Breakdown of a Breakdown

by Leon Bullard

When I was age 14 my coach Ron Henderson, known as my favorite coach of all time, would tell me that I think too much; I ask too many questions; I just cannot follow orders without asking why. He never said it in an aggravated context; it was usually in an effort to get me to just do what he was asking. However, I believe at times he relished that side of me. He is the same coach that often started practices in a classroom on the chalkboard, teaching us how to break a long-distance race down into pieces so that we can put a good race together on our own. Those kind of days were amazing to me. I cherished them and applied the teachings faithfully. I learned from him that performance in track and field is 90% mental application and 10% physical application. Using the Chalkboard Approach is even a part of my coaching style today. So, it is no surprise that the very first thing I did after my crash in the 400 hurdles was study my downfall.

The obvious place to start was the race. Let me review the video in my mind and consider every step. My start was good. I bursted out of the starting blocks with precise acceleration: I ran exactly twenty-one steps to the first hurdle. I recall feeling that my height was too high over the first hurdle. In fact, I did not feel low enough until hurdle three. But, I still believed it was not negatively affecting my rhythm. I stayed with my fifteen-step cadence. Fast-forwarding now to hurdle number eight, I see the first real problem. As I approached my fifteenth step toward the eighth hurdle, I remember being further from the hurdle than I prefer. Although I cleared it, I was out of my usual position. If I pause the tape right there I can see that I missed the biggest clue of what was about to occur. I should have instantly realized that touching down with my getaway step as close to the hurdle as I did would provide two options: Take an extra step or increase my speed. As I un-pause, I see that I was too tired to increase speed. Then, I see the necessary sixteenth step. Lastly, I see myself pop straight up, land off balance and fall to the track. I never hit the hurdle.

So, why did I fall? Obviously, it was because I was unaware that I would need sixteen steps and the disturbing realization came too late for me to prepare for it. But, is that it? Is it really so simple and so obvious? Though I naturally lead with my left leg, I needed or had decided to hurdle while leading with my right or off leg in two previous races. I had never been so off-balanced and I certainly did not fall. What was the difference this time? Maybe the question to ask is why was I not prepared to hurdle with my off-leg?

The next step of the analysis is the warm-up. As I have noted in previous posts, my warm-up is mental and physical. I had visualized the hurdle race several times while warming up. I saw myself getting a good start and steadily advancing over each of the ten hurdles in a personal best time of 55 seconds. My body was loose and ready for optimum performance. Two hurdles were set-up in the runners’ area. I hurdled them several times during my warm-up. I should have been ready, right? Yes and no. Yes, I had prepared myself well to run a perfect race. But, no I did not prepare myself well for imperfection. My hurdles mentor Steve McGill had instructed me to learn an awareness of when I might need to switch lead legs. I can say undoubtedly that before the race, I did not mentally rehearse any situations where I would need to switch legs. Also, during warm-ups I usually attempt to hurdle with my off-leg a few times. Although I cleared those two hurdles in the practice area at least four times, I never hurdled them with my off-leg.

So, it seems like the issue is resolved. The crash to the ground was not because I lost focus during the race, became too tired or could not handle sixteen steps. It was simply because my race preparation was incomplete. The realization sounds so intellectual, I am almost tempted to believe that I have hit the bottom of it. One thing nags me though. Race preparation begins in practice. If preparation is the problem, then maybe it began there.

In this step of the analysis I look at my final practices in July. On one day I worked on starts; I ran the first three hurdles fast. On a second practice day, I ran hurdles repeatedly for 200 meters. On a third day, I ran hurdles twice over 300 meters. The final day resulted in groin pain for a few days and caused me to back off of heavy hurdle training for the remaining two weeks of training before Nationals. Other than the reduced training, there were no obvious problems that I feel negatively impacted my body. My groin pain was not a factor in the final week of training. In all of those practices, I ran near full speed to prepare myself for a fast race–and that may have been my biggest problem.

At the start of the season, I aimed to run the hurdles with fifteen steps all the way. My goal was to do it at Nationals in August for the first time. I did it in June. The third hurdle race of the year was a quick 56-second race and I did not misstep the entire time. The race empowered me. At that point, I felt like I had made it. My goals shifted from just finishing with good rhythm to using rhythm to run fast. Until then, I was wary of my skills. After then, I was supremely confident. Until then, I knew I needed to be ready to hurdle with either leg. After then, I believed I had matured past that stage. With my newfound maturity, I practiced leading with my right leg less often. With less practice over a two-month period, I became less skilled at it. With weaker skills, I surely was not going to execute it well if I ever needed to. Lo and behold: when I needed to use the skill, I could not do it like I once did.

Coach Henderson’s chalkboard lessons and intellectual style had another profound impact. I realize that the value of learning how I should perform came when I asked myself, “Did you perform according to your expectations?” The answer is still a key component of my training. How can I do better if I have no clue of what I did wrong? The fall at Nationals began long before the ninth hurdle. By seeing all of the little ways I undermined my preparation, I see how to build a better race and a better season. Plus, I can now apply the lessons I learned while hurdling to other events as well. So, three cheers for this failure…better things will result from it.

May fitness bless you,

© 2006 Leon Bullard

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