activities/stretches. But at the end of the season, these same girls rocked their unicorn hats at the 5K with pride.

GOT unicorn hat

4.) The focus on the whole person

This goes along with what I said above, but I do appreciate GOTR’s efforts to focus on more than just physical activity. This is such an impressionable time for many girls, and it was wonderful to provide them with a positive space where they were free to be themselves without judgement. We celebrated the unique, encouraged them to find their strength, and always made them feel supported. I hope that the program has a lasting impact on all our girls.

5.) Certain lessons

I know I complained a bit about the lessons above, but there were some lessons that I really loved. Sometimes the girls had so much fun with them it was hard not to. And other times I just loved the overall message. On Wednesday, as a way to wrap up the end of the year, we did a lesson around celebrating each girl’s unique gifts. In the warm up activity, one girl sat in a chair with her back to the group. One at a time, each girl ran up to the one in the chair and told her something she appreciated/admired/liked about that girl. Everyone got a chance to sit in the chair and hear their teammates say nice things about them. It was so wonderful to see the bounce in each girl’s step as she returned from the chair. Seriously — smiling from ear to ear and filled with confidence. At the very end, the coaches got to take a turn in the chair, and the things some of the girls told me brought tears to my eyes. As far as activities meant to build people up go, this was one of my favorites.

6.) The creativity and flexibility of my co-coach

Obviously this varies from program to program, but I was thankful that my co-coach wasn’t a stickler about the lessons. She’s been doing this for years and I was lucky to be able to learn from a program veteran. Sometimes we were forced to tweak the workout a bit because of our location. Since we didn’t have a track, we ran laps around the school or village, did out and back loops on the walking trails through town, and got in a couple of trail runs (which the girls loved more than anything). Other times, we improvised based on our group and how we thought the lesson would go over. If you ever coach GOTR, you get to know the dynamics of your group pretty quickly. You generally know what will hold their attention and what workouts they will be able to handle. If you’re willing to be flexible and go off book a bit, I think you’ll have greater success…and ultimately have more fun with it. (Although maybe GOTRI would disagree…haha).

7.) The 5K

I talked about this in my last post , so won’t elaborate too much. But the final event was so well-organized. Every single girl had a blast running, and I loved that I was able to run with them (which, as I learned from Gabby , is apparently not true of all programs).

IMG 3490

Well, that ended up being a lot longer than I had intended…and yet I still feel like I’m leaving things out!

In summary, I’m very thankful to have been able to volunteer with GOTR and hope to stay involved with the organization. Despite my reservations (which really aren’t all that huge), the most important thing about the program is its impact on the girls who participate. I have firsthand experience with the incredibly positive impact running can have on a young girl’s life, and I loved being a part of something that shares that with other girls. It was clear that our girls loved being involved and grew both as individuals and as a group over the course of the season. I’m definitely interested to see if anything is different next year as a return coach, and/or if some of my perspectives change.

I’d love to know if you have more specific questions/input! I know my experience may be different from coaches in other states, but I can at least give you my honest opinion on things.

 

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