Middle school is a pretty brutal time. Kids are struggling to define themselves amid intense peer pressure, changing roles at home and in school, and the hormonal welter of early adolescence.
Girls On Track aims to combat those difficulties with a program that combines running with personal development activities and games. Girls ages 11-13 meet twice a week to train for a 5K race, learn about things like stress management and healthy self-expression, and do some getting-to-know-you exercises together.
Several Ys across the Metro Detroit association run Girls on Track programs or its sister program for younger girls, Girls on the Run.
Amy Hochkammer is on the board of the Birmingham Y and helped get the program started there. Her daughter, Jenna, is part of it and got several of her friends involved.
“I thought it would be perfect because it’s stressing the importance of doing things for yourself, being healthy and enjoying running,” Amy says. “I really wanted her to have the idea of enjoying a sport for herself.”
Girls on Track is noncompetitive; the girls are encouraged to concentrate on achieving their best, not beating someone else. Even more important than the sports aspect, though, is the personal development the girls experience. “It uses running as a medium to teach so many valuable life lessons,” says Jenny Paffi, youth and family program director for the Birmingham YMCA.
Middle school is a crucial time for girls to begin making positive life choices that will carry them through high school and beyond, and Girls on Track helps give them the confidence to do that…confidence many, if not most, kids are lacking at that age. “You may think lots of kids have it together, but even those popular kids are facing a different set of pressures,” says Jenny.
Helping girls discover things about themselves and develop a strong sense of self is very important to helping them navigate this time in their lives. Too often, girls feel pressured to look a certain way, have a boyfriend, not seem “too” smart, and so on. “We talk a lot about the importance of getting out of the ‘girl box’…the idea that they have to do things a certain way or look a certain way,” Jenny says.
Since the program at the Birmingham Y is not a school program (although several Girls on the Run and Girls on Track programs are done through schools), it allows girls who would not otherwise know each other to come together. That can help them see themselves and each other in a different way than they might if they were part of a school social scene.
The program wraps up with a big 5K race that brings together all the Girls on the Run and Girls on Track participants. It’s really moving to see all the girls who worked so hard come together to achieve their goal, Jenny Paffi says. “It’s one of the days I am just so proud I work at the Y.”