The Love Factor

“It is not what you do that matters, but how much love with which you do it.” –Mother Theresa

For a very long time now, I’ve been feeling that, when it comes to getting better in the hurdles, we’re going about it all wrong. Or, at the very least, we’re leaving out a key component: how love (or lack of love) for what you do affects performance. This article is going to be quite abstract, but I’m asking you to trust me and go with it. If the things I say in this article don’t resonate in your heart and mind, move on to something else. If they do, then I’m asking you to keep traveling with me.

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There’s a way to run 12.2 in the men’s 110 meter hurdles. But it can’t be done by trying to run 12.2. There’s a way for you, as an individual athlete, to run faster than you ever thought possible. But it can’t be done by trying to run faster than you ever thought possible. The more you try, the more your efforts get in the way of your actions. The more you chase, the more you chase away the very thing you’re trying to catch.

Running fast is all about removing resistances. Removing the obstacles in the mind. These obstacles are desires and fears. These two words are interchangeable because they go hand in hand. The more you desire, the more you fear that you won’t get what you desire. An athlete motivated by desire and fear can never reach his or her potential. In fact, such an athlete is limiting his or her own potential without even realizing it.

Desires and fears are weight. They hold us down. They prevent us from taking necessary risks. They take the joy out of life. They take the joy out of training and competing. And in a very literal sense, they slow us down. Running with a mind that is burdened with desires and fears is no less debilitating than running with a weight vest on.

In our daily routines, we focus on external factors when trying to improve our times. Training methods, weight training programs, diet plans, sprint mechanics, hurdle mechanics, starting block techniques, etc. Even the internal factor (mental preparation) is approached as just another component of the external.

There’s a way to run fast that has nothing to do with any of that, that can help you to reap maximum benefit from all your hard work. A way that focuses more on the spiritual journey in which the athletic endeavors take place.

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You may or may not have noticed, but performance-enhancing drug use is killing the sport. It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that it has already killed it. In the race to get faster, cheating has run rampant. We can’t believe anything we see. It’s all one big lie.

Still, I would argue that performance-enhancing drugs aren’t the problem. They’re a symptom of the problem. The real problem is fear. And greed. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of not achieving some pre-determined goal. Greed for status, fame, money.

The problem with greed is, even if you get what you want, it doesn’t make you happy. The problem with fear is, even if you avoid what you fear, you’re still afraid. So, in a very logical sense, fear and greed simply don’t work.

I contend that the drugs actually prevent the kind of performances that are innately possible if one were to run authentically. And by authentically I don’t merely mean drug-free, but I mean from a true representation of who one is. When you get faster on juice, you become so dependent on the drugs that you no longer know what you are capable of. The drugs do all the work for you, they give you a false sense of invincibility that does not come from within, and you become a slave to them. So when the time comes to be creative, to think outside the box in order to discover new ideas, you don’t know how to.

There is a way to run faster than ever thought possible. But drugs aren’t the way. They’re in the way. They inhibit joyous, child-like freedom of expression that is grounded in humility. They increase arrogance and illusory feelings of superiority. They mask the very real feelings of inferiority that still lie underneath.

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To run fast times, you have to let go of everything. All desires, all hopes, all fears, all expectations. You have to go very far within yourself. You have to love hurdling. You have to run with joy in your heart, with humility in your soul.

Bob Beamon’s jump at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 serves as the best example of what I’m talking about. That was the most authentic moment in the history of athletic competition. He jumped two feet farther than he had ever jumped before. And it wasn’t just because of the high altitude. He somehow, on that jump, became pure energy sprinting down that runway. Free of doubt, free of fear, free of hope, he sprinted and then sailed through the air. You can tell the moment was authentic because he was humbled by it. He didn’t jump for joy. He didn’t run a victory lap while waving to the crowd. He broke down and cried. He put his head in his hands and wept like a baby. He was in awe of the moment. And that awe is what one feels when the body-mind-spirit triumvirate works as one and enables that individual to perform a feat that transcends his or her own known physical bounds.

And you can’t fake that. You can’t cheat your way to that kind of performance. And it’s not merely the result of hard work and self-confidence. Beamon was never able to duplicate that jump because he didn’t know what he had done to produce it. It had caught him totally by surprise. It shocked him. What he didn’t realize was that’s how it should be when you’re acting from a place of honesty within yourself. You create space for greater potentialities than are believed to be possible.

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So, to be a hurdler who can run the kinds of times that are considered impossible requires purity of heart. And that’s where the real work lies – in purifying one’s heart. If you win races and break records and wallow in the self-glorification, you are living a lie. You are pretending to be something you’re not. You’re pretending to be a champion, but you’re really just another of the masses who have either an over-inflated or over-deflated sense of self-worth based on your performance.

When you learn to shed ego, only then can you run authentically, as a complete human being.

