Hurdling with an Empty Mind

Races in which there is much at stake, in which the pressure to perform is at its highest, require a different mindset than the mindset fitting for a practice setting, or even an early-season meet. For a hurdler, hurdling sessions and early-season meets are all about thinking, making decisions, figuring out what works best. That’s in regard to the start, to technique, to speed between the hurdles, etc. As the season goes on and the championship meets are coming around the corner, it becomes more important to think less, to trust the body more, so that by the time you enter the starting blocks for the “biggest race of your life,” the mind is silent, and the body is on autopilot.

In hurdling practices throughout the year, your mind should be working all the time. Instructing you, guiding you, making decisions on what works and what doesn’t, reminding you of what to focus on for each rep. On hurdle days, you should always be more tired mentally than physically because the mind should never cease to be active in its quest to put the pieces together – of the start, of the approach to the first hurdle, of take-off, of landing, of speed between, of rhythm, of all the aspects of hurdling mechanics – lead leg, trail leg, lead arm, trail arm, lean, hips, etc. As the season goes on and the parts of the race are becoming ingrained, the thoughts will become more specific in their focus. The angle at which a foot lands will become important. How close the hand of your trail arm is to your hip will become important. The details become more important because the more basic aspects of technique, etc. have already been addressed.

But regardless of what time of year it is, practice sessions require total involvement of the mind. Hurdlers must be students of themselves, of their hurdling teammates, of their hurdling opponents, and of hurdlers in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world. Hurdlers and coaches should be discussing ideas and theories, strategizing, experimenting, tweaking. Drills must be implemented that address hurdler-specific needs and flaws. New workouts must be designed to simulate racing scenarios. The athlete should always play a role in implementing the drills and designing the workouts, because the athlete is the one who needs to be totally invested, who must race over the barriers at hyper speeds. A hurdler who follows instructions well but never thinks for him/herself will never reach his or her potential. He or she won’t have the instincts needed to react to the infinite number of variables that could arise in the midst of a race.

But even in practice there should be a calmness to the thinking. There should be the spirit of experimentation – not an attempt to discover the “right” way, but a way that works best for you, the individual athlete. The body and mind are in a relationship, so they have to work together. Even in practice, the mind’s job is not to dictate to the body, but to validate what the body feels. When you try something new with your lead arm, for example, and the whole hurdling motion feels faster as a result, then all the mind has to do is agree by saying, “Yes, that felt faster, let’s go for that feeling again on the next rep.” When the mind gets in the way and says, “No, you should be doing this here with the lead arm instead of that there,” even though that there felt good, then the mind is impeding progress, disrupting the natural learning process. The body is the ultimate authority, regardless of what the mind may assume based on past experiences and gathered knowledge. That’s why it’s important to approach each training session with an open mind, because you’re bound to discover something new that had never occurred to you before, and that new thing will most likely be a key component in your overall development.

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Early-season meets, and mid-season meets as well, present an opportunity to put to the test some of the things you’ve been working on in practice. So if you’ve been doing a lot of trail leg drills in practice, for example, working on getting the knee up higher so that it doesn’t hit the hurdle, then in the next meet you might want to make the trail leg your focus. In such a case, you would enter the starting blocks with your mind focused on your trail leg as opposed to just running as fast as you can. Meets are important because they give you a chance to see whether or not you have ingrained a particular aspect of your race to the point where you can do it without thinking about it. Once you can do it about thinking about it, then it’s time to focus on something else. In every race in the early to mid-season, there should be one or two elements of your race that you are focusing on specifically.

So the point of all the thinking you do in practice and in meets is to get to a point where you don’t need to think anymore. A point where the mind trusts the body completely to function on its own, without any interference. In essence, the whole season consists of a process of weaning your body away from the need for conscious thought, the same way a little boy riding a bike has to wean himself away from needing training wheels. Though training wheels enables him to learn how to balance himself, the whole point is to outgrow them so he can balance himself on his own. Same thing with hurdling. The endless thinking that you did in practice and early meets is meant to enable you to enter championship meets with an empty mind.

