Talk Yourself Through

“I talk to myself
Cause there is no one to talk to
People ask me why
I do what I do.”

 –Christopher Williams

It’s a little bit funny that people who talk to themselves out loud are assumed to be crazy. All of us talk to ourselves silently all the time. But when the thoughts remain in the mind without being expressed, they tend to create a chaotic inner state, as all the thoughts collide and crash into each other, follow behind each other, repeat themselves, causing ever-increasing anxiety. So really, it makes more sense to talk to oneself out loud, to get the thoughts out where they can be dealt with, as opposed to keeping them bottled in, where all they can do is add to our frustrations and feelings of lacking of control.

So how does this topic apply to running the hurdles? Directly. I think one of the most beneficial, productive things that a hurdler can do during a practice session is talk to him or herself aloud between reps, and right before starting a rep. Instructions that you give to yourself aloud help your body to remember to perform specific motions more effectively, thus significantly speeding up the learning curve.

I started the habit of talking to myself during hurdle workouts when I was in college. I didn’t have a hurdle coach, so on hurdle days, I and my hurdling teammates were pretty much left on our own. With no one there to watch and provide us with feedback, we had to figure things out ourselves, basically going on feelings and instincts. Whether we were doing drills or coming out of the blocks against each other, I easily grew annoyed with myself when I made mistakes. So after a bad rep out of the blocks I’d walk back to the line exhorting myself, “Come on Steve, get the trail leg to the front fool,” or something to that effect. In drill-heavy workouts I’d sometimes instruct myself just prior to a rep with something like, “Trail leg to the front, hold the lean.” That meant the trail leg knee had to begin driving toward the front as soon as the lead leg reached the crossbar, and I had to make sure I didn’t stand up off the hurdle as I descended.

After a while, I realized something: when I reminded myself silently, I still messed up. It was like I couldn’t think and run at the same time. I couldn’t remember what it was I was supposed to remember. I was moving too fast, and the hurdles kept coming up.

But when I reminded myself out loud, I seemed to remember much more easily, and the mistakes were vanishing. I had more clarity. I was able to react, make subtle adjustments in an instant.

Once I came to this realization, I started talking to myself all the time in practice. If I was doing multiple sets, I’d not only talk to myself between reps, but between sets as well. The five minutes or so between sets was the time to evaluate the plusses and minuses of the previous set. What went wrong, what went right, what I would choose to hone in on for the next set.

My teammates didn’t adopt the habit, but they did grow used to me doing it. And I knew I looked weird talking to myself all the time. A lot of times, people walking past thought I was talking to them. Until they saw that I kept talking as they kept walking. I didn’t mind looking weird as long as I was getting better. And that’s one thing I’ve come to learn is important for a hurdler: you can’t be worried about looking weird, you can’t be worried about what kind of looks you’ll get or what people are saying about you behind your back (or in front of your face). Hurdling is hard. There are so many things that can go wrong. Fixing one problem can cause another. So you have to talk yourself through. Talking to yourself gets you into a zone where it’s just you and the hurdles. It sharpens your mind, and it calms your mind at the same time.

As a coach, I try to empower my athletes to coach themselves. I try not to dictate. In hurdle workouts, I try not to continuously bark out instructions. I’ll give instructions between reps, between sets, but even that I’ll keep to a minimum. Mostly I’ll ask questions: “What felt different about that rep?”, “Do you know why you lost balance coming off the third hurdle?”, “Do you know what you did wrong with your lead leg that time?”, etc. Before they step into the blocks, I’ll often ask, “What are you focusing on this rep?”

I want answers to these questions. I want my hurdlers to be able to explain to me (but more importantly, to themselves), what they are doing. And yes, I want them to explain it out loud. “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. If a rep felt faster, I want you to be able to articulate why it felt faster. If you felt more crowded than usual, I want you to be able to explain why you felt more crowded. If I tell you the answer, you don’t own it. If you figure it out for yourself, you own it. You’re growing, you’re evolving as a hurdler. As an active, thinking, aware hurdler. I don’t want my hurdlers out there just running as fast as they can, making the same mistakes over and over again. I want them to be students of their own style, their own technique, their own race.

I remember once asking a professional hurdler something about her technique. She shrugged her shoulders and pointed to her coach who was standing nearby. “Ask him,” she said. At first I thought she didn’t feel like answering the question, but then I realized she didn’t have an answer. With everything regarding her hurdling, she was just doing what her coach told her to do. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and such a coach/athlete relationship works for a lot of coaches and for a lot of athletes.

But to me, that type of relationship puts a ceiling on the athlete’s potential. When everything you do is based on what the coach says, when the only voice you hear in your head is your coach’s voice, you’re going to be more prone to making mistakes in high-pressure situations. In big races, I want the voice in my athletes’ head to be their own, not mine.

I have found, with athletes I’ve coached who have run the types of races indicative of their potential, at some point along the way their knowledge surpassed mine. Not in the sense that they “knew” more than me, but in the sense that they were able to come up with discoveries on their own, often during a workout. I’ve come to rely on that eventually happening as the athlete grows and matures. You see, the coach is not the one running the race. Only the athlete feels what he or she feels. So the athlete is going to feel things that the coach may not be able to see, even if you play back footage of the video at slo-mo a billion times. These feelings are what the athlete needs to tune into, and what he or she needs to ingrain through the course of a season.

The way I see it, my role as a coach is to instruct you when you need instruction, to guide you when you need guidance, to push you when you need to be pushed, and to be quiet when you need me to be quiet. Ultimately, if the voice in your head is not your own, then the race you run is not your own. So keep talking to yourself through those hurdle workouts. You may get some funny looks, but when your times drop, and you’re feeling the rhythm, you won’t mind so much.

© 2013 Steve McGill

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