Coaches: Running for Middle Schoolers in a Pandemic (or keep calm and carry on)

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

A guide for those first few days of practice when no one knows what to expect

Ok, so we are going to start the Fall athletic season (maybe) and we will be doing so in a pandemic. What does this mean for us as coaches. First, follow the guidance of your Athletic Director or Head of School. They are in touch with the State and they know what is allowed or not. Next, follow what is said. If you don’t like to wear a mask, too bad. If mask is policy at your school then figure out a way to model it calmly and with as little disruption as possible. Our kids are afraid. We need to be calm and responsible as best we can in this era where we really do not know what is the best thing to do and where what we think is reasonable may be completely reasonably unreasonable to others. So, now that you are calm.

I suspect that some of your athletes won’t be competing this season, on the other hand others may decide that Cross-Country is a much less risky sport than a full on contact or indoor sport. So the size of your team could vary and the experience of your athletes will most definitely vary.

What I have learned by working with kids in the court system who are under stress is:

Predictability is very helpful

Distraction is very helpful

Straightforward guidance is helpful

Kindness is needed

So breaking that up for practice. In the first few days lay out how things will run and stick to that plan. Give this plan some forethought. Social distancing?-Assign kids to small groups and with these establish circles where the kids will arrive at practice and sit. Sitting helps keep them from gravitating toward each other. When you start practice explain how the practice will progress and how they will be safest. For example, athletes may need to arrive in a mask and warm up and stretch in it. This is different. Don’t make a judgement. Go through your jogging warm up in groups by circle, having each group run apart from the others and also distancing themselves. When it is drill time, line the athletes up across a line and lead them in the drills. For workouts, keep them in the same circle groups. The circle group will stay the same for the whole season, and it should not be based on ability- different speeds are great right now, it unbunches the runners.

Have help that can distract kids (i.e. keep their attention when you are with other runners). If you can have extra parents or teachers on hand to help keep kids attention focused, they will more quickly learn how this will all work. They will also benefit more. The small groups will allow more attention to forms for stretching, drills and workouts. The benefits of this season may well be different than previous seasons. Your athletes may have a super season of base preparation that benefits them for seasons to come. That is what my plan is. Fast kids will still be fast. But competition is going to be based on safety, race size and transportation options, not on where the best races are with the best competition. This is different. Don’t make a judgement.

Being straightforward with kids is useful to them because they do not know what is going on. Some of them may expect school to be just like it was before they went home. Quickly let them know that things have changed, but the core mission has not. Be familiar with what the school is doing if you are not employed there. Be ready to provide answers this year when kids are worried, but do so in a fact based manner that is not going to reinforce anger or helplessness. Provide straightforward goals. Be specific, more than you have in the past. And don’t get angry. Help the kids do the best they can and make the experience something that they can grow from. Right now is everyone’s Apollo 13. Houston, we have a problem... We have a goal and we need to improvise. The rules have changed, the tools have changed, even the goal has changed. But Showing kids how to use sport, and particularly running, to cope could quite literally save their life some day in the future.

Finally, be kind. Being kind may just save a kids day. Modelling kindness may also help this generation be better at handling emergencies in the future. I have adopted a motto: We will know no peace until we have learned that we belong to each other.- Mother Teresa.

So what a workout could look like when you go back to practice.

After explaining what will happen that day at practice, release them from their circles but in a way to keep them distanced.

If you have a fence or wall for athletes to hold on to, have them spread out and do leg swings front and side- 10 each side, each way. Toe raises- 15 on two feet- and big toe press. The big toe press is just that, consciously press your big toe to the ground and hold - do this maybe 5 times for 3 seconds each time - it helps strengthen the arch. You can keep your shoes on for this.

Head out to your drills area and spread out. Introduce over the first week the following drills: (each of these drills should be separated by three steps, so you alternate legs)

Three point touch- hinge at the waist and touch shins, toes and ground in three small bounces.

Sweeps- hinge at the waist and sweep or scoop with your hands back to front, then come up- to stretch the hamstring.

Frankenstein's- kick leg at least waist high while stretching fingers toward toe, keep tall.

Standing hurdle front and back- bend leg at knee and bring leg out and around as if walking over a hurdle. Reverse the direction.


Next do these drills:


Grape vine with high knee

High skips

Squats (just 10 to 15)

That should be plenty of drills and if your Middle Schoolers master these, they will be ready for high school sports.


Go back to sit in the small group circles and do stretches that get all parts of the body. Lay on the front with arms outstretched and bring the right leg up and to the left, reaching for the hand with the toe- 10 each side. Do this laying on your back. You can rock some, but try to keep the torso pretty flat. Also add about 3-4 minutes of abdominal work here. This is very important. Weak abs are a source for a lot of physical problems . Finally do what our team named LCRs. Go into plank, rotate onto the left hand, raising the right hand to the sky- hold for 3 seconds, return to center, hold for 3 second, rotate to right hand, hold for 3 seconds, return to center. Do this rotation about 3-5 times. For those who are stronger they can lift the leg of the arm that is in the air.

Now you can get to your running. Early season, fartleks are great on a loop where you can see everyone. Also, repeat 800s at a light jog are good. This gives the kids time to check in with you and build up to sustaining two miles. Help the kids learn about effort by having them check their pulse when they finish a repeat or effort. Above 145 is a workout, reaching above 165 is a hard workout. Above that is a very hard workout. I learned from our high school coach the best way to get the heart rate is to have them locate it, time them for 6 seconds and add a 0. Obviously this is not highly accurate, but it works and provides information for the athlete to learn about and begin to understand.


A warm down jog or walk is helpful for those that have done some speed in these early days, less helpful for those who are still building stamina. Use your judgement. When they are done establish 3 or 4 stretches that stretch the hamstrings, calves and hip flexors- this is where they are going to get tight.

Good luck coaches- this year, you may be the only thing that seems normal to your athletes, be ready for that.

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