"There are no stressful situations, only stressful reactions." - Coach O'Malley of Sandburg High School in Illinois.
What Are We Actually Training For?
The boys know I'm a proud nerd of the sport, constantly looking to learn and grow as a coach. Looking for the best training to get each kid to achieve at a high level and push past any perceived limits (because, of course, we know there are no limits). It's a blast, I love that part of it. But if anyone asks me why I coach, the answer never goes toward the training and running aspect. The reasons I coach are very clear. I coach people, not runners. I coach to teach and guide, but also to give space and let kids make decisions, and sometimes, mistakes. I coach that stress is a good thing, and that grit and hard work are more important than talent in any activity. I know our other coaches value these same things. So our training is more than just training to be great runners, it's training to be great people.
Below are just some of the qualities we train.
We train to enhance our grit. Talent is overrated in every capacity, whether it be inherited talent in sport, music, writing, math or anything. Every person is given a different starting point or skill set, but it's how you work to develop and the consistency you put into your life to be better that will dictate where you end up. Grit is the ability to fail and not be deterred from continuing on. If you rely on talent only, the first time you fail may cause you to give up and forget that it's not only talent, but also grit and consistent work that will help you become better.
As a personal story, I earned a D in calculus my senior year of high school and was really struggling with math. Many other kids had better grades and were initially more gifted at learning the material. But, I knew I had a passion for the subject and took the failure as a learning lesson. Instead of giving up, I improved my studying skills and the amount of time I put into studying. I graduated college with a B.S. in math and now work in a math related field as an actuary.
With grit, it's important not to compare. Don't worry about how good others are now, and don't compare to where you think you'll end up. You don't have that answer. Just bring a purpose and commitment to being the best you can be.
Consistent, purposeful training is part of developing a strong work ethic and the grit that can help you overcome and succeed no matter what any critics say. How much are you willing to work to be successful in math, music, running, and whatever else you choose to conquer?
We train to embrace and handle stress. It's unfortunate that many children are growing up today without being allowed to have stress in their lives. Our culture is always quick to paint stress as a bad thing that should be avoided. But as we all know, hiding from stress can have poor consequences.
On our cross country team, we don't hide from stress. We love stress. In running, our harder workouts stress the body to adapt and grow. We understand that the workout will be harder but it won't last forever. We come excited and happy to do workouts, knowing we will get better. We even enjoy the challenges presented, and react in a positive way to elicit the best adaptations.
It gives perspective on stress in real life. How you react to any situation is extremely important. We learn to balance busy days and understand that some moments may be harder than others. And when bad things happen, you can choose whether you react in a stressful way or in a thoughtful manner.
Adaptability (I think that's a word)
Change in life is inevitable. You could change jobs, move to a different city, meet new people or gain new responsibilities. With any change, you'll need to adapt to it. Humans, and most animals, are formed through habits. When a change occurs, it can be an obstacle for us to overcome. Some things you can't prepare for and happen rather quickly. When we train as runners, we are preparing our bodies and minds for these sudden changes.
Training in running creates adaptations to our bodies that make us stronger and faster. We also train to adjust to hot summers, cold winters and different racing scenarios. Lastly, we learn to adapt and adjust if we need to at any moment. When we are sick, we can adjust the workout. If we have a busy weekend, we adjust what time we get our long run in. When our tent was about to blow away at sectionals, we calmly responded and adjusted our team location, not letting it affect our objective for the day. We were trained for that moment. Without thinking, we are training to adapt and respond in a positive way to different situations or barriers.
"Winter is cold! It was a long day, I think I'll go home and relax. Missing one run won't hurt me." Until it does.
We train willpower. Success as a team or individual is not going to be easy. Some days and moments will challenge you more than others. You will always have a choice to do what is right, or do what is easy. Easy can be sleeping in and missing part of first hour, skipping a run because you are too busy, or not properly studying for an exam. You may think it will be a one time occurrence, but these actions can also become habits.
Though it may be harder to convince yourself at first, you'll never regret doing the right thing. Find a way. Bundle up and get out the door, you'll have a great run and be more productive and happier after. Get up and go to class, you'll gain understanding and build a good relationship with your teachers. Study for the math test instead of playing Fortnite, you'll like the results of the short term sacrifice for the effort you put in. We are lucky to have a team to motivate us and be with, so continue to support and love each other in an effort to doing right.
Training is time to be together with some of your best friends. It's cherished time every day to catch up, laugh and feel safe within a group.. And yes, some days, motivating and pushing each other through faster pace workouts. Through chasing common goals, you build friendships that go beyond running. I'm now 31, and many of my best friends are people I had run with in high school and college.
With cross country and track, you naturally learn how to work together as a team, and also develop leadership. You learn how to listen and be respectful to a diverse group of people. Those social skills, developed through the sport, can translate to any career aspirations of pursuits you may have. Along with this, it's the team atmosphere that let's you know it's okay to be who you are. Be supportive and accepting of those that show up and put in their best efforts.
