Help my kid run like the wind!
September 24, 2010 5:56 AM   Subscribe

How can I teach my kid how to run?

We've got our seven-year-old daughter in soccer this fall, and she seems to be having a good time. After a few practices and a couple of games, though, I've noticed that she doesn't run very well. Her gait seems really choppy, and she holds her arms straight down at her sides with her wrists flipped up. It's like she's running the way she thinks a princess would run (which may actually be what's happening).

I'm not much of a runner or an athlete of any stripe, and I'm really at a loss as to how to give her any pointers. It sure looks to me like her style is slowing her down, and I think that if she refined it some and got a little faster her enjoyment of the sport would increase.

So can you recommend any resources or do you have any anecdotal advice that might help this would-be soccer star? Mucho thanks!
posted by Shohn to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you talked this over with the team coach?
posted by nomadicink at 6:11 AM on September 24, 2010

Best answer: I'm not a runner either but I teach other physical stuff and I suspect some of the teaching techniques are transferable.

Make a game out of it some time in the park. Let's run like a mouse would run! Run like a bear! Run like a giraffe! Run like a cheetah! Run like a princess! Run like a bird that wants to take off! Let her make silly suggestions as well. Think of things that should produce an exaggerated form of her current running style, as well as things that will be completely different. Pick some things that will look ridiculous and silly and make you both laugh.

Have a lot of fun, but when you see a running gait that looks good, let her know. Wow, that looks really smooth! That looks really fast! Huh, seems penguins are not very good at running.

Later on you can just grin and say "Run like the cheetah!" - or whichever.

The idea is to let her feel a variety of different styles and see for herself what works, rather than trying to explain how to do it. Lots of adults struggle to put verbal explanations of physical skills into practice, let alone seven year old kids.
posted by emilyw at 6:11 AM on September 24, 2010 [18 favorites]

Find a good running store in your area. The good ones will have a treadmill where they can watch you run and analyze your gait, so they can help you find the right shoes. Maybe you take her there and see if they will give her some pointers.

Also, maybe she needs a little more practice to find herself. Maybe you can start a nightly jog with her, and go really slow. I started running for general exercise this year, and when I first started I was really slow, but the benefit of this was that I was able to concentrate on the little things like my breathing, form, and foot strike. Now that I am in better shape and running farther those things helped me immensely. So maybe you can jog a mile or 2 with her nightly, take it slow, and let her work out some of those things for herself along the way. You can set an example, tell her what you are doing, and maybe she will clue in and do the same.

Good luck!
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:11 AM on September 24, 2010

If she's just started, wait and see what happens. She'll probably get more coordinated the more she plays, and if she's enjoying herself, what does it matter? Trying to get her to change her running style might actually LESSEN her enjoyment of the game, since she'll stop thinking about having fun and start worrying about "doing it right". When she's 17 and interested in running seriously, then you can teach her how to do it properly. When she's 7, it doesn't matter.
posted by lollusc at 6:12 AM on September 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'm not much of a runner or an athlete of any stripe, and I'm really at a loss as to how to give her any pointers.

Not much of a runner means to me that there is at least a small part of you that is a runner. The solution to this problem is for you to run with her and for you both to learn how to run together. Start slow. Go to a park, not a track and just run. Share together what works and what doesn't. Correct each other. Make it fun, not work. My father did this for me when I was five and though I didn't know or appreciate it at the time, it changed my life.
posted by Xurando at 6:19 AM on September 24, 2010

Shohn: We've got our seven-year-old daughter in soccer this fall, and she seems to be having a good time. After a few practices and a couple of games, though, I've noticed that she doesn't run very well. Her gait seems really choppy, and she holds her arms straight down at her sides with her wrists flipped up. It's like she's running the way she thinks a princess would run (which may actually be what's happening).

You know, generally, I would let the coach sort this out through standard drills or whatever. The relationship between girls and sports can be sensitive when they are in the stage (which starts now and lasts, umm, for a really long time) when they are working out their bodies, gender norms, their own roles and self-image and a heap of cultural input on "what girls are like" or how to be a girl. A proper running form, while graceful and powerful, cannot be construed at conventionally pretty, you know?

She's seven. I'd be less focused on her form than the fact that she's enjoying it. If her princess persona is helping her to be comfortable with a sport, I'd not be inclined to see it as a problem to overcome but more like something that she'll skill out of the more she plays.

