by Alex Rotas, RunTogether Ambassador
Ever been on the receiving end of someone trying to encourage you when you’re running and thought “Actually, noooo. You are so not helping…”? Truth is, I think I’ve been both that person (the inept, though well-intentioned encourager) as well as on the receiving end. So now I’m trying to figure out the etiquette of it all. What’s good encouragement and what goes wrong when it isn’t?
Obviously there’s horses for courses. Some tactics work brilliantly for some people and fall totally flat on others. On a group run a couple of years back, when I was just starting to think I might possibly, at some point, actually enjoy running, I was running alongside a running duo made up of the encourager (m) and the striver (f). It didn’t take much to guess he’d had an army background. We were running up a steep hill and she was struggling, as I, and several other, were too.
The entire way up that hill he yelled at her to “keep running”, “just keep going”, “you can do it!”, “don’t give up!” and variations on the theme. And I mean yelled. Nothing wrong with the comments but it was the tone of voice that did it for me. He was clearly a perfectly nice, friendly guy and since I was running at about the same pace, he brought me into the loop too, no question but in the spirit of wanting to help. Except it didn’t. I think it worked for her. But it so didn’t work for me.
I remember almost whimpering “you know what?” (gasp) “I can’t,” as he shouted at me that I “absolutely” could do it. What worked for me was when another struggler said quietly, “just walk this bit!” which was what she was doing. Oh joy! I felt allowed to go at my own pace and that both my limitations and my aspirations were recognised. Slowly over the weeks that followed I built up to being able to run up the hill. It’s never easy even now, but I can certainly do it.
Horses for courses, as I say.
But it’s the more subtle cases of getting it wrong that that are perhaps more interesting. Why is it that when a nice person says “Go on, Alex, you can do it!” or “Go on Alex, you’re nearly there” that sometimes I feel a tad irritated? They’re not shouting. They’re smiling. They’re not yelling, they’re being perfectly sweet. They’re giving me eye contact; they’re talking to me. But still, I find myself flinching. Why?
My conclusion is that what happens here is that I feel patronised. It comes down to the tone of voice again, not that there’s any hectoring in this scenario. It’s about the doubt in the other person’s voice, and what feels like the superior positioning they seem to be taking in relation to me. I know what I can and can’t do and I’m pretty cool with both. Most of the time I’m pretty sure I can make it and that I can do it. So if someone is reassuring me that this is the case, then that makes me sense that, for them, it looks like there’s some doubt. I must look like a really weak runner. Too slow, too old, too unfit, whatever. Too something-not-great.
But I’m actually not a weak runner. I’m not a fast runner, granted, and I’m not a young runner. Nor am I a runner who can “run forever once I get going”, as one of my running buddies of similar age to me says she can. No, I can’t “run forever’. I have a definite stopping point. And running doesn’t come easily to me. Maybe I’m a little older than most other people in my group. I’m not a ‘natural’ (by which I mean that I didn’t take up running and suddenly discover I had world record-holder potential. I wish.) But nonetheless I am a runner. I run regularly. I have good days and I have bad days and I know what I can do as well as what I can’t.
So when do I find myself inwardly smiling if someone encourages me? When is it, well, nice? Simply clapping is wonderful. “Well done, Alex” said in a matter of fact voice is also fab. I love it if and when someone addresses me by name – it makes me feel part of a community (which I am. The running community rocks!) “Well run, Alex” or “great running, Alex” also give me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling, but if you’re going to say that, minus any sense of surprise, please, in your voice. No caveats. No implication of “…for your age’ or “…because you’re struggling”. Keep it simple, keep it deadpan.
But hey, I’ve been guilty too. A couple of years ago when I thought the local 10K was beyond me, I was a spectator along the road, about at the half-way point. And I was shouting and cheering my little socks off. “Well done”, I yelled. “You can do it, almost there!” And then I noticed a couple of runners searching me out in the crowd and widening their eyes quizzically. Yes, of course they could do it, and they knew it. They didn’t need me to tell them. And no, they weren’t in fact ‘almost there’. They were half way around. What was I thinking?
It reminded me how, many years ago, my daughters forbade me from watching their Under 9 netball matches because when I did, I’d run up and down the pitch, over-engaging. “Well played!” I’d shriek. “Pass it to Kirsty!” Maybe it’s like being with anyone who’s doing something tough, whether they’re going through a bad period, overcoming a loss, or simply busting a gut at some endeavour or other. You just, as the saying goes, have to be there. Clap, smile, say well done. But cut the other stuff out. Be alongside but don’t try to do it for them.
Running’s tough. But that’s also what makes it so great. If you’re a runner, you know that every other runner, whatever their speed and abilities, is pushing themselves to their own limits. That’s what makes us a community. That’s why running together is so wonderful. So let’s applaud each other for what we can do and not tell each other what we should be doing. Don’t show our doubts about each other, and anyway, who do we think we are to have any doubts?