Don’t Talk about School

The type of athlete that drives a coach crazy more than any other is an athlete with lazy practice habits, regardless of his or her ability level. While some athletes who seem to be lazy really aren’t, they do lack focus. The ability to focus mentally throughout an entire practice session is not very common among today’s athletes, and I don’t really know if it ever was. Though I consider myself someone who isn’t big on laying out a lot of rules, I do have a few that apply to my athletes when we’re on the track. In this article, I want to talk a little bit about those rules, and how they apply to the basic philosophy that the athletes with the best practice habits athletes are going to be the athletes who are most prepared to compete.

Rule #1: Don’t Talk About School
At the high school where I teach and coach, the students are under constant heavy academic pressure to get the best grades possible so they can get into the best college possible so they can get into the best post-graduate school possible so they can find the best job possible. So it’s not uncommon for students to come to practice and talk about upcoming tests, quizzes, and papers while they’re stretching and warming up, and, sometimes, even between reps during the workout. The older kids, who have been around me for a while, know not to engage in such conversation, but the newer kids are the ones who tend to babble on about this teacher and that teacher and about how they have too much work to do. I tell them to stop. Whine all you want after practice, but while you’re here with me, hush all that fuss. Obviously, as an English teacher and educator, I understand the importance of academics and I can empathize with the students for all of the stress they feel. Heck, I’m under the same stress myself. But the reason I don’t like for my athletes to talk about school while we’re on the track is for the simple fact that the athlete needs to be focused on what he or she is doing. We only have about an hour to an hour and a half to get the day’s workout done, so I want the athletes’ full attention during that short period of time. Too much mental chatter that isn’t related to the task at hand can negatively affect the quality of a workout.

Rule #2: Don’t Ask Me What Time It Is
Again, as a high school coach, I have athletes who have very busy lives off the track. So they need to know the time of day because they have a ride coming to pick them up, or they need to get to their part-time job by a certain time, or maybe they have a piano lesson later that evening and only have a small window of time in which to eat dinner. Or maybe they’ve gotta get home and get their homework done. Whatever the case, they need to know what time it is. So, here I am, in the middle of a workout, trying to explain a complicated technical concept to one of my hurdlers, or I’m timing some of my sprinters to make sure they’re maintaining a consistent pace on their interval reps, and here comes someone from behind me talkin’ ‘bout, “Coach, coach, hey coach, do you know what time it is?” Again, my veteran athletes know better than to distract me in the middle of practice with such an annoying question, but I’m almost guaranteed to be asked that question by someone on the track at least once a week. Again, worrying about what time it is serves as a sign that your mind is not on what you’re doing. If you’re worried about what time it is, then you’re not focused on getting the most out of yourself on each rep. When you’re mind isn’t fully engaged in what it is doing, then it cannot push the body to its limits. When you get tired and want to quit, you will. Or, to put it more subtly, when you have the ability to run all your 200’s in 26 seconds, your last two will be in 28 and 29. Not because you weren’t trying, but because you weren’t focused. Another thing I don’t like about being asked the time of day is that it informs me that you’re not really enjoying practice. If all you’re thinking about is what you’re gonna do when you get outta here, then my question for you is, why did you come here in the first place?

Rule #3: No Cell Phones
This rule is definitely a newly-developed one for the new millennium. Cell phones weren’t a problem in the ‘90’s. But now, every time you turn around, there’s another athlete yammering on the cell phone while he or she should be stretching, should be warming up, should be getting mentally prepared for the workout. I personally fantasize about raking all the cell phones ever made into a big pile ten miles high, gathering them in trash bags the same way we do with autumn leaves, and hurling them all into the Atlantic Ocean. Again, during practice time, you need to give all your attention to the practice session. Practice isn’t a time to socialize, to find out when the party is, to catch up with old friends, to check your messages. Just as with always asking what time it is, babbling on until the break of dawn on the cell phone is a way of informing me that you really don’t want to be here.

To Summarize . . .
One basic point that a lot of younger athletes don’t understand is that you can’t just get through practice, you have to get up for practice, you have to mentally and physically prepare yourself for practice. Many athletes seem to think that they only have to get up for meets, that they only have to energize themselves and get that adrenaline pumping when it comes time to race. But the truth is, you can’t turn it on and off so easily. If you don’t get into the habit, on a daily basis, in your practice sessions, of clearing your mind of distractions and focusing the mind on fulfilling the demands of the workout, the quality of your workouts will suffer. As a consequence, the rate of your progress will suffer, your relationship with your coach will suffer, and the level of your confidence will suffer. When it comes time to wear your game face and rise to the occasion on race day, you might be able to do so, but you might not. And what good is that? In the conversations I’ve been fortunate to have with professional track athletes, one common theme rings clear when they discuss their goals: “I want to strive for consistency this year.” Before they talk about breaking personal records or any other records, before they talk about beating this rival or that rival, before they talk about winning gold medals, they talk about the need to be consistent in practice, so that they can be consistent in their races. Only then – when they see how their practice habits have put them in a position where they stand among the best in their event – do they have the unwavering self-confidence that enables to pull out of themselves a performance that, in essence, transcends their training.

Many athletes have no appreciation for, nor even an understanding of, how difficult it is to truly stay focused throughout an entire practice session, and how important it is to do so. If, for instance, you’re clearing five hurdles twelve times in a particular workout, and your mental focus is sharp for only eight of those reps, what’s gonna happen in a race? You’ll be good for six or seven hurdles and then you’ll start smackin’ ‘em around. So, it’s not just about getting the reps in; it’s about getting the reps in with your full attention focused on the physical act itself. And it’s not a matter of merely blocking out other thoughts. More so, it’s a matter of tuning into the rhythm of your body, allowing yourself to enjoy the physical act of running and hurdling, and training your mind to continually remind the body of what it is you want it to do.

Don’t be shallow, don’t be normal, don’t be like everybody else. Leave the cell phone off, buy a watch if you need to sneak a peek at what time it is, and focus on your homework when you get home. While you’re on the track, give your full attention to the workout. You’ll be amazed at how much more enjoyable practice will become, and how much more noticeable your improvement will be – not just to your coach and teammates, but more importantly, to yourself.

© 2006 Steve McGill

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