Yes, it is possible to be too competitive too early in the season. If you’re in all-out race mode in indoor meets in January, then even if you’re having success, that success could prove to be fool’s gold when other hurdlers refine their technique, improve their speed, and catch up to you by spring time. Meanwhile, because you were racing so intently so early, you were never working on flaws in your race that will later be exposed.

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In championship meets, in all or nothing meets, you must enter the starting blocks with an empty mind. That’s not an easy thing to do. There are noises, there are distractions. There are people in your way while you’re warming up. Your coach just reminded you that right after your hurdle race you need to start getting ready for the relay. Your left hamstring feels a little funny even though you don’t remember doing anything to injure it. Your team is counting on you for these points. This is the biggest race of your life. You can’t mess this up.

All such thoughts create tension, increase tension. And they pile on top of each other. That’s why the last ten minutes leading up to the race are so crucial. That’s when it’s time to go into silent mode. That’s when it’s time to quiet the voice in your mind. That’s when it’s time to sit down, breathe deeply, watch all the chattering thoughts enter your mind, and watch them pass through. The purpose here is to calm the mind, release tension in the body, while elevating the body’s energy level. Intense does not mean tense. A truly intense focus is calm. It doesn’t block things out; it becomes aware of everything. The focus doesn’t narrow; it expands.

Stepping into the blocks is like stepping into a world. This lane is the space where you, the individual athlete, must bring forth the race that lies within you. This is the space where your coaches can no longer coach you, your teammates can no longer run beside you. The space where it’s just you, and you alone. You will either rise to the occasion or you won’t. You may have run good races at this track before. You may have beaten the other hurdlers in the race before. But the past can’t help you. All you have is this moment. And if you don’t put all of your energy into this moment, all of your Self into this moment, the moment will pass you by.

If you enter into the blocks with a quiet mind, you enter the blocks ready to run the race. Understand, this is a time for shifting gears. There has to be a shift in mindset. Now, unlike in earlier meets when nothing really was on the line except your pride, anythought is too much thought. Any thought could slow you down. That hundredth of a second you spend thinking about getting your trail leg around could end up being the hundredth of a second you lose the race by, and it’s also the hundredth of a second you could’ve used getting your trail leg around instead of thinking about it.

To put it simply, in a big race, you cannot afford to think.

To be effective at quieting the mind, you have to practice quieting the mind. Early-season meets are a good time to practice. Your warm-up routine will be what it is, depending on your coach’s instructions, but those last ten minutes are what I’m talking about. What do you do to get into your zone? You have to find what works for you, so that it serves as a source of comfort and familiarity – a calming influence – in even the most stressful of situations, even in the most foreign setting. The world you enter in those final moments leading up to the race is your world, it’s an inner world, from which you look out upon the exterior world.

In track, especially in the hurdles, hope is a bad thing. Belief is a bad thing. Even “positive thinking” is really just negative thinking in disguise. It shifts your focus away from the here and now, and moves it to the outcome. You’re hoping you win, you’re hoping you make it to the next round, you’re hoping you beat that rival who’s beaten you three times in a row. You’re hoping you remember to stay quick between the hurdles. You’re hoping you don’t get too crowded in the middle part of the race. All this hoping is weight. It’s weight you’re carrying with you to the starting line. Which makes you a hurdler in conflict, a hurdler who is not in harmony. Your body is at the starting line, preparing to run the race, while your mind is at the finish line, wondering how you’re going to feel after the race. If your body is here and your mind is there, you’re going to make mistakes.

In the big races, where there is no time to think, you have no control. You have no time to make conscious decisions. You must race. You must react. You must relinquish total control of your race to your body. You have to trust it completely. That’s scary. But only if you face that fear can you run the race that you are capable of running, and can you feel like you are truly running the hurdles.

© 2013 Steve McGill

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