I may be sensitive to this issue because at around this age, my dad commented to my mother that my sister "runs like a girl" and we all remember this in my family history as the incident over which My Mother Almost Left My Father, so outraged was she.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:24 AM on September 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

Do you videotape her games or practices? You might want to show her how she's running, and suggest ways that she could improve her gait. As mentioned above, a running store will help you with that too. They'd videotape her on a treadmill, and do a gait analysis.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:24 AM on September 24, 2010

I like the animal game idea. Do not, under any circumstances, tell her "you are running wrong." My dad pulled that one on me and it messed all kinds of stuff up between us. I might be a 1 in 1000 case, but I don't think so. Don't let her style of physical activity equal failure.
posted by SMPA at 6:26 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think that if she refined it some and got a little faster her enjoyment of the sport would increase.

But what does she think? If she's having fun and the soccer is not something she is seriously competitive about, I would leave it to the coach to pick up on if necessary. On the other hand if she comes home and says something like "it's not fair, all the other girls can run way faster than me" or "I wish I could run faster" or "I love soccer but I can never keep up with everyone else", then you can help her work on a better running style/gait.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:38 AM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think the videotaping her gait suggestions are a little extreme. Unless she has professed a desire to be the best seven year old soccer player ever, I think this is going to step over that line of "making sports/exercise fun" and "making her feeling self-conscious about how she moves" and/or "overcompetitive parent." Girls are MUCH more likely to feel self-conscious about something like this than boys are (at least in our culture) even at seven. I'd say leave it alone, or talk to the coach at the very most. I remember running the exact same way, my dad mentioning it, mortifying me, and then refusing to play sports for the next seven years or so. (And the running thing worked itself out on the playground, anyway. I wasn't trying to run like a "princess" or anything, I just hadn't worked out the arm/leg coordination yet.)

Just out of curiosity, you say you think her enjoyment of the game would increase if she were running faster? Has she mentioned a desire to run faster? That might make "cheetah" exercises more reasonable. If this is just projecting from adult sports, though, it might not be true. She will probably have more fun if she's not worrying about the right way to run.
posted by wending my way at 6:45 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestions that, if she's having fun, let her be. One of the major reasons I didn't like sports as a kid was that there was always some grownup coming in trying to show me how to do it "right". I felt a lot of pressure, in general, to behave myself, do my homework, learn my multiplication tables, eat my vegetables, etc. and adding MORE rules about correct behavior made sports seem really unattractive to me.
posted by Sara C. at 6:51 AM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

when i was about her age, my family made it their business to carefully and lovingly address the fact that i "ran like a ken doll" when playing soccer and basketball. even though i was a pretty plucky and confident kid, years of self-conscious worries ensued. it seriously sucked, because i had never considered it a problem. girls have enough stuff to feel self-conscious about, please don't add to it!
posted by crawfo at 7:05 AM on September 24, 2010

She may also grow out of it. My sister started soccer at that age, and enjoyed it but she tended to "skip" (as my father put it, though never to her until years and years later) instead of running for the first season or two. However, she went on to be quite an athlete, in several sports, including soccer and runs well (and fairly fast) now as an adult.
posted by Caz721 at 7:07 AM on September 24, 2010

Shohn, Thanks for this question. You ask the question, and I get the benefit of all the answers.

My 7-year-old daughter has other problems with her full-body coordination, but she seems to keep up with the other kids. I've been biting my tongue about the way she runs, partially because my husband doesn't. Sure, I'd love to see a gazelle, but I keep clinging to the 'she's only 7' part. I'm hoping that activities like swimming and tae kwon do (sp?) will help her brain assimilate all these wild parts into a cohesive whole.
posted by ES Mom at 7:12 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about watching women's soccer games on tv or in person. WPS has games every Sunday evening on FoxSoccerChannel, and the Women's National Team is getting ready to play China on Oct 2 and 6, I'm sure they will be televised. My daughter really started getting into soccer, when she started watching older girls and women playing.

Soccer is more about quick short sprints, than jogging, even at the younger ages. I would just challenge her to see how fast she can run to the mailbox, etc. Make it fun.
posted by southeastyetagain at 7:15 AM on September 24, 2010

Sometimes kids just illogically decide to do things a particular way and if that's the case with your daughter, she'll probably snap out of it once it becomes inconvenient or if she sees a better alternative. Agree with southeastyetagain that watching (women's) soccer games or any running sport on tv and maybe sprinkling in comments about how beautiful someone's gait is may encourage her to emulate.
posted by bread-eater at 7:23 AM on September 24, 2010

I think that if she refined it some and got a little faster her enjoyment of the sport would increase.

