From Tragedy to Togetherness: The Role of Running and Mental Health

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From Tragedy to Togetherness: The Role of Running and Mental Health

In late September of 2022, Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida’s southwest coast. Thousands of lives were negatively impacted by this disaster including the lives of students, teachers, and families of DeSoto Middle School in Arcadia, Florida.

Family homes were lost overnight, power was out for the community for long stretches of time, and it wasn’t uncommon for transportation to happen by boat. Food and water was scarce so MREs were often the main source of nourishment for families.

With this disaster, the community around DeSoto Middle School was changed forever and school life became an afterthought as survival became the only thing that mattered.

When the dust settled after Hurricane Ian and students returned to school, students and teachers alike attempted to regain some level of normalcy and consistency within this new situation. During the first week, teachers focused on the overall mental health and emotional support of students. PE teachers such as Coach Courtney Jackson led the charge in this attention to mental health and concentrated on letting students know that even with everything going on, it’s still okay to play and have fun.

Coach Courtney Jackson knew how to address her students as she is no stranger to setbacks within her own personal life as well. 

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A Coach’s Story of Misfortune and Recovery

Coach Jackson is a 6th grade physical education teacher at DeSoto Middle School. Sports and physical activity is something she has lived and breathed her entire life with basketball and track being her sports of choice throughout middle and high school.

After high school, she chose to pursue nursing in college continuing a longstanding tradition within her family. However, she soon returned to her passion of sports and education by becoming the coach of a middle school boys basketball team. Once she was bitten by the teaching and coaching bug, she soon returned to her home of DeSoto and began teaching physical education alongside coaching girls basketball. 

Around 2016/2017 at a practice for her girls basketball team is when tragedy struck for Coach Courtney Jackson when she tore ligaments in both her ankles off the bone. The injury required surgery and over 2 years of recovery in which she had to completely relearn how to use her legs. Even simple movements that we take for granted like walking across a room had to be relearned by Coach Jackson. 

During her recovery, Coach Jackson had to remain inactive which was tough for the athlete. The transition from daily exercise and movement to being in a wheelchair was something that was difficult for Coach Jackson at first. However, instead of distressing over her situation, she turned to something she could control - her mental health. This focus on mental health soon became a crucial aspect of her lessons for her students at DeSoto Middle School and were desperately needed after the tragedy of Hurricane Ian.

When she was finally cleared to begin physical activity again, she burst through the gates and never slowed down. Her love for running blossomed and she discovered a passion for long distance running - even running her fastest mile ever after her injury.  “Injury reintroduced my love for running. I was a runner and then I couldn’t run so once the injury healed, the phoenix came out  and I would never stop running”. This rekindling of passion even led her to new ways to motivate her kids to run in PE class by running alongside them. However, she knew more could be done to encourage her students to run - eventually leading her to the Marathon Kids program.

“Injury reintroduced my love for running. I was a runner and then I couldn’t run so once the injury healed, the phoenix came out and I would never stop running”.

Using Marathon Kids to Motivate

Coach Courtney Jackson first learned about Marathon Kids at the SHAPE Conference in Tampa, FL and officially incorporated the running program for her 6th grade students in September 2022. Since starting the program, her students have been more motivated and encouraged to run than ever before. One of the most motivating aspects of the Marathon Kids program for her students ended up being the student leaderboard. As her students watch their number climb on the leaderboard, they want to hit the track to complete more laps and rise in the ranks. 

Coach Jacksons’ students also loved the lap-tracking technology provided with the Marathon Kids program. The scannable QR codes sold the experience for many students, especially after Coach Jackson decorated the code cards and made them more colorful and exciting to her students. Scanning their QR code cards after a day of running is something that all her students look forward to because they know it translates to more laps recorded and their number moving up on the leaderboard.

Coach Courtney Jackson prominently displays the leaderboard on a large TV within the gym so all her students are able to view it during gym class. However, the leaderboard caught the attention of other students within the school.

“Once I put the leaderboard up, the 7th and 8th graders wanted to participate too”.

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The 7th and 8th grade students saw Coach Jackson’s students enjoying the Marathon Kids program, and wanted to join in on the fun.

Coach Jackson makes sure to reward and incentivize her students through weekly and monthly prizes. Her weekly prizes are based around leaderboard standings; however, the monthly prizes are decided with different metrics. Coach Jackson determines who receives a monthly prize based on which students improve the most that month. She says it helps motivate students to continue to push themselves even if they’re not regularly in the top portion of the leaderboard. “PE is for everybody, but everybody’s fitness program is different” is a quote Coach Jackson lives by and is put into practice through her monthly rewards.

Although Coach Courtney Jackson has emphasized mental health more than ever in the wake of Hurricane Ian, it has always been a top priority for her physical education program. She works to ensure she is not only focused on her students’ physical health but also their mental and emotional health as it all translates into success for a student both in the classroom and in life. 

Although DeSoto Middle School has dealt with tragedies, their strength as a community is evident with Coach Courtney Jackson as a crucial pillar leading the charge on mental health within the school. Her experience with recovering from life-altering injuries can be seen as a blueprint for how the community and her students are rebuilding stronger than ever before.

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