The Finishing Line Is Just The Beginning
Mini Mermaid Running Club UK is an after school programme for girls aged 5 – 11, which meets twice a week for 6 weeks, culminating in a 5km challenge. The programme aims to provide a platform to help girls find their own unique voice, increasing self-confidence and self-awareness whilst starting them on a path to a lifelong love of movement.
Studies in the UK suggest that levels of self-esteem in girls peak at the age of 9 and then take a nosedive. This correlates strongly with reduced activity levels, with nearly 68% of girls aged 11 not taking part in any daily physical activity and a staggering 98% of girls aged 14 not engaging in movement aside from walking to and from school.
The increase in the use of social media is a contributory factor, and for young girls it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that the number of ‘likes’ on an Instagram account is more important that understanding how activity can help build and protect physical and mental strength. The thoughts and feelings of being 9 can stick with us, and so as older girls and women we are often reluctant to take part in exercise as we don’t feel that we are good enough to do it, or we remember a phrase or sentence put us off exercise very early on.
In 2014/15, more than 1 in 5 children in Reception, and 1 in 3 children in Year 6 were measured as obese or overweight. Children in most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than children in least deprived areas.  A study also undertaken by the ‘Beat’ charity shows that although many eating disorders develop during adolescence, it is not at all unusual for people to develop eating disorders earlier or later in life. In fact, they are aware of cases of anorexia in children as young as 6.
I discovered Mini Mermaids when I was researching tools to help my daughter who suffers with Selective Mutism – an anxiety disorder which means that she struggles to interact verbally with adults and some other children. For me, exercise has always been the tool that I have used to help me through life. From being bullied at school, to suffering with the tricky transition from childhood to adulthood, to having my children and using running to help keep my mind strong when things were tough. It was a natural step for me to look for active ways to help my daughter, and that’s when I came across Mini Mermaid Running Club. It was founded in the States by the superbly strong, inspiring Heidi Boynton.
Everything about the club jumped out at me. The well thought out curriculum, the two easily distinguishable characters of Siren and Mini Mermaid, and the fun and activities involved that show the girls that ANYONE can move their bodies and feel alive, energized and fantastic!
I brought the club over from the states and adapted it for the UK, rolling it out to schools in Leeds in September 2015. We have moved from strength to strength and to date we have had nearly 100 girls go through the programme.
The programme itself is split over 6 weeks, with the girls and coaches meeting twice a week. In small groups of no more than 10 girls, they do a combination of ‘journal reflection time’ and movement. It’s really important that the groups are no bigger than 10 as this allows the quieter girls to feel that they are in a safe environment to express themselves and speak freely. The small teams also foster a united front, a tribe where they all know that from the moment that they are formed, that they are all Mermaids. This teamwork ethic helps them grow, it helps to take the ‘ME FIRST’ out of them and encourages them to think about what they can give and take from the group.
We focus on our two internal dialogues: Siren – the negative and confusing messages that we hear from ourselves and from others, and Mini Mermaid – our truth and the things that we know in our hearts to be right and true about ourselves. These two characters look the same but Siren’s voice tends to be louder. We want to help the girls distinguish these two voices and learn to listen to Mini Mermaid.
The 6 weeks are split into Head – The outside influences and voices that we hear from the media to our friends and families. Heart – Our internal voice and feelings about ourselves. Hands – How helping others holds mutual benefit on both parts. Belly – What we eat fuels our bodies. Legs – Our strength and Feet – Lead us to wherever we want to go.
As well as journal work and self-reflection time, the girls also train for a 5km movement. It doesn’t matter how they do this, they can run, walk, dance, hop or skip! It is about pushing themselves to achieve something that many of them don’t believe that they can do. It’s not about winning or coming first, it’s about the girls using the tools they’ve been given throughout the 6 weeks to get them through the 5km. They have chosen to turn up on the start line, that’s a win. Crossing the finish line helps to show the girls that they can now run into their lives armed with the tools to keep their heart and minds safe.
All girls start with curriculum 1, ideally when they are in year 3. Starting the programme this early begins to address the issue of self-esteem, confidence and physical activity before it becomes an issue. The girls then go on to complete the 3 other curriculum’s in Primary School before transitioning to High School.
Mini Mermaid Running Club UK is a volunteer-led organisation. All of our volunteer coaches are real women – women with diverse backgrounds and stories, who may not be runners but can identify with how moving their bodies makes them feel. We are so grateful to have these amazing women on board with us and simply could not be touching the lives of many girls with out them.
We always need more coaches and with the expected growth of the programme in September it looks like we’ll need lots more! Coaches don’t have to have any previous experience of running and full training of the curriculum will be given.
If you feel that you are in a position to help coach and change girls’ lives, or would just like to learn more about the programme then please get in touch. Or if you would like your school to be involved in the programme then please drop me an email.
Contact Hannah: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about the Mini Mermaid project: http://runleeds.co.uk/r/mini-mermaid-running-club/
 Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation – Changing the Game for girls.
 Health and Social Care Information Centre. Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – April 2016
 ‘Beat’ eating disorder statistics