It goes without saying that keeping active by running and engaging in other sports is beneficial to children and adults, alike.
And since running is not a contact sport, it could be argued that it is safer than many other active pursuits and can be pursued long into adulthood.
Trophies anyone?Elgin Sharks Coach Bob Pleticha is always looking for old trophies that he can fix up and rework to present to his runners because "a child can get no better reward than a trophy," he said, so he likes to award them liberally to inspire his runners. If you have old trophies from any sport that you are willing to donate to Pleticha, send an email to email@example.com to arrange a drop-off.
Running and track clubs are popular across the suburbs, including Elgin and Batavia, Mundelein and Lake Zurich.
While all of them keep the children focused, active and, hopefully, out of trouble, keep in mind that clubs and coaches have different approaches and goals. To avoid disappointment, parents should ask questions and shop around for a club that shares their goals.
The Elgin Sharks track club has been around for 31 years and has taken the state championship for the past 15 years. In 2010, the club won the cross country nationals and the indoor nationals. Coaxing superior performance out of his runners is Coach Bob Pleticha's overriding goal because his fondest wish is to help his athletes earn college scholarships through their running prowess, giving them a chance in life that they might otherwise not get.
"I tell them that if they work hard and train correctly, their reward will be going to college for free and becoming successful in life," Pleticha explained.
Meanwhile, in Batavia, Coach Scott Kurth of the Batavia Accelerators has a totally different philosophy. He puts much less emphasis on winning because he feels that such an emphasis breeds competition and puts too much pressure on his club members.
"I have had some kids who have been highly successful -- five All-Americans at nationals last year -- but it is not about that for me," Kurth explained. "Running is something that you can do for the rest of your life and it is a way to build friendships. It keeps kids active and teaches them how to set goals for themselves."
The Accelerators also have a group of obese children who run with them to work on losing weight and getting healthier. So everyone on the team has a different workout routine, based on their own goals. Kurth and his assistants work with each individual to break down the pace and design a personalized workout for each runner.
Neither approach is wrong. They just illustrate the differences that exist between area clubs and why it is important for you to look at several clubs before choosing the one that is right for you and your child.
Pleticha started the Elgin Sharks team in 1980 after he watched some Elgin area children run in a local meet and "they got destroyed," he recalled. "They needed to be taught how to train before they could run."
He quickly partnered with the Elgin Parks and Recreation department and Elgin Area School District U-46 and even got some local grants, all to help buy insurance, uniforms, shoes and entry fees for those who could not afford it themselves. And his alma mater, Judson University, allows him to use their gym at a discount.
Pleticha also made it his mission to study the training techniques of the world champion Kenyan runners and copy their technique of training very hard by running inclines, hills and flats, and over difficult terrain, but always on grass -- not concrete -- to prevent stress fractures and ankle problems. He also brings in a stress reduction specialist three times a year to check out all of his runners, teach them how to stretch correctly and prevent problems.
He teaches them to run all-out, as fast as they can, for the first three miles -- even during practice. After that, they can jog, if they wish. When training, the Elgin Sharks also run mostly 1,000-yard races instead of the shorter ones, running against the clock at all times -- not against their teammates.
Pleticha also makes sure that they train year-round -- even in the summer heat -- so that when they encounter those conditions during a race, they are able to handle it.
"It is hard to beat someone who trains to win," he explained. "I have learned that there is nothing you can't do in track with a child if their parents back you. They know that I will always encourage them and will tell them the truth about their abilities because their running times don't lie."
Pleticha's "paycheck" comes when his runners get college scholarships (to Northern Illinois, Missouri State, Notre Dame, Indiana University and Judson University) and later on, when he sees them as adults, still running and staying healthy and in shape.
The Elgin Sharks' membership ranges from 80 to 100 runners between the ages of 5 and high school. The annual cost is $60 per person, but scholarships are available.
"If they show me that they really want to do this and are willing to work hard, I will make sure that everything is paid for -- even the shoes," Pleticha pledged.
Tom Jergens started the Batavia Accelerators about 10 years ago because Batavia Middle School had no cross country team at the time, recalled Kurth, the current coach and a member of the Batavia Police Department.
"We only had about 12 kids to start but then we started going to races and saw that other teams had little kids, so we expanded our ages so that now we have about 60 runners between the ages of 4 and 18. Some are primarily runners, while others are football or hockey players who are training with us during their off seasons."
Accelerators come from as far away as Carol Stream, Montgomery, Elgin and Sycamore and they train daily, year-round, for an hour and a half at a time. Consistency is the name of the game so every Tuesday is "speed" training, Wednesday is rest and recovery, Thursday is hills and so forth. Each weekend they go to a different place to run, to give the runners experience on other courses and for added fun.
"We work a lot on stretching, strength training, core work and always end our practices with a game of kickball which allows me to be sneaky and get them to sprint without them realizing it," Kurth said.
"I am big on a runner's form," he explained. "I tell them that I don't care how fast they are running now. We need them to learn the correct form with regard to arm and leg placement and when they get older and stronger, that form will take over and they will naturally run faster. And my kids have proven me right on this."
Kurth teaches his runners that "they need to learn to work hard, challenge themselves and not be afraid to try because everyone fails at something in life. There is no shame in it."
"You have to learn to be tough through the tough times. I tell them that the difference between you and the person next to you may have nothing to do with running, but instead with how hard they are working on the side," he continued.
The Accelerators charge a one-time membership fee of $19.
For more information about these teams, log onto elginsharks.org and bataviaaccelerators.org.