As we enter into the championship season for high school and college Track & Field, I felt it was appropriate that I write an article on getting athletes mentally prepared to run on race day, particularly in regards to the hurdling events.
The coach’s role on the day of a big race is to say as little as possible, but to be ever-present for emotional support, and to provide athletes with a sense of stability, security, and familiarity. More than anything, the mere presence of a trusted coach provides an athlete with the necessary level of confidence that he or she needs to keep the nerves calm and to compete with the best of competition. Coaches often think they have to come up with an inspiring motivational speech or provide some last-minute instruction that will prove to be the difference between winning and losing. The truth is, as former NBA star Darryl Dawkins once said, “after all has been said and done, there’s nothing more to say or do.” In other words, if you as a coach know that you have given your athletes the type of instruction, guidance, motivation, and training regimen that will lead to success when the championship meets roll around, then you know that you don’t need to go out of your way to provide any of those things when the day of the big race arrives. Another reason for saying as little as possible is because you want to minimize the amount of mental chatter going on in the athlete’s head. The more the athlete is thinking, the more distracted he or she is from racing. You want the athlete’s mind to be as clear of thought as possible, so that he or she doesn’t need to remember anything, but only has to run.
One point we can all agree on is that rah-rah stuff doesn’t work in track. In any sport, really, it only carries you through the first 20-30% of a competition, then it’s all about executing the game plan, maintaining form, staying relaxed, etc. I never remind an athlete that “this is what you’ve been working all year for,” or “today’s the big day,” or “now’s the time you’ve gotta put it all on the line.” They know that already, so reminding them of it can only serve to make them more nervous, to feel more pressure. For my hurdlers, specifically, I’ll make it a point to not discuss anything technical. If they’re thinking about their trail leg, they’re not focusing on racing. If they’re thinking about their lead arm, they’re not focusing on racing. If they’re thinking that they must defeat a particular competitor, they’re not focusing on racing. I want my athletes focusing on their race. If a hurdler asks me for words of encouragement, I’ll simply say, “Do what you’ve practiced, and you’ll do well.” I don’t try to project what place they’ll come in or anything like that. Just do what you’ve practiced. If a hurdler asks a question about technique, I’ll tell him or her not to worry about it, because even if there are any technical flaws that need to be addressed, race day is not the time to address them.
Athletes always want to know what lane they’re in, what heat they’re in, who else is in their heat, how high their ranked, what they’ll have to do to make it to the next round. I’ll address those questions with each athlete individually (and I prefer to do so the day before the race, whenever possible), so I can monitor their emotional reactions to finding out the new information. I really prefer that athletes be totally unaware of heat sheets and the like, but I recognize that it’s an unavoidable topic. They’re gonna want to know, so you have to deal with their anxiety. By talking to each athlete individually, I can make it a point to assure them that nothing that appears on a heat sheet matters when the gun goes off, that no matter how high or low they are ranked, anything can happen once the race starts, especially in a hurdle race, where unpredictability is the norm. I’ll talk to the athlete on a strictly factual level: this is the number of people entered in your event, this is how many per heat make it to the next round, and this is the range of time you’ll have to run in order to qualify. Denying the athletes this information only increases their anxiety; that’s why I don’t try to ignore them when they ask. These days, with on-line entries becoming the norm, pre-race information is often already available on the internet anyway. From the coach’s perspective, the danger of the athlete knowing too much lies in the fact that athletes will often try to predict what will happen in their upcoming race based upon what has happened in past races. An athlete might think, for instance, “I have the third-fastest seed time in my heat, and the top three in each heat make it to the next round, so I’ll make it to the next round.” Then, of course, somebody with a slower seed time has a great race, and the third seed ends up getting bumped out because he or she was running conservatively. That’s why it’s important for the coach to monitor the athlete’s emotional mindset, and to emphasize that, regardless of all else, the athlete needs to run his or her own race in his or her own lane.
I try to keep any verbal communication with athletes on race day restricted to a factual, practical level. I’ll remind them to check in at the first call of their event, to make sure they know where the check-in table is, to stick to their pre-race warm-up routine, to take note of the direction and velocity of the wind and other weather-related factors. I don’t want them to change their approach to their race based on these factors; I just want them to be aware of these factors, so that they’re not caught by surprise if and when these conditions arise during the race.
It’s important for the coach to have a base warm-up routine that all athletes on the team follow, but I also feel that coaches should allow each athlete to go through his or her own personal rituals in those final minutes leading up to the race. Some athletes perform best when they chatter and banter with friends or opponents, some perform best when they bounce around in front of the starting line, some perform best when they pace back and forth in their lane, some perform best when they go off a little ways by themselves and say a prayer, while others perform best when they sit quietly and listen to music. Only the individual can know the particulars of what he or she needs to do to get in the frame of mind that is optimal for peak performance. I don’t like to tell athletes they “should” go off by themselves, or that they “should” take a certain amount of practice starts, for example. Part of the athlete’s growth process lies in figuring out what he or she needs to do get him or herself in the proper frame of mind to compete. I once had a hurdler named RaShawn who was the second-best hurdler on our team all year long, constantly losing by a tenth of a second to our best hurdler. RaShawn, though, was arguably the better athlete, but not the better competitor. His teammate would always get super-charged emotionally before races, to the point where he’d run right over anyone who may happen to wander across his lane while he was warming up over the hurdles. RaShawn, meanwhile, liked to laugh and joke and stay loose before races. And he’d always lose. Finally, I noticed that, toward the end of the season, RaShawn would walk over to the other side of the track right before the race, and do his sprint drills by himself. I started thinking to myself, “He’s starting to get serious about this stuff, now.” At the state meet, RaShawn finished first, defeating his teammate for the first time all year. The thing about it was, he was the same old RaShawn he had always been, loose and carefree, except for the fact that, ten minutes before the race, he was no longer chatting and chilling out with other people, but instead he went off by himself and got into his competitive zone. And it worked.
In the final analysis, especially at major competitions, it’s important for coaches to realize and accept that they can’t run the race for the athlete. Instead, they must trust that the athlete has learned and digested all the lessons from the training sessions, that he or she is prepared mentally and physically to run well, and that the level of preparation will be validated by how the athlete performs. A coach who talks too much, who anxiously wants to make sure the athlete runs well, will be too tense, too controlling, too hands-on, and such a coach will inevitably transfer his or her tension and anxiety onto the athlete, even if not realizing it, which can result in a sub-par performance. For the coach, the plain fact of the matter is that once the gun goes off, all you can do is watch. If you can accept that fact from the beginning, and you can honestly say that you did everything you could to give your athlete the type of training he or she needed to be successful, then you’ll be able to live with the results, even if the results are disappointing.