Slow Down to Speed Up

If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the Unconscious.
-Daisetz T. Suzuki

This article goes out to all the impatient hurdlers out there, those of you who want to work on a technical flaw today and be able to apply the improvement to a race tomorrow. A common complaint that I often hear from hurdlers is, “I can do it in the drill, but when I try to do it full speed, it doesn’t work.” To them, this failure at full speed serves as evidence that the drill is pointless because it can’t be applied in a race. That logic is ridiculous.

Truth is, it takes a long time to be able to apply newly-learned techniques to full-speed-out-of-the-blocks hurdling. There’s a process involved, and if you’re not willing to go through that process, you’ll get in the way of your own progress. Even though there’s nothing in the world you want more than to get better, your own eagerness will be the very reason that you don’t. So if you want to speed up, the best way to go about it is to slow down.

I understand the reason for the impatience. We live in an instant gratification world. Everything is just a click away, or a touch away. If you hear a song you like, or you want to check out a video of one of your favorite hurdlers, you can immediately go to YouTube and play it as often as you like. You want to look up information for a research paper, or find out what time tonight the movie you want to see is playing at the local theater, it’s all right there on the internet. Because of all this instant access to whatever we want, we’re not patient. We don’t like sowing seeds in the fall and reaping harvest in the spring. We want to see instant results for our efforts.

Well that ain’t happening. Not when it comes to the things that really matter in this life. I always tell my students, If you want to be a better writer, you really have to work at becoming a better writer. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun. It’s hard, it’s tedious. Working harder doesn’t just mean spending six hours writing a paper instead of two. It means writing a first draft, editing it, revising it. Editing it again, revising it again. It means identifying the types of mistakes you commonly make, and developing strategies to correct those mistakes on a consistent basis. It means working through frustration, through self-doubt, believing in yourself while you’re writing, before you receive any outside approval. Just spending more time on a paper the night before it’s due isn’t worth a damn. If you want to make the kind of progress that you can carry into the next writing assignment, and the next one after that, and on down the line, it’s already too late by then.

The reason students are impatient to become better writers is because they’re not focused on becoming better writers; they’re focused on receiving higher grades. When students ask me “What do I need to do to get a better grade?” instead of “What do I need to do to improve my writing?”, they’re asking the wrong question, and I know their writing won’t improve no matter what advice I give them. Their focus is too much on the result instead of the process. And they’re relinquishing control of their own growth to me. They’re putting it in my hands instead of taking ownership of it themselves.

Similarly, I have received emails from hurdlers that usually go along the lines of the following: “My conference meet is next week and I have to finish in the top four to make it to regionals. At my last meet I hit a lot of hurdles with my trail leg. What can I do to fix my trail leg so I can finish in the top four?” When I read this type of email I just shake my head. There’s nothing you can do between now and next week that’s gonna stick. Just run faster.

So, let me go ahead and explain the process, so you can get a clear understanding as to why success in practice doesn’t instantly translate into success in races.

The process:

  1. Coach teaches athlete new technical skill. In this stage, the hurdles are lowered, the distance between them is closer, and the emphasis is on teaching, teaching, teaching. The coach spends much practice time instructing, and the athlete, by the end of the workout, should feel more tired mentally than physically, because so much new information is being thrust upon him or her.
  2. Athlete teaches the body. Once the athlete’s mind understands what the coach is explaining, the athlete’s mind must now teach the body, because these new movements feel foreign to the body. If the athlete is often saying through the course of a drill session, “this feels weird,” then that’s a good thing! If it doesn’t feel weird, that means the athlete is doing the same old same old. We’re trying to create a new same old. So if it doesn’t feel weird at first, the athlete is not breaking free from old habits. The body will constantly seek to return to its old ways because it’s familiar with those old ways. They feel right, even if they’re wrong. They feel faster, even though they’re inefficient. So the athlete must be diligent in letting the body know that the way we used to do things isn’t how we do things anymore.
  3. Steps one and two are repeated over and over again for each aspect of technique. As the athlete progresses, the hurdles may be raised, and the distance between them may increase. But in steps 1 and 2, it’s important for the athlete to think of him or herself as a beginner. An experienced hurdler who thinks he or she needs to just tweak a few things isn’t going to make progress. Athletes who think of it as a demotion to being doing slow drills at low heights isn’t going to make progress. You must come to every hurdle practice humbly, with a beginner’s mindset. At this stage of development, everything is to be done at a speed slow enough that the athlete is able to run and think at the same time. Much thought should go into every rep. Conversations between coach and athlete between reps can be quite lengthy. The athlete, too, should be listening to his or her body’s cues. The body will always let you know when what you’re doing is making you faster versus making you slower. Trust its innate wisdom, even as you’re teaching it new movements.
  4. Mini-epiphanies occur when technical things are done correctly without the athlete thinking about them consciously. Usually, toward the end of long drill sessions or long hurdle workouts, this happens. I always tell my athletes that hurdle workouts consist of 95% frustration and 5% breakthrough. But the breakthrough always ends up making the frustration worthwhile. Usually, in the later stages of a workout, something finally “clicks,” and hurdling feels easy, natural, unforced. Often, in the beginning of the next workout, you find yourself facing new frustrations, and wonder why you can’t just pick up where you left off. Don’t be frustrated. This is a normal part of the process. Every workout is a new workout, presenting new challenges, creating new frustrations that will lead to new breakthroughs. You’re not going to be able to just pick up where you left off last workout. Stay calm through the frustration, know you’re moving toward the breakthrough, because when the breakthrough comes, you’re reminded again of why you chose to be a hurdler.
  5. The body performs all aspects of technique correctly without any intrusion of conscious thought. The whole point of all the thinking – in every workout, every drill session, every rep, between reps, after practice, on the way home from practice, etc. – is to get to a point where you can execute the movements without thinking at all. You want to get to the point where your body can execute the movement unconsciously. It knows what to do without being told what to do, and you can trust it totally. All you have to do is run. That’s when hurdling is fun. That’s where the joy is.

