How to Save a Hurdler

“Between the lines of fear and blame
you begin to wonder why you came”

–The Fray

I was driving from Raleigh to Delaware during the Christmas holidays this past December, on my way to visit my mom. I had bought my eight-year-old daughter a copy of How to Save a Life by The Fray, and, at her request, I must’ve played the title song about seventy times on the way up, and another seventy times on the way down. It’s a really pretty song, and I was glad to not have to worry about any curse words spitting out of the speakers, which happens when I play some of my hip-hop cd’s. And my daughter has no patience for my old-school Coltrane jams. On our drive up, I wasn’t really listening closely to the lyrics, but then, about the thirtieth time around, the above lines caught my ear, and I instantly related them to hurdling (just like I do with everything else, of course). They made me think of how I used to feel after running a bad race. The fear I had that it would happen again, my tendency to blame myself and to put too much pressure on myself, and feeling like I could’ve just stayed home and caught up on my school work if I had known I was going to run so poorly.

The psychological aspects of hurdling are largely underestimated by athletes and coaches alike. We engross ourselves with trying to get faster, stronger, quicker, more flexible. All our mental and physical efforts are focused on shaving tenths, hundredths, and even thousandths of seconds from our personal bests. We measure success by “what was your time?” and “what place did you get?” But is that really all there is to this sport? All the hard work, all the practice sessions in all kinds of weather – can they only be validated by fast times and first-place finishes? Of course not, but too often, that’s what we believe.

Lately I’ve gotten myself hooked on the TV show called The Dog Whisperer, which comes on the National Geographic Channel. It’s the first show I’ve gotten hooked on since Martin back in the 90’s, and it’s a show that I recommend to all coaches and athletes. And I don’t give a damn if you own a dog or not, because that’s not what I’m talking about. If you’ve never seen the show, it features fifteen-minute stories about how Cesar Millan – an expert on dog psychology – helps dog owners gain control over their out-of-control dogs. Cesar works miracle after miracle on every episode, and it’s just fascinating to watch him in action. He never panics, never sees a dog as a lost cause, never loses patience with an ill-behaving dog, and never allows himself to give into frustration. He teaches practical lessons about dealing with seemingly impossible situations, and he infuses desperate, hopeless dog owners with confidence.

The role that Cesar plays in helping dog owners is the role that coaches must play in guiding their athletes, so that their athletes enter competitions with a calm self-assurance. The coach must be a psychologist; he or she must understand the emotional personality of each of his or her athletes. Some athletes need a pep talk before a race, some need to be left alone, some need to be reminded of how good they are (even if they are very good). Every athlete is different. Every athlete has a different mental make-up. And if the coach is not willing or is not equipped to deal with an athlete’s mental state of being, that athlete may be doomed for failure regardless of how rigorously he or she has trained. Many times a race is lost not because the athlete isn’t good enough, but because the athlete doesn’t believe that he or she is good enough. You know I’m not lying.

One thing that Cesar emphasize on every episode of The Dog Whisperer is the importance of living in the moment. It’s the same mantra that NBA coach Phil Jackson has always preached. The point both of them make is that when we get ourselves in the destructive habit of dwelling on the past, worrying about a potential future failure, or hoping for potential future glory, our mind is not focused on the Now, so with all this thought activity we prevent ourselves from performing at our best.

When I watch ESPN’s Sports Center, I’m always amazed at how they fill up broadcasts with meaningless stats, and how the studio analysts always base their predictions on how teams have played in the past. None of them seem to understand that every game is a new game. For example, in the build-up to the first round play-off game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs last month, all the experts were predicting that the Chiefs would run all over the soft Colt defense. The Chiefs had Larry Johnson – one of the best running backs in the league. And the Colts had one of the worst run-defenses in the league. According to the prognosticators, it was a match made in heaven for the Chiefs. Most of the experts didn’t give the Colts a chance, even though they were playing at home and had the better regular season record. So what happened? The Colts shut down LJ and won the game pretty easily. What if the Colts’ defensive players had believed the hype? What if they had said to themselves, “Well, we haven’t stopped the run all year, so we’re not gonna stop it now”? They would’ve lost the game before they even stepped onto the field. But they prepared themselves, and they rose to the challenge of the moment.