When you can enter the starting blocks with a body that is highly energized but a mind that is very calm, your body, in essence, becomes lighter, more fluid. It’s able to flow. It’s able to move faster. It’s able to react faster, because it is free of inhibitions. It’s this fluidity, this ease of movement, this effortlessness in action, that opens the window of possibility, that makes the impossible possible.

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When it comes to the hurdling events, fear of the obstacle plays a role as well. The faster you’re moving, the greater the danger. When in that fearful state, where your focus is more on the hurdles than on running, you subconsciously slow yourself down. You back off because the hurdles are rushing up at you too quickly. For fear of stumbling, crashing, falling, you learn to inhibit yourself, to hold back, to play it safe.

But the danger zone – that’s where true hurdling lies. You have to enter the danger zone with your eyes open, in a state of complete calm, while moving at hyper speeds. You cannot be afraid of falling. The truth is, when your mind is awake and alert, undistracted by things going on in other lanes, unconcerned with the final outcome, it can pick up on its body’s cues instantaneously. You’ll find that you can easily negotiate hurdles even though you know you’re getting way too crowded. In an odd way, you feel like you’re running through the hurdles, not over them, even though you’re not even touching them. Fact of the matter is, when your body-mind-spirit is working together as one, you will not fall. There is nothing to fear. But as long as you back off from danger zone, as long as you settle in and allow yourself to feel comfortable, you will never know what it means to hurdle. I mean, really hurdle.

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The most significant aspect of hurdling that has been overlooked, and where the greatest potential for moving the event forward lies, is the love factor. Like Martin Luther King Jr. said, love is a force. That’s as true in the hurdles as it is in human interactions. Think about it: why do so many hurdlers run faster in the hurdles than their flat 100 meter time or their flat 400 time would indicate? The love for hurdling explains it. We tend to think of love as some hokey concept, or a romantic thing, or, on a higher level, a beautiful thing. But we don’t think of it as a practical thing. And the truth is, love is a practical thing.

When you learn to love something or someone with all of your being, without any expectations for that love to be “returned,” you are a full human being with real power. Not fabricated power that comes from external efforts, but internal power that comes from deep connection with all that you are and all that you do. Your love for hurdling can enable you to do things in the hurdles that all charts, testing results, flat sprint times, etc. would indicate you shouldn’t be able to do. The reason being, when you were being tested, when you were running that open sprint, when you were running that relay leg, the passion wasn’t there. You were doing it to get it over with, or to help the team, or whatever. But love wasn’t your motivation. But when you’re running the hurdles, it opens up something inside of you. You become authentic. Your action becomes genuine because there is passion behind it, there is joy in it. Your heart is awake. This is love. And without this love, you cannot discover your potential, no matter how hard you train, no matter how high you set your goals.

We don’t realize that love makes us run faster. We think that love is cool maybe for youth track, and in some cases high school track, but beyond that, forget about it. For most hurdlers, after high school, love for track comes to a skidding halt. Track becomes a business. It’s all about winning. It’s all about scoring points for the team. It’s all about producing. It’s all about holding on to that scholarship. Practices are a grind, coaches are taskmasters with their own agenda and little to no regard for you as an individual. In meets you feel ever-increasing pressure to perform. And if you turn pro, those pressures are magnified. The coach/athlete relationship becomes a business arrangement. There’s no soul to the relationship. No union of hearts and minds.

So, you learn to hate track. You don’t realize that that’s what happening. Or you meekly accept that it’s happening, believing that that’s “just the way it is,” and you hang on to the hope that “it’ll all pay off in the end.” You convince yourself that, at this level, it’s a sign of immaturity to still want to love what you do. It’s all about getting the job done now; it’s not about having fun. But what you’re not realizing is that, on a very practical level, your loss of the love, your loss of the joy, is negatively affecting your performance. The reason you’re not continuing to run faster is not because you’re at a new place in a new environment with a new coach, but because that place and that environment and that coach don’t nurture your love for the sport.

It’s just stupid to think that an environment that doesn’t enhance your creativity, and that doesn’t value you as an individual, can be the type of environment where you can continue to flourish as an athlete.

I remember how, in my senior year of high school, I dropped my personal best all the way from 15.9 my junior year to 14.9. And this was in spite of the fact that I had missed a full three months of training from November through January while battling a nearly-fatal blood disease. The reason I ran so fast was because my illness helped me to understand how much I loved hurdling. Every practice was a joyous celebration of life. And my teammates looked upon me as a hero just for coming back and competing at all. And I had a very close relationship with both of my coaches. They served as friends and mentors. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. They had a quiet confidence in me that always alleviated my fears and self-doubts.

I decided to continuing competing that summer with a local track club, eager to drop even more time before entering college. My goal was to get down to the 14.4-14.5 range, and I knew I could do it.

But I didn’t. I never broke 15.0 again. And I know the reason was because I was in a different environment. On the club team, the hurdles were an afterthought, so I didn’t receive much attention. We did all kinds of sprint workouts and quarter-miler workouts and hardly ever touched the hurdles. I didn’t really know any of my teammates well. And the coach, although a cool guy, didn’t work with me to help me get better. I became despondent. I no longer looked forward to going to practice. In races, I was always hitting a lot of hurdles in the early part of the race. I was losing to guys I knew I could beat.