I'm with the other posters who have mentioned that she might be enjoying something not obvious to an external viewer. When I was a kid of similar age, playing soccer, I must've looked like I was crazy sometimes, running around the field in big arcs, instead of straight lines. Inside my head though, I was happy as a clam, because I saw myself as flying a spaceship around under space opera style physics.

Then again, shortly thereafter, my father started making me jog with him, and by high school, my track coach never mentioned anything odd about my running style.
posted by nomisxid at 7:37 AM on September 24, 2010

Mrs. Shohn (mom) stepping in to field a few questions.

She is definitely bothered by her running, it's not just us. She always ends up at least a half a lap behind the other girls when the team runs laps, and the only time she's not dead last finishing is if one of the other girls gets tired and starts walking. She's a bit embarrassed by it. We are in no way ultra-competitive sports parents. We're not pushing her to excel, we just want her to be able to (literally) keep up with the team.

Her form when she's running laps is slightly better than when she's running on the field (she does bend her elbows on laps), but she hunches up strangely in her neck and shoulders, and her legs don't move very far apart. She looks more like she's marching than running. As for growing out of it on her own, she runs almost exactly like my mom - who is still doing it at 58 and always has, so I don't hold out much hope.

I did ask the coach for advice at yesterday's practice, and she just suggested lots and lots of practice running. Her ever-so-diplomatic comment was "she does have her own unique running style, doesn't she?" Unfortunately, without the peer pressure of ten other girls also running, she loses interest very quickly. Even if we make it a game. We can definitely try the animal thing though. Maybe flapping her arms like a bird will help her loosen up her shoulders.
posted by Dojie at 7:37 AM on September 24, 2010

Sometimes people don't realise they're doing something wrong. The most important thing is that she's having fun and that's great, but I disagree with everyone who says you need to hold your tongue because trying to help her run more efficiently will mess her up forever. You know your kid, and if you handle this with tact, it will help her, not hurt her. I know I would feel like a complete moron when I realized 5 years that the way I was running was not only making me play worse but also looked stupid (I am not saying your child looks stupid, but this is just how I would feel) and everyone knew it but nobody bothered to say anything to me.

I remember when my cousin had this problem and he kept losing running races while we were just playing. At one point, his dad just said, in a nice, friendly voice, "Hey buddy, try lifting your knees when you run!" Or "Hey, try moving your arms like X is!" It helped a lot.
posted by Polychrome at 7:47 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing he pointed out to my cousin was that he needed to take bigger steps. An incredibly simple thing, but it just didn't occur to my cousin that doing that would make him go faster. Not everyone is a natural athlete and just telling her how to run might make a huge difference, especially if she is open to improving (and it sounds like she is).
posted by Polychrome at 7:49 AM on September 24, 2010

How many more weeks do you have in the soccer season? This is the type of thing that you can really work on in the off-season when she's not trying to learn ball handling, field position, etc. What it sounds like more than anything is someone who is running stiff. Does she get more stiff as the game continues? Since she's a bit less stiff running laps, I wonder if the mechanics of the game are contributing to the problem.

How does she learn? Some people learn by watching, others by hearing instructions. I'm a kinesthetic/tactile learner, meaning I learn by doing. If your kid is like me, you can explain running mechanics for hours and I'm not going to get it. Let me practice it a few times and I've got it. The games would totally work for a kid like me.

Play games with her that allow her to run. Play consistently, but only for a few minutes each time. Don't ever play long enough that she gets frustrated.
posted by 26.2 at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2010

SMPA: "Do not, under any circumstances, tell her "you are running wrong." My dad pulled that one on me and it messed all kinds of stuff up between us. "

On the other side of the coin, I had a dad who took no interest in his kids' interest in sports. As a person with pigeon-toes and flat feet, I never was a very good runner and almost failed my high-school proficiencies for not being able to run a 12-minute mile (my quadriceps would feel like they were detaching from the tendons after about 1/4mile). However, I worked at a sporting goods store during college and you know what a Reebok rep told me there? My feet were fine, it was just that nobody had ever taught me how to run.
posted by rhizome at 8:53 AM on September 24, 2010

Polychrome has a good point - if it's at the point where you think it would help her to intervene, keep it casual.

