I don't get the phone calls as often as I used to.
I could guarantee at least half-a-dozen phone calls between February and May from the parents - or grandparents - of potential youth running prodigies. And the phone message, give or take a few words, always sounded like: 'I found your name on the (blank) web site, and I see that you do track workouts on (day of week). My (child) runs for (coach) at (school), but I want to help them improve at the (race distance). Please call me back with more details about your program.'
So, I'd call back and graciously decline their offer to potentially coach the 'next great American runner.' Lake Wobegon syndrome ("...all the children are above-average") notwithstanding. To me, youth coaching is a trip to the dark side of the Freudian pleasure-pain calculus. Think Clarence Thomas at a confirmation hearing. Bill Clinton defining 'is' during a deposition. Lance Armstrong in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
My (nearly) hard/fast guideline is that I will not coach anyone younger than 16. If the kid can't drive themself to the track, I want no part of working with them. And if they already have a coach, well, I'm not going to take another guy's/gal's kneecaps out, just to have another young athlete. I've had family members recruit me within earshot of the other coach (a personal friend). We had a good laugh over that one after the parents were gone. The scariest thing about running, especially when youth are involved, is that a family member can screw up more than one person's career at a time.
Kids should be encouraged to take up running as sport. It's one of those activities which needs little more than a place and decent shoes. The list below contains most of the Road Runners Club of America guidelines for youth running, based on developmental principles of training and racing for young distance runners written by Larry Greene, Ph.D. and Russ Pate, Ph.D.
My sport is your sport's punishment. Every time I've seen youth baseball players do sprints or laps around the field for screwing up a double play I want to shriek in horror. First and foremost, running should be fun.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it looks really broke, make very small adjustments. Once upon a time, a family member made a wise-crack about my run form (back when I played baseball); they said I appeared to have been impaled by a broomstick. Strangely enough, my father recalled this observation during the height of my (healthy) racing career. A proper (erect) form and reasonable stride length, taught early on, will eliminate bad habits and potential injuries later. There are other little things which can be discouraged, like excess arm movement, twisting the upper body, or over-striding.
You might not be the best, but you can be a good one. Strangely enough, the over-emphasis on awards, trophies and personal accomplishments also seem to scare away many adult runners. The goal is to develop the habit of life-long activity and participation; middle school, high school and (some) college competition can/will come soon enough. Personally, if not for a college coach who encouraged me to "just go out and have fun," I might not have even considered racing.
We're all individuals, exactly the same as the next person. In the same way that one marathon training program - or race distance, come to think of it - is not the best fit for every runner (differences in time to train, time to recover, resiliency), it's important for adults and coaches to allow for different abilities and physical maturity levels within the group. Around age 12-to-14 training distances and durations can be slowly increased, leading to systematic and competitive training. I was questioned the other weekend about the optimal training volume for 5K racing, at which point the father of a young man who was working out with the group looked at me in a shocked manner. I then had to remind him my answers and guidance focuses more toward adult runners, and that in the case of his son I would have to err on the side of slightly less intensity and duration.
I am thankful that running is the most egalitarian of sports: Simple persistence and patience can turn any individual into a more-healthy, more-active, and more-engaged person. As a well-known running writer has often said, 'there is no limit where running can take you.'