Steps 1 through 5 occur within the space of each individual workout, as new aspects of technique are added to the equation, and the cycle of these steps is constantly repeated over the course of the long weeks and months and years of training. So, to use a little coach-speak, there are micro-cycles and macro-cycles of learning taking place throughout the course of the season.

The Process Part 2:

  1. Spike it up. Now that you have mastered all aspects of technique at drill speed, you must start all over again, repeating the steps with spikes on, out of the blocks, over one to three hurdles. The reason you start with no more than three hurdles is because, otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure. At full speed, the body doesn’t have as much time to react, and the mind doesn’t have as much time to think. Everything is happening too fast. So that’s why old habits come back when you first try to implement your improvements at hyper speeds. The first thing you have to do is add in the element of the start. Some time must be spent executing the style out of the blocks, over the first hurdle. Then once that is mastered, you have to work on transitioning off the first hurdle, and then on sprinting between the hurdles. Once you have three hurdles down, you’ve made it through the most difficult stage of development. You have, as they say, put the rubber to the road, and are able to feel the benefits of all the technical adjustments you have made.
  2. Practice competitively. Now that you feel like you’ve got things down out of the blocks, over three hurdles, it’s a good time to do the same thing, except against a teammate. What we’re doing here is adding in the competitive element. If you add in the competitive element too soon, the learning process is compromised. When you’re going out of the blocks, spiked up, with someone next to you, that is not the time to be thinking about technique. The point here is to be able to apply all that you’ve learned to a scenario in which there is pressure on you to perform.
  3. Add more hurdles. Once you’re doing things right out of the blocks, spiked up, against a teammate, over three hurdles, it’s safe now to keep adding hurdles. As many as you want, really, but I would stop at seven, because you never want to run your race in practice.
  4. Race. The only way to get race-sharp is to race. Even racing competitively in practice doesn’t equivocate to actually going out there and racing against opponents in a one-and-done situation. Don’t expect your early-season races to be nearly as good as the practices are. In your first meet, you will feel like all your training was a waste of time. I’m telling you that now. In early-season races, your body will feel confused as it’s trying to employ the new stuff while the old stuff just won’t seem to go away. It will take at least a season’s worth of races before the full benefits of the work appear. It may very often be the case that the real benefits won’t appear until the following year.
  5. Get in the Zone. In races, as in workouts, mini-epiphanies will continually occur. You’ll feel like there was a hurdle or two in a race where everything clicked. You’ll feel like your start was right on point and you nailed the first hurdle. You’ll be dealing with speed issues, crowding issues, etc. But at some point late in the season – or again, maybe not until the following year, depending on when you got started – you’re going to run a race in which you feel like your body is on autopilot, like you’re just sprinting without hurdling at all. All aspects of technique are falling into place, without any conscious effort on your part, and you’re doing it against a very high level of competition. This is the kind of race that you live for, train for. This is the kind of race that explains why you run the hurdles.

My point with this article is to help impatient hurdlers understand why their impatience is, to be honest, foolish. If you’re in a rush just to beat someone and you’re not really trying to master the event, then you’re insulting the event and you’re insulting any coach that you’re turning to for help. Also, you’re misinterpreting what the journey is really all about, and why it is so valuable. You think you want to be the best hurdler on your team, or in your conference, or your district, or your state, or your region, or your nation, or in the whole world. But I’m telling you, what you really want is that feeling of being in the zone. That’s the real quest, and getting there provides the only fulfillment that can permeate all other aspects of your life and truly make you feel good about yourself in the long-term, long after your track and field days are over.

* * * * * *

Went for an easy run through the neighborhood this morning. As my mind wandered, it landed upon the observation that nothing in nature is in a rush. The grass isn’t in a rush to turn green again, the trees aren’t in a rush to regain their leaves again, seeds aren’t in a rush to sprout into flowers or trees, the seasons aren’t in a rush to change, the sun isn’t in a rush to rise or set, the moon isn’t in a rush to orbit around the earth. Everything in nature seems to know, implicitly, that its time will come when it comes. It’s not natural to be in a rush.

That’s a lesson that applies to our modern, pre-fabricated world. Yes, with all of our technological advancements, things are moving faster. But mastering a skill is not something you can look up on the internet. You have to go out there and do it. You have to make mistakes and learn from your mistakes. You have to fail and grow as a result of your failures. You have to remain humble in the face of your own successes.

And when it comes to the hurdles, there are no shortcuts to mastering technique. There are no shortcuts to being able to apply that mastery to highly-pressurized race conditions, when it’s no longer about the technique at all, but about being a pure, authentic representation of who you are at your core. If that’s what you’re trying to get to, the long way home is the only way home. But what a beautiful, magical, majestic journey it is.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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