As a child growing up in Ohio, Nate O'Reilly loved football, basketball, and baseball. But the sounds of a coach or a P.E. teacher barking at him and other students with orders to run, typically when misbehavior occurred, still ring in his ears.
Despite the punitive laps, O'Reilly grew to love running after signing up for shorter races with family members, and he eventually became a marathoner himself. Today, as a P.E. teacher at P.S. 452 in Manhattan's Upper West Side, the 37-year-old is determined to not to pass on his running-related trauma to his students.
"It's simple for coaches and teachers to say, 'Just go run' as a punishment It's unimaginative," he said. "It's unfortunate that it now has that stigma for children."
That's something that a new wave of coaches, trainers, and teachers are trying to reverse, changing the role of running in their students' lives to something more welcome, rather than the athletic equivalent of being smacked with a ruler.
As physical education and youth sports have evolved over the past century and a half, it's unclear when, precisely, running laps became a default punishment for coaches and teachers. Research indicates, however, that it may not only be ineffective as a disciplinary tool; it also can discourage children from being more physically active in general. In extreme cases, punishment running can overwork younger athletes and prevent them from performing to their fullest on the day of competition. The practice may be considered corporal punishment, and therefore illegal, in some states, and increased scrutiny appears to be making schools more wary. In 2012, for example, a high school football coach in Iowa came under fire for excessive use of running as punishment; earlier this year, a strength coach at Tulane University was allegedly fired for similar reasons.
A group of exercise physiologists and board members with the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a Florida-based nonprofit that trains coaches and volunteers, convened and published a statement in 2009 saying that running as a form of punishment should be prohibited because it is "a healthy activity that should be associated with fun" and that "when a child is forced to run as punishment they may push themselves past their endurance level out of fear of receiving additional punishment." The organization had been incorporating the philosophy in training materials since the early 1980s.
"We're trying to reeducate people a bit," John Engh, chief operating officer with NAYS, said. "For kids to associate a physical activity with a punishment is counterproductive. We want to say that physical activity is great. I can tell you from being a wrestler, I hated running laps and I hate running to this day because it was always a form of punishment." Instead, Engh says, running and disciplinary tactics should remain distinct.
Yet at its best, running can also be therapeutic, meditative, healthy and a powerful teaching tool and goal-setting mechanism, making its stigma all the more frustrating, Nicoletta Nerangis the executive director and founder of Run4Fun, a New York City-based nonprofit said.
The increasingly competitive nature of youth sports may be partially to blame for running's stigma with the younger set, she said. Working with nearly 200 young runners, ages 4 through 18, in after-school settings, Nerangis said she frequently hears from parents who are concerned about their child's technique and competitive ability.
"Parents are worried that I won't take their child because they don't have experience," Nerangis said. "We're just the opposite. Our whole thing is getting kids excited, promoting the love and passion of running for the rest of their lives."
Parental pressure aside, Nerangis said she often finds herself rechanneling the intense competition between children into behaviors like setting goals for themselves.
"It's definitely a challenge to continue to make it fun and not just say 'I need to produce runners that can get college scholarships,'" she said. "That's fine and wonderful to get those scholarships. I think that's fantastic. But that's not our sole purpose."
Meanwhile, at P.S. 452, Nate O'Reilly continues to pair running with music, games and programs that are designed to encourage goal setting and healthy competition. He said he was surprised when during recess, given an array of things to do with their time, several of his students regularly hit the track.
During parent-teacher conferences, he said he's regularly met with statements of bafflement from parents when they see that their children report positive, even joyful, experiences running in gym class.
"Parents say 'I'm not an athlete and I had no idea that my son or daughter would love running like this.'" O'Reilly said. "From an early age, these kids have a different mindset."