4 life lessons from the school track and field meet

In June, my son had his first-ever track and field meet with his school’s grade 4, 5 and 6 students. I hadn’t heard the terms “Fosbury Flop” or “Triple Jump” since my own school days, but I eagerly signed up as a parent volunteer. To my surprise, the whole experience was eerily similar to what I remembered from the track and field meets of yesteryear. The events were the same. The effort and skill required were the same. And the participants appeared to be feeling the same nervousness and excitement that we did back in the day.

Inspired by this – and the fact that athletics is number 23 on the ParticipACTION 150 Play List – here are four life lessons from a typical track and field day.

DO YOUR BEST.

At my son’s school, each student is required to participate in a total of five events: two out of the three track distances and three of the four field events. I wondered if it would be too much to fit in to one day, but it kept the kids busy and exposed them to activities they might not have tried otherwise.

It quickly became evident that the philosophy at the school meet is to reward kids’ participation and build their self-esteem by maximizing the distribution of “place” ribbons. For example, there were multiple sprint heats for the various age groups, and finishers in each heat received ribbons from first to sixth place, with no “overall” winner. Given that the participants were between 9 and 12 years old, this was a great call. The kids celebrated personal bests and proudly walked around with colourful ribbons pinned to their shirts.

Track and field day is also an opportunity for kids to shine in different ways. A student who may not be strong academically may excel in an athletic setting. While the track events favour kids who are swift runners, the field events reward other physical skills such as throwing, jumping and pulling. The class’s quiet, brawny kid can suddenly be a hero in the team tug-of-war event.

WIN GRACIOUSLY, LOSE GRACIOUSLY.

Of course, competition is inherent in track and field day. Some kids will succeed based on natural talent while others will simply outwork the rest. Some students are competitive and care deeply about the outcome, while others are happy just to be there and socialize. Either way, some will win while others won’t.

Coping with disappointment is part of life. A competitor might have an “off” day or may be simply outmatched in the event. Win or lose, it’s important to demonstrate sportsmanship and good manners. I hope that today’s young athletes are paying attention to Olympic track and field role models such as sprinter Andre De Grasse, high jumper Derek Drouin and heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton. As the kids lined up next to the scorer’s table while the results were announced, I was impressed by the first-place finishers who smiled and waved politely, as opposed to whooping it up or “dabbing.”

THERE’S ALWAYS A BIGGER FISH.

This lesson came from the second track meet I attended – the divisional one, featuring the top-placing students from my son’s school and five other schools in the region. This experience provided interesting perspective, as the level of competition increased dramatically. My son was aghast as he watched a schoolmate (who had previously cruised to victory at the school’s 800 metre race) struggle to achieve a third-place finish against the top runners from other schools. It was a good lesson in humility for some of the participants who clearly thought they were “hot stuff” coming out of their school meet, only to be faced with much tougher competition at the divisional level.

BE TRUE TO YOUR SCHOOL.

Another bonus of the divisional meet was the students’ unabashed display of school spirit. As I supervised our section of the bleachers, I witnessed kids cheering on the students from their school as they ran by. It didn’t have to be someone from their class or grade – they instinctively supported anyone who was wearing the school colours. Things were cranked up a notch during the final event of the day: the relays. While four kids from the school ran their hearts out on the track, the rest of the students yelled, chanted and screamed. They were loud and proud, waving their pinnies over their heads like “terrible towels.” It was a sight to behold.

This week, there are plenty of athletes to cheer for at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Ottawa. For more information about this event or track and field programs across Canada, visit athletics.ca.