In the world of hurdling, an athlete who stood out to me as a master of living in the moment was two-time Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom, especially around the time when he first emerged as one of the best hurdlers in the world. He won the 1983 NCAA championship when Willie Gault was supposed to win. He won the 1983 Pan-Am Games when Tonie Campbell was supposed to win. He won the 1984 Olympic final when Greg Foster was supposed to win. Then, much later in his career, he won the 1995 US Nationals when everyone thought he was done. Kingdom never concerned himself with who was “supposed” to win or what he was “expected” to do. He went out and ran his race, predictions be damned.

To me, the biggest psychological barrier that hurdlers face is their own negative chatter. That’s true of athletes in any sport, but it’s especially true of hurdlers because of the added factor of the hurdles in the way. Even the best hurdlers have to deal with rhythm issues; regardless of your level of experience, there is always the possibility that you will hit hurdles and even fall. Many hurdlers try to block out such thoughts, but blocking the thought doesn’t solve the problem; the thought is still there. The only way to overcome fear of hitting hurdles and fear of falling is by acknowledging that it can happen.

Okay let me go ahead and give some ideas for coaches on how to save a stressed-out hurdler:
1. Let a hurdler be a hurdler. Because hurdlers are often athletic enough help in so many events (horizontal jumps, high jump, relays, sprints), they are often asked to do too much. The best way to ruin a hurdler’s confidence is to make him or her do too much. When a hurdler is unable to put all of his or her mental energy into hurdling, his or her hurdling will suffer. A hurdler has to get in enough practice reps over the hurdles to feel assured that he or she can run a whole race effectively with the ability to adapt to various unpredictable factors on the day of the meet.
2. Allow the athlete to have input in deciding which events he or she will be participating in. An athlete who does the work asked of him or her in practice deserves to have such input. It’s not wise to be overly-authoritarian and compel a hard-working athlete to participate in events that the athlete does not want to compete in. If the athlete is lazy or selfish, that’s another issue. I know that head coaches must focus on scoring points, but running a kid into the ground to score points is hurtful, and, to be blunt, irresponsible.
3. Confront confidence issues directly. Don’t let them fester. The best way to do this is through one-on-one chats with the athlete after practice. Before practice doesn’t work because the focus needs to be on the workout. But after practice, take the athlete aside, maybe walk a lap together, and just give the athlete a chance to explain to you what his or her fears or concerns are. Athletes will open up 100% of the time if they know you care. You have to know each athlete well enough to know the warning signs that he or she lacks confidence. Not all athletes are obvious about it. As a coach, you have to look to yourself if an athlete has a melt-down on the day of a race. It’s not a matter of blaming yourself; it’s a matter of making the effort to ensure the melt-down won’t happen again.

Here are some ideas for how the athlete can deal with stress:
1. Visualize. And don’t just visualize “winning,” because that really doesn’t do much good. What you want to visualize are the phases of your race. Driving out of the blocks, flowing over the hurdles. Hear the rhythm in your head. Visualize your technique – your lead leg snapping down, the trail leg thrusting upward, the hips thrusting forward.
2. Breathe. All nervous tension begins with breathing. When you’re nervous, you breathe shallowly. So always be aware of the need to inhale slowly and exhale slowly in the moments leading up to a race. Shallow breathing creates tension everywhere else in the body. Deep breathing relaxes the body and helps the mind to focus.
3. Find solitude. In the moments leading up to a race, you have to give yourself some quiet time so you can stabilize your emotions. Track is a sport that ultimately requires self-reliance. It’s okay to cheer for your teammates and it’s fun to be a part of a team, but once it’s time to warm up for your race, you have to get into the zone. And nobody can help you do that, just like no one can run your race for you.
4. Take an analytical approach to your hurdling endeavors, not an emotional approach. Beating yourself up over a bad race is ineffective. It doesn’t help you to get better. Think of the season as a work in progress, with the goal being to peak during the championship portion of it. Early-season and mid-season races are going to be sloppy, slow, etc. But those races give you the information you need. They inform you of how much of your technique you have internalized, what specific flaws you need to work on, etc. Emotions – positive and negative – just get in the way of progress. Don’t attach yourself to results. The more you feel that something has to happen, the more you prevent it from happening. Just keep working on getting better, and on being a student of your event. The results will follow.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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