Thing about it is, this kind of thing happens all the time. Athletes need to feel that they are loved in order to perform at their best. They need to feel valued as individuals. This is not corny, and this is not hokey. This is real. If you’re not performing up to standards, it may not necessarily mean that you need to reevaluate your training methods, adjust your technique, adjust your block start, or anything like that. It could very well be that the reason your struggling is because you know, deep down, that your coach doesn’t really care about you.

* * *

Humility is an aspect of love. It is not merely the opposite of pride. Humility is awe. It is prayerful. It is quiet. You can’t just “be” humble. You have to practice humility, you have to learn to quiet your mind, so that you can become aware of the underlying principles that govern all of life, and understand how those principles apply to your hurdling endeavors.

Let me explain. Hurdling is a metaphor for this thing we call life. It is not merely an aspect of it; it is it. Once you understand this, you’ll stop dwelling on all the external factors. Once you understand that hurdling is life, and that that’s not just some clichéd saying on a T-shirt, your whole outlook and approach will change, because you’ll realize that this isn’t just something you do; this is something you are.

To many indigenous tribes throughout the world (and throughout history), medicine men aren’t merely those who administer medicine, but those who inspire hope. I would add that those who inspire hope are those who are humble, because we see how great they are, how much they have accomplished, but how emotionally removed they are from it all. They display a joyful passion for what they do, yet they never talk about past achievements. They don’t urge us to follow their path, but to follow our own. They don’t urge us to be like them, but to be ourselves. They don’t think they’re better than everyone else. They’re so free of arrogance that everyone feels like a better person when in their presence.

Running the hurdles can teach you to be this kind of person, but only if you’re open to that possibility, and only if it matters to you. And I contend that it should matter to you because it plays just as large a role in your development as your workouts do.

* * *

I’m aware that this article hasn’t focused very much on concrete advice regarding technique or training. That’s because the concrete world has given us all it has to give. We have exhausted our limits of how fast we can run relying on external factors. That’s why cheating has reached such epidemic proportions. We know we can’t go any faster relying solely on external factors, without providing ourselves with some sort of unnatural advantage. We don’t know where else to turn, so we turn to juice.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And as I’ve tried to explain throughout this article, that way is the way of love, truth, and personal integrity.

When I look back on the many athletes I’ve coached, I realize that a lot of the success we’ve had occurred because of the creative, nurturing environment that I have always tried to keep in place. People think I’m very smart when it comes to the hurdles, that my hurdlers must do some super-special super-secret workouts that give us an edge. But that’s not the case at all. I really don’t know much, and I really don’t do much. What I’ve come to understand is that, when athletes have room to be creative, and when they know I care about them as people more than I care about them as athletes, they respond positively. I try to nurture in them not a love for me, but a love for the hurdles. When that happens – when they realize that they love hurdling, all I have to do is stay out of the way and let them grow. It really is that simple.

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There’s a scene in the novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White in which the young Arthur, prior to becoming King Arthur, is running back home to get a sword for his older brother Kay, who has entered a jousting tournament. As Kay’s squire, Arthur was supposed to bring the sword, but he forgot it. While running back home, he sees a sword that is sticking out of a stone anvil. Little does he realize that whoever pulls the sword out of that stone will become the next King of England. Eager to get back to the tournament in time for Kay to take part, he pulls at the sword, but it doesn’t come out. He pulls again, but nothing doing. He pulls with all of his might, straining all of his muscles, but still the sword won’t budge. Just as despair is settling in, a bunch of animals appear – all the ones that the magician Merlin had employed to help with Arthur’s childhood education. They all come and offer advice. Badgers, geese, and an assortment of other animal friends chime in, supporting him, encouraging him. Arthur, now calm and centered, tries once again to pull out the sword, and does so effortlessly.

When he arrives at the tournament, everyone recognizes the sword, and he is asked where he got it from. When he explains that he found it in a stone, everyone goes back to the place, and the sword is put back into the stone. All the knights try to pull it out, including the strongest and most valiant, but none of them can do it. Finally, Arthur is asked to try again, and he pulls it out effortlessly one more time. At that moment, he is declared the new King of England.

In this story, you can see that physical strength wasn’t the key factor. That it didn’t, in fact, help at all. None of the musclehead knights could pull out the sword, and Arthur couldn’t do it until he discovered a new approach. Brute force wasn’t going to work. So basically, he aligned himself with forces that were beyond his physical self. This is not abnormal. Musicians and artists talk about this all the time – how creative ideas “come to them.”

The point of this story, and of this whole article, is that when your mind is quiet, your intent is pure, and you are surrounded by forces of love, compassion, and understanding, you can do anything.

© 2012 Steve McGill

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