But, then, I went out to my car, turned on the radio, and began to hear of a horrible tragedy unfolding. I thought of my kids, and the kids I taught, and how completely senseless and awful it was. I thought of parents returning home to presents under their Christmas trees that would never be unwrapped. I thought of terrified children who could never be comforted. I also thought repeatedly about how little there was I could do to make it all better. Ultimately, that is my first instinct in situations like this, as it is for most parents: Just make it better. Only I couldn't. Empathy is a powerful emotion and it stopped me completely in my tracks for a few days.
Tuesday, I was in for another surprise. Our track and field club was planning on hosting a Christmas party for the children at the Durham Rescue Mission, one of the local homeless shelters. My entire family went and we helped the children make crafts that they could wrap up and give to their moms as gifts. I sat at the wrapping table and had a crowd of children around me who were overwhelmed by the idea of having their presents wrapped in pretty paper and ribbons. I was a bit overwhelmed by their excitement and it resurrected for me a glimpse of my own childhood excitement about Christmas and all the magic that comes with it. As adults, some crafts, wrapping paper, cookies, and juice boxes may not seem like much. But for children, they might as well be in Santa's workshop. And for children in a homeless shelter, the experience was profound. Driving home that night, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. I knew I couldn't make anything better in Connecticut, but I could make things better in my own community.
And I had. Every Monday for about twelve weeks, I taught two classes to the third and fourth graders. We started with basic strength movements: a squat, a press, a pushup, and an assisted pulllup. We practiced broad jumps, did walking lunges, learned to support weight overhead, learned to deadlift a kettlebell, and pushed bumper plates across the carpeted floor. We warmed up with agility drills, obstacle courses, and at the end of the strength session, had some fun playing games or doing relay races. They thought it was play, but they were learning. I saw posture and coordination improve, I saw consistency develop in their movements, and when I asked them what their feet, backs, shoulders should look like for each exercise, they could tell me right off the bat. During the last four weeks, I decided that they were ready for me to bring in some barbells and learn how to deadlift. We kept the weight light, emphasized good form, and did multiple reps and sets with adequate rest periods. They were pretty excited about this as most 8 and 9 year olds don't get to lift barbells.
I often see fitness trainers and coaches saying they want to inspire people. They want to inspire us to get off the couch, get a six-pack, train for a race, put down that cookie and work on getting a pull-up. And this is great, we all need inspiration. In fact, I love working with folks who have a long way to go, but all the cheerleader stuff only goes so far. If you want to inspire a change, you have to be willing to not only set a good example, but be willing to teach, adjust your methods as needed, and never forget that you are training a unique individual. Most of all, you have to be patient. Its not all that difficult, you simply have to care. And the truth is, being inspirational can be rather easy when you take that approach. However, when you work with kids, its not only easier, it can have a more profound effect on a person for the remainder of his or her life.
There is an obesity epidemic going on right now. There is also a sports injury epidemic on the rise. Our schools lack the resources to deal with a lot of these problems and many of the solutions are too expensive for the majority of our youth. Many of our children who do not excel at sports are uninspired to be active in other ways and may lack the opportunity to do so. I challenge those of you who want to be inspiring to get into our schools and youth organizations and offer your help as a volunteer. Teach a strength class, teach an exercise class, teach a nutrition class. Work with the unathletic, the uncoordinated, the unmotivated. Start an after school club, set up a training challenge, volunteer with a local athletic club. But, most of all TEACH. We can all get better, we simply need to learn how. Teach our children to be fit and healthy, teach them to love physical activity, and most of all, show them that they are capable of far more than they imagined.