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Why Kids Run
The costs (and benefits) of elite sports for kids.
1. Little League Running
We’re going waaaay off topic today to talk about sports and children and society. It’s going to be a journey.
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Okay. Now strap in.
I graduated from high school in the early ‘90s and was captain of the cross-country team (that’s “XC” for the uninitiated) despite the fact that I was a mediocre runner. Back then, no one was a “runner” before high school. You “ran” before ninth grade as part of other activities: playing soccer, or basketball, or whatever. But the idea that an eighth grader would just . . . run?
The result was that some number of ninth graders who didn’t play a fall sport at the varsity level would hit high school and decide to try cross country. That’s when they became runners.
Today it’s different. In the same way that we have Little League baseball and Pee-Wee hockey, we now have XC as a dedicated sport that starts in elementary school.
I know this because I am a coach for my kids’ K-8 school’s cross-country program. Our team includes runners from third grade to eighth grade.
What do you think makes a good XC runner? When I was in high school I viewed XC as the great equalizer: a sport that neutralized native athletic talent; a sport where diligence, dedication, and desire were determinative.
In my mind’s eye, cross country was the one sport where natural athleticism was secondary to character.
I now know that this view is wholly, entirely, wrong.
Even in cross country—even in elementary school cross country—native talent is both immediately obvious and utterly determinative.
Let me tell you about the Cheetah.
My team competes in a small league made up of suburban Catholic K-8 schools. None of them are expensive prep schools; none of them are recruiting for athletics.
Last year, at the first meet of the cross-country season, I saw an 11-year-old girl running in the 5th/6th grade race and my eyes fell out of my head. You know how people will say that someone runs like a gazelle? This girl ran like a cheetah.
You didn’t need a stopwatch. Simply by watching her cover 200m of ground you could tell that this girl was at a completely different level. She was physically unremarkable—a little shorter and more slender than average—but her stride was perfect. She looked like she was gliding over water, her speed effortless. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about this kid.
I believe the Cheetah won that first race, on a 1.5 mile course, by close to 3 minutes.
By the end of the season the coaches were letting her run in the 7th/8th grade boys’ races when she wanted to, which was a nice gesture. But none of them were able to push her, either.
The older boys got a kick out of running
way behind with the Cheetah. Everyone in this league loved watching her run because we could see that her talent was special. And despite how fast she was, the Cheetah was just an 11-year-old girl. Every Saturday at the meets she was hanging with her teammates, doing goofy little-girl stuff.
On Saturday I saw the Cheetah for the first time this season and as fast as she was last year, it was another category difference. She’s now training seriously with an elite track club. This is the running equivalent of travel soccer—which is not something I realized existed.
I want to emphasize that all of the coaches in the league love the Cheetah and we’re eager to watch her and celebrate her wherever she goes from here. She’s a lovely girl. She gets the trophy every single time and then gets right back out there to cheer everyone else on.
But also: I worry that we—and by “we” I mean all of us, society writ large—might not be doing kids like the Cheetah any favors by identifying their abilities so early and maximizing them so young.
2. What Is “Elite”?
Back when I was in high school—remember, this was the Dark Ages—there was a hierarchy of cross-country races. At the lowest level were league dual meets against local individual schools. Then there were invitational meets, with lots of schools from near and far competing at the same time. Then came the sectional championships, followed by the state championships, followed by the Meet of Champions.
The Meet of Champions—which pits all of the state championship winners against one another—was just the beginning of the elite part of the season. The truly elite runners went from the Meet of Champions to the Footlocker Northeast Regionals in the Bronx. And the top finishers there went on to the national finals in California.
“Going to Footlocker” was the kind of thing the guys on my team whispered about. We’d see a kid from another school at sectionals blow the field away and ask, “Hey, do you think he’s good enough to qualify for Footlocker?”
We knew that Footlocker was a real race that actually happened and we’d eagerly look forward to seeing the results after they posted. (Footlocker was traditionally a week or so after the Meet of Champions.) But none of us ever personally knew anyone who ran at Footlocker. That elite level was so rare and remote that it was almost mythical. A kid who made it to Footlocker might as well have been Batman.
I tell you all of this because I suspect that in a few weeks the Cheetah will be going to Footlocker.
I can’t figure out when, but at some point the Footlocker regional finals—and then the national championship—expanded from being a single high-stakes race for high school boys and girls to a more . . . expansive operation.
Back then, Footlocker was just two races: One for boys, one for girls, and almost all of the competitors were juniors and seniors.
