Sydney Davis attended her first trail build for the Ozark Trail Association (OTA) when she was 6 months old.

“I think she holds the record,” said her mom, Wendy, a trainer at Pedal Hard Training Center in Chesterfield and a competitive cyclist. Sydney’s dad, Jim, was a longtime board member of OTA and an ardent outdoorsman. Diapers in tow, the couple took Sydney to builds as well as on camping, canoeing and hiking trips.

Now 10, Sydney loves to run, hike, camp and mountain bike. But her favorite thing, she said, is rock climbing, because “I can go as high as I want.”

Heidi Abbott fell in love with rock climbing four years ago, so much so that she wanted to get her kids involved. Now, her daughter, Kyia, 14, and son, Misha, 9, enjoy the sport so much that they climb competitively for Upper Limits.

In each case, the kids followed their parents. To build a lifelong love of the outdoors and endurance sports, though, the roles change in this generational version of Follow the Leader. If families can navigate the change in roles successfully at key moments, they can share a love of the outdoors for life, playing together and passing it on.

How and When to Start
OK, so maybe Sydney was a little young to fully appreciate the scenery and fresh air on that first trail build. Organizations such as Camp Ondessonk, which offers weeklong outdoor and adventure camps in Ozark, Illinois, encourage waiting until children turn 2 or 3 years of age before attending their family camps, said Alissa Hollmann, camping services director.

“They have a great time,” Hollmann said, “But it’s easier for the youngest kids when they have an adult they already know and trust there with them.”

Eight is the magic number, though, when it comes to youngsters spreading their wings. Experts with St. Louis Mountain Bike Camps and Girls on the Run agree with Hollman that this age is ideal for trying endurance sports and outdoor activities on their own.

“We hear, ‘my friends are doing it,’ or ‘my favorite teacher is going to be my coach,’ a lot,” said Renee Parks, program director for Girls on the Run St. Louis. The 20-lesson Girls on the Run curriculum combines training for a 5K with lessons that inspire girls in grades 3 through 8 to become independent thinkers, enhance their problem solving skills and make healthy decisions.

“By 8, kids usually have learned to ride a bike,” said Tom Herbig, co-owner of St. Louis Mountain Bike Camps, which started offering weeklong camps at Castlewood State Park last summer. “But we’re willing to teach them what they need to know.”

Other times, igniting a love of the outdoors or endurance sports comes from tapping into other interests. Elliot Leong rode along in a jogger when his father, Tony, trained for runs. Years later, after Tony switched to triathlons, something about the abundance of split times and stats in triathlon resonated with Elliot, “a numbers guy,” Tony said. Elliot jumped full-bore into triathlon training and won his age group at last year’s New Town triathlon. “He studied a sheet of time splits and knew exactly how fast he needed to go. That helped him,” Tony said.

Some kids need to be reassured of safety, a behavior for which adults should set the tone.

“Give them an area where they can have as little structure as possible and still be safe,” Hollman said. “Also, wear helmets and lifejackets yourselves. Model the behavior that you want them to use.”

Be aware, though, that no matter how enthusiastic, knowledgeable or supportive adults may be, some kids just won’t want to get involved — at least at first. For the timid, Hollman said counselors at Camp Ondessonk use a strategy called challenge by choice. “We ask each camper to think about what parts of this activity they are comfortable with, and then to challenge themselves to go beyond that in some way. By asking them to find their own challenge, they are in control of the situation and sometimes find that that first step isn’t as scary as they thought.”

How and When to Encourage
Kids who spend a week at camp often come home jazzed about activities that they’d never done before — and might not do again without some encouragement.

“Ask them to tell you stories about their days at camp and what they liked the best,” Hollman said. “Then make it a routine to try to incorporate some of that stuff at least one day a week or month. Make it a routine so that they look forward to it. Let them show you what they know.”

Davis suggested quirky twists on traditional activities: head lamps for a night hike or a breakfast hike in PJs. “And let them lead a bike ride. Stuff like that empowers them.”

This is the point where the balance of power starts to shift.

Parks said about 40 percent of the participants repeat Girls on the Run. “There’s an element of refinement that brings them back: setting a goal and achieving it, then trying to do better with the support of teammates and coaches.”

How and When to Get Serious
Kids will let you know. Tony Leong and his wife, Christy Kisor-Leong, have finished half Ironmans but love the training more than race day. Elliot is the opposite. After winning at New Town, he wanted to test his mettle regionally at an event in Olathe, Kansas.

“We were telling him on the drive how proud we were of his training, but we weren’t sure where he would finish,” Tony said. “As I tried to talk to him about how much tougher the competition would be, he stopped me short. ‘Mom, Dad, please. I’m in it to win it.’ We looked at each other as if to say, ‘I’ve never used those words.’ We don’t know where he gets it.”

Again, Elliot finished first in his age group.

Not long after starting rock climbing, Abbott’s kids took what was fun and made it competitive, joining the Upper Limits team. Abbott decided to become a coach.

“It seemed like a great way to spend more time with them,” she said.

Each qualified for divisional bouldering championships in January.

How and When to Back Off
Which brings us to the prickliest subject of all. Parents can share their enthusiasm and encourage their youngsters to spread their wings, but they have to know when to let go. Outdoor activities and endurance sports can be especially tricky, since many kids got involved initially as part of a family vacation or hobby.

Girls on the Run takes a proactive approach with a well-defined set of parameters, which the organization spells out in its literature to parents. The group has established ground rules for parent coaches and well as parents who aren’t coaches, which can be tough for close families.

“Parents want to run with their girls at practice, but we don’t let them,” Parks said. “A parent who is overreaching can prevent safe space from being formed, so that the girls will open up at practice. But we encourage parents to continue the conversations and run together outside practice.”

As coach and parent, Abbott has learned from painful experience to balance the roles. “Once, when I saw Kyia didn’t make a full movement, I yelled to her what I thought she should do. I heard myself sounding like the crazy parent. As soon as I caught myself, I said, ‘I’ll never do that again.’”

As Davis said, kids should do the talking. “They need to have a voice in what you are doing and have specific things that are all about them,” she said.

And in the process, sometimes kids become the role models. Girls on the Run reported that of 294 parents responding to a recent survey, 190 said that being a running buddy and/or committing to running the 5k motivated them to increase their physical activity.

So, when the tables turn, things can come full circle — all from a simple game of Follow the Leader.

Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine
Image: Courtesy of Girls on the Run St. Louis