Also ball handling and field position? Jeez. Is this what rec sports is like for the under 8 set these days? In my day it was mainly a slightly more structured excuse to run around and get some exercise.

Running (hah!) with the stiffness idea, maybe you could try this really simple theatre warmup with her. First you shake out each arm, then you shake out each leg, (then maybe some other body parts like your shoulders or your butt or something?), then you do a big full body shake-up. I've seen versions that involve scrunching up and stretching out your face, too, so you can get more or less elaborate with it depending on her attention span and how much you want to devote to this. Maybe yall could try doing that before practice and/or games? As sort of a warm up?
posted by Sara C. at 9:51 AM on September 24, 2010

One more point, just to clarify. We're specifically looking for resources that will help us learn how to teach her better form. We know it looks weird when she runs, but we're not really clear on what exactly the problem is or how to fix it. We don't want to cause her more problems by teaching her to do something different but also wrong.

We want to be able to give her some simple pointers on developing better form. She'll respond well to that. A treadmill gait analysis or video replays would be overkill. Things like "try bending your knees more, lifting your chin up, pointing your toes out," would be great. Except that those are entirely hypothetical examples, because we have no idea what basic good running form is.

Thanks for the suggestions so far, please keep it coming.
(Shohn has been busy at work since he posted the question, so he hasn't been able to follow up).
posted by Dojie at 10:15 AM on September 24, 2010

We don't want to cause her more problems by teaching her to do something different but also wrong.

I don't know that there's any "wrong" in this situation, and I definitely don't think you should frame it that way to her.

When I was a little older than your daughter, I was on a swim team. I was pretty natural at most of the strokes, but I could not get the butterfly, and I was dead last in every butterfly race I swam.

Finally, the coach (and keep in mind it was the coach in this situation, so not someone I was going to have decades of baggage with in the future) pulled me aside after practice one day, had me lie down on a bench and physically manipulated my arms and legs into the correct form. (the coach never used words like "wrong" or "bad" or "failure" with me.)

It was embarrassing, and it's a memory that still sits strongly with me to this day. But I understood. And I was able to replicate it. I improved dramatically, and eventually butterfly became one of my favorite strokes.

So being physically instructed in how to do this might be ideal. But it has to be handled carefully, and there's a strong possibility that it will sting emotionally even if it works and makes her happy in the long run.
posted by Sara C. at 10:32 AM on September 24, 2010

Best answer: I think the games approach would be fun & allow you to isolate the various components - run with giant steps! run with teeny-tiny steps! run with big swinging arms! run with arms as still as you can! run while you wiggle your butt! run with your hands on your head! etc. This way she can see that there are a lot of individual choices you can make about parts of your body while you run, and some make you faster, some make you slower, some make you more tired, etc. Then you have a way to talk about the kind of running that you would want for soccer, and what choices you can make for that kind of running - it takes the whole thing out of the arena of right and wrong, and also builds a sense of her own body awareness and strengths.
posted by judith at 10:57 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The current trend in running form is barefoot-style, midfoot-strike, fast-turnover-small-step running (google "chi running" for resources.) has a whole section of videos on running posture, drills, and troubleshooting. Since your daughter is 7, it's not quite as critical that she run absolutely correctly - and chi running may not make as much sense for stop-and-go sprinting in cleats - but that should at least get you started learning about some of the theories and body mechanics involved.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:05 AM on September 24, 2010

The current trend in running form is barefoot-style . . .
Barefoot style anything would be inapplicable to soccer, except by accident.
posted by Marty Marx at 9:04 PM on September 24, 2010

Course not, but it's definitely important to know that if the OP is researching running style guides. It may or may not work as well in a rigid-sole shoe, but it's not a bad place to start learning if you don't know anything about what running form is supposed to look like.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:01 AM on September 25, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the pointers, advice, and anecdotes! We're gonna take this slowly, at her pace. Like many of you said, the important thing is that she has fun. I don't want to turn this into something onerous for her, or even hint to her that she's doing something "wrong." Now I'm armed with some ideas for when she wants to do something to change her running style. I'll let her decide when that is.
posted by Shohn at 7:40 AM on September 26, 2010

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