Today, Footlocker still has divisions for high school boys and girls. There is also an upper-middle-school division (for 13- and 14-year-olds) and a lower-middle-school division (for 11- and 12-year olds). There is even a 10-and-under division.
And the times these kids run are insane.
Last year at the Footlocker Northeast Regional, the girl who won the 10-and-under race ran an 11:57 for the 3k course. That’s a 6:27 mile pace.
Let me put this into context for you: My old high school competes in the South Jersey Group 2 sectional. If this girl—who is under the age of 11—had run that pace at that race last year, she would have finished 72nd out of 111 runners. Against high school varsity boys.1
As you might expect, elite training has made everyone faster, earlier. When I was in high school there might be one or two boys per year in New Jersey capable of running a sub-16:00 5k.2 Today there are usually at least a dozen high school boys in the state running routinely running sub-16:00. You can extrapolate this trend across the entire sport: all ages, all levels, both boys and girls.
There are long-term health concerns (both emotional and physical) for specializing in distance running so early, especially for girls.
But I want to put those aside for a minute to focus on the societal piece of this: Why are we training 10- and 11-year-old kids to run at elite levels? Who does this help? Who is this for?
What I’m seeing in elementary school XC is the same thing we see with soccer and hockey and cheerleading and baseball and pretty much every other activity kids do these days.3 It’s an arms race. And it was created not by the kids, but by the adults.
When I was a kid, elite talent existed just like it did today. But the adults didn’t have an infrastructure in place to cultivate that talent until much later in the game—usually the teen years.
Well, we’ve built that infrastructure, and once it exists then every kid with elite talent has to plug into it not to excel, but just to keep pace. And getting plugged into that infrastructure—the travel clubs, the running programs—comes at a cost.
This cost is monetary, obviously. But also I worry that it costs families their time together and children their childhood.
Think of it this way: Once upon a time I looked at elite girls’ gymnastics as the kind of all-consuming, pitiless enterprise that most of us would never want our daughters pulled into.
At the elite level right now, every kids sport is becoming girls’ gymnastics.
My oldest kid is an elite baseball player. We resisted the travel baseball machine as long as we could, but by age 10 he needed to be playing baseball year-round to keep pace with the kids at the top of his cohort.
This summer he tore his MCL off the bone while pitching and needed the kind of reconstructive surgery that used to be only for college or professional players. That’s because by 14 he was throwing the ball as hard as college players did 30 years ago. In baseball, velocity creep has been one of the consequences of having kids specialize at the elite levels much earlier than they used to.
The problem is systemic: As Walter Bagehot observed when talking about financial leverage, once leverage exists in a market, the first player to use it gains an advantage. But after that, all of the players must use leverage just to stay at par. Even when the costs and risks of that leverage are significant.
This kind of systemic problem isn’t just about kids sports. In The Two-Income Trap Elizabeth Warren wrote about how, when women first entered the workforce on a permanent basis, it allowed two-income families to advance economically.
But second incomes quickly went from advantage to necessity as the price of housing increased in response.4
Are there real benefits to having two-income families? Undeniably. But there are also real costs.
Back to kid sports: It’s not useful to argue against the current regime of professionalization in kids sports. Good or bad, this system exists and you cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube.
What we should be doing is thinking about how to manage this system so that we maximize whatever benefits it creates and blunt whatever costs it imposes. We want to try to figure out how to protect both the Cheetah at her elite level and the non-elite kids, too.
I’d like you to talk about this in the comments. My own view is that everything starts with intentionality.
The boy who won the 10-and-under race at Footlocker? That kid would have finished 39th at the sectional race my old high school varsity team competed in last year. He would have beaten most of the teenage guys. Let that sink in.
I’m talking about times for the Holmdel course, which is New Jersey’s iconic XC venue. Holmdel is so hilly that it is considered close to a minute slower than the average NJ course.
Did you know that there are national jump rope championships for kids? With elite jump rope clubs? This is a real thing.
The short version: Housing stock is limited, especially housing stock tied to what are considered “good” schools. (School systems are a positional good.) The housing market had an equilibrium when one-income families were the norm. Once two-income families became a significant percentage, these two-income families had the ability to bid up the prices on homes in “good” school districts, which in turn incentivized other families to obtain a second income.
The end result was a new housing market equilibrium roughly like the old one, but at a higher cost, with this increased cost supported by mothers working outside the home. Everyone working more just to stay at the same place.