I come from the amazing sport of triathlon, which has enriched my life and other’s lives in so many fantastic ways, but still there are barriers to taking part that just don’t exist in the parkrun world.
In my last blog, I wrote about the fact that parkrun truly is open to all. Not many sports or organisations can claim to break down so many barriers to participation as parkrun can – free to the participant, no dress codes, no fancy equipment, no special skills, no need to register each week, easily accessible, encouraging and above all welcoming and friendly.
However, despite the lack of practical and financial hurdles to participation in parkrun and junior parkrun events many people are still nervous about joining in. The barriers are often psychological and emotional -whether it be fear of the unknown, fear of ‘failure’, fear of looking inadequate or of being perceived as slow. Of course, everyone who has done parkrun knows that these fears are unfounded and even if they do exist in our minds they can be broken down and overcome. However, it often requires others to take steps to help and support those adults and children overcome such fears, and open up the door of parkrun.
In my view, every one of us is a role model. It’s not the professional athletes that are the most important figureheads but every single person that participates in some sport of physical activity. We are all in a position to pay our passion forward to others: remembering that we were all novices, and taking steps to help others overcome some of the personal barriers that they face. The key word here is encouragement. We can all encourage others, though words and actions, to defy their fears and do what they may not think is possible.
This was brought home to me at a junior event a few months ago. I was at Little Stoke juniors and was leading the warm-up. All the children were joining in (and adults too) save for one little boy who was clutching a little red toy fox. I spotted his reluctance to get involved, and when the warm up had finished struck up a conversation with him and his mother. I asked whether Red Fox wanted to run, and his mother replied that her son wasn’t keen on running and preferred to watch his older brother take part. The mother explained that she too had been nervous about doing physical activity, until she started volunteering at parkrun – and now it has become the bedrock of her life.
We walked over to the start, talking about the event and I mentioned that I thought Red Fox would really enjoy taking part and being with all the other children. The boy didn’t seem keen but we carried on talking and I described how I was also nervous about running, and that sometimes we can stop and walk, and even have a rest if we needed to. The most important thing was having fun.
The volunteers, the little boy and I spent some time cheering for the other children, both on the sidelines and across the finish line. He held Red Fox in hand the whole time. When the event had ended I said goodbye, and mentioned again that I hoped he and Red Fox could walk or run the event one day. The other volunteers offered similar words of encouragement.
The next week I got an email from his mother. Her son had decided that he too wanted to join in the fun of junior parkrun, and do his first ever 2k – together with his brother and, of course, Red Fox. He finished Little Stoke juniors with a beaming smile, but more importantly I am sure he has become empowered by this experience - just as his mother has been through her participation in parkrun: realising that they are able to do things that they didn’t think they could and that, with encouragement and support they can take on new challenges.
We are never too old or young to learn these lessons. Everyone within the parkrun family has, I’m sure, paid their passion forward. Like a snowball the number of participants is growing and growing as we continue to break down barriers to participation; be it practical barriers or ones that exist in the mind.
That’s why it’s so important to encourage everyone, but especially children. Not berate them for running slowly, for walking, for stopping to take a breath or for failing to live up to our expectations – but to support, embolden and instil in them a joy and passion for running that they too will pass on to everyone they meet.
Happy running everyone, especially if you have a Red Fox by your side!