Rules? The Unspoken Norms that Set Newcomers Up in Our Sport

This article originally appears on Athlinks Ignited Marissa DeMercurio’s blog: Running On Optimism 

Last year for work I participated in training on appreciating the differences of others. It was a fantastic course with quite a few exercises and activities that helped to grasp the concepts we were learning. There was one activity in particular that resonated with me on a fundamental level: a game named BARNGA.

BARNGA is a card game intended to explore challenges in communication across cultures. It is set up so that each table of players receives written rules of the game. You’re given a short amount of time to study the rules, and when time is up they are taken away. Then you play a hand. The winner moves “up” a table, the loser moves “down” a table, and if you lose at the lowest table, you hold your spot. Oh, and the only word you’re allowed to speak is BARNGA, nothing else. What you discover (I made this discovery much later than most) is that each table was given a slightly different set of rules. Since you can’t discuss the rules, the people moving to new tables (win or lose) are set up to either fail until they figure out the new rules or at least suffer in the process. Ultimately, each table ends up playing by a set of rules constantly changing with each round and not reflecting the original rules that were read.

Only after the game ends are you able to discuss your experience. Some interesting insights arise. For me, the great light bulb was that I saw myself as “The Keeper of the Table,” the person who believes everyone else should be playing by their set of rules.

This didn’t only reflect my card style. This reflected my life style. I had assumed that the rules I played by were universally known and accepted by those around me. When I drew the connection to the way this impacted my interaction in groups and teams, it allowed me to take a step back and realize that others deserve more patience, empathy, and understanding than I had previously been willing to offer. It also helped me to take it less personally when others expected that I was playing by their rules.

Cultures of all kinds experience this clash every day: racially, geographically, socioeconomically—you name it.

How does this fit into a blog about running?

This may have nothing to do with the act of running, but everything to do with the running community.

I am incredibly passionate about encouraging people who are new to running to embrace and enjoy the sport. But I have also noticed an invisible and unspoken barrier to entry into it that makes people reticent to join a group or engage in the greater community. Why is this occurring? Why do groups of runners seem so intimidating? It has been on my mind a lot lately.

As one of a few founding members of our local running group (Arvada Runners) I am often trying to understand why people join the Facebook group and never show up for a group run. Aside from scheduling conflicts, what is preventing the near 100 people who haven’t turned out from giving it a try?

While I don’t have the answer for those people, I can relate to the intimidation of showing up to a new group and worrying that I won’t know the unspoken rules and that I’ll make an invisible mistake. Will they think I am weird or annoying? That I am too slow and I am holding them back? What if the things I am most insecure about are the things they notice and dislike about me? What if they reject me?

Maybe I am alone in feeling that trepidation and anxiety, but I don’t think I am. I think people new to running or new to certain groups want to be accepted and worry that they won’t know how to play by the invisible cultural rules of the majority.

How can we eliminate or reduce that barrier to entry?

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t have all the answers. I would love to hear your additional thoughts in the comments.

One way, though, is to have members of the groups make individual connections. An entire group can feel impossible to penetrate but a one-on-one connection lowers the stakes. If I can build a relationship with one member, I don’t need to approach everyone, I can build a human connection one at a time. Established group members can take it upon themselves to empathize with the discomfort of a newcomer and partner up on their first few times out with the group until they are in a routine.


Another way to make the whole seem more approachable is to highlight the strengths and contributions of the individuals. And those strengths should rarely be about speed, pace, or distance. They should reflect who individuals are as a person—passions, goals, cultural, and community involvement. I can’t relate to someone who can run a four-minute mile but I can relate to someone who adores dogs. If I know I can talk to that person about something we have in common, they become more approachable.

Finally, focus on expanding your circle to people who are different from you and the current members of your group. Our running club is currently mostly skinny Caucasian runners. How can we expect people who don’t fit that demographic to see the group photos and think “I belong there?” We need to be the ones to encourage the unrepresented members of our community to join us, and that comes from individual connections.

What if you are the person looking to join the group?

Again, I don’t have all the answers. If you have successfully used certain skills to join a group, please share what worked for you!

An option is to reach out individually to a member of the group who seems approachable. If you join a Facebook group with hundreds of members and don’t speak up, chances are good someone isn’t going to reach out to you first. But if you identify someone and introduce yourself, they’re very likely to be happy to welcome you in and answer your questions in a private message.

Be curious. When you do show up for the first time, ask questions about the group dynamic. Bring light to the “unspoken rules” and make them spoken. “What does ‘all levels of fitness’ REALLY mean to this group? If I am running x pace, will someone stick with me or will I get dropped?”

Be forthcoming with your needs so the group knows how to meet them. We once had someone show up to a group run for the first time who dropped me, then ended the run in tears and went home to tell her husband we were horrible. This caught everyone by surprise. I tried to contact her to understand what we had done wrong and she never replied. It still haunts me that we let her down. And yet, if she had told us what she needed “I would like to run 4 miles tonight and I’m shooting for about an 8-minute pace. I don’t know the area well. Can someone stick with me?” we would have been able to deliver on that without a problem. If you have an expectation or a need, ask. If the group can’t make it work, better for that to be acknowledged up front.

Lastly, take a risk and just show up! Runners love to talk about running. They love to bring people into their tribe. They seem intense because they are passionate and they care. In running, you must get comfortable with the uncomfortable, and joining a new community is one way to practice that. After a few runs, your involvement will have already begun shaping the new rules and norms of the group, and you’ll be able to relate to other newbies trying to find their way in.

van bib.jpg

Whether today is your first run or your 10,000th, remember that you are an ambassador of the sport and you have an opportunity to set others up to succeed every day you show up! (And if you’re in the Arvada, CO area, nothing would make me happier than welcoming you to our Monday night runs!)

About the Author: 

tnfMarissa loves running in just about any capacity—road, trail, track, treadmill, short, long, and ultra distances! She also loves data (lots and lots of data) which is why she’s been a member of Athlinks for years! While competition is what keeps her motivated, community is what fuels her passion. Helping others discover their joy and capability through running and connecting with the world through a shared love of the sport keeps her coming back day in and day out. Marissa helps lead her local running group, Arvada Runners.

Instagram: @marissatortilla

Twitter: @tortillamarissa

Athlinks Profile: Check it out

Arvada Runners: Arvada Runners

Athlinks Staff
Posts by the Athlinks Staff are authored by our in-house group of athletes and subject matter experts in the fields of performance sports, nutrition, race organization, and training.

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  1. Always game to meet and hear new runners and veteran runners and favorite races to do! Always enthusiastic to hear others reasoning for starting to run and what keeps them motivated such as myself as single mom!

  2. While most competitive running is basically an opportunity for each person to push themselves – as opposed to beating others – the training side of it leaves a a lot of room for running at a more leisurely pace so you can talk with others simultaneously. Every once in a while my training schedule coincides with that of my triathlon club and I really enjoy the time I get to spend with them, knowing this day’s swim, run or ride will likely not be at threshold pace, but that’s okay. The athlete community needs that time to bond and assist newbies who are nervous about this change in direction of their lives. Change is good, but it’s also scary at times and our community can impart so much to help ease that anxiety. It’s also a great way to meet one-on-one training partners and make new friends who can continue to motivate a more healthy lifestyle.

  3. Great article Marissa. You have a lot of insight. Much of what you said is why I don’t run with groups or people much. Some guys want to race you every time!


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