Through it all, be a kid. Play games, go biking, play sports, hang out and enjoy the friendships the sport can create.
As a coach, I have aspirations of continuing our tradition and winning another state title. But, true winning occurs with our daily actions, our consistency in life, and our work ethic. We build a winning program through character and class. We are consistent with all of our actions, as this is what truly represents who we are. Everything we do is training, and how we choose to respond to different situations is up to us. Training is not just becoming better runners, training is becoming better people, and together, a better and more loving family. Make the most of today, and know that you are striving to be the best you. If we can do that, we are winning.
"There are no stressful situations, only stressful reactions."
Perception of effort and pain has a major impact on performance. This is true while you are racing for sure, as it is the mind that makes decisions on whether you will slow down or speed up at certain points. This is why we train, we are essentially training the body to make pain more tolerable at faster paces. At any point of a race though, you need to build that mental toughness to push beyond what only your mind can limit you from achieving. This is why we need to focus not only priming our legs, lungs and heart to be stronger, but also thinking about our thoughts while we are practicing or pushing through a tough run.
The most interesting part about how we feel while racing or running is that our thoughts prior to any activity will greatly affect our perception of that activity once we start. This has been scientifically backed (if you're nerdy enough to read the whole article). A test was done on subjects that flashed either red, green or blue lights before applying a slight burning sensation on the hand of the subject. Over time, the subjects realized that certain colors corresponded to certain pain, and they were able to measure these subjects' brain activity before being applied the burn. The subjects started experiencing a higher perceived pain when these colors flashed, and even primed themselves for it ahead of time.
As a recent example, this weekend was hot, but rather than fearing how the heat will affect you, it's best to create the understanding of the conditions you'll face and go into it knowing you can still have a good run. If you look at the uncontrollable elements as restraints, you will greatly inhibit yourself from having a good run or race. Your first few runs in the heat may be difficult, but your mind and body adapt to different conditions and thus make you more capable of conquering any type of condition. As we know in fall and spring, the weather can be anything but predictable. It's best to recognize the conditions, go through it once mentally in your head, but then focus on what you can control and know that the conditions are not something that will affect you against a field of other runners facing the same conditions. In fact, you can gain a huge advantage on others by staying focused on your efforts and responding to difficult in race moments with positive self talk that you can achieve your goals.
With training, you can get a huge bump in performance by going into workouts and runs with an understanding of what you are about to experience, but with a confidence that you can handle the task at hand. Going into a hot run with a positive mindset can set you up for an awesome run, and maybe even faster than if it had been a nice cool day. There is tons of literature on marathoners performances in adverse conditions, and how it's the mind of the individual that actually enhances or inhibits the performance. This can be most recently seen in the windy, rainy and cold Boston Marathon where both champions Des Linden and Yuki Kawauchi both came there to win, and ran their race not thinking about the conditions. Many great athletes dropped out of the race, not because the conditions had a physical toll, but rather these runners had a higher perceived effort and pain level from the conditions. They didn't prepare mentally to feel worse at mile ten than they usually would feel at that point in the race in cool and calm conditions. They were plenty fit, and the body was plenty primed, but their perceived effort was so high that the brain told them to shut it down. The message here is that some intervals or workouts you may not feel your best early on, but it's important to use those situations and realize you can bounce back on later intervals or miles. This can happen in a race where you feel more tired than usual early, but end up getting through the bumpy section and running your best race ever.
Lastly, for newer runners I keep reminding you all to be patient! With that, it's important to keep pushing yourself beyond what you thought was originally possible. Many guys have walked/ran the first couple weeks which is okay, but now it's time to start thinking about what drives your decisions to walk or slow down. Is it that you really can't keep running, or is it a fear that you have a lot of road left to cover and are afraid to burn out? My advice, don't be afraid of the unknown. Prep yourself to get a bit more uncomfortable and keep pushing beyond what you thought your limits were. This is exactly the reason why our coaches don't preach to "raise the bar", but rather preach that there is no bar at all. Nobody has a limit to what they can achieve, whether it be running or any other skill. It just takes a ton of consistency and some positive mental talk to take yourself to new levels.
Keep working together, having fun and becoming dedicated to each other and our goals.
Below is a timely article from Houston University Coach, Steve Magness. Along with his training, I also enjoy a lot of his thoughts on life. It goes totally in line with our team motto of "The Journey". Please read and enjoy!
Coaching Corner: When Outcomes Define Success:
We live in a hypercompetitive world, where the game never truly ends. We can measure productivity in any myriad of ways and instantly compare ourselves to any number of individuals scattered across the world. No longer do you measure up against Johnny from high school or Jim in the cubicle next door; you are now in competition against practically everyone.
For humans who function off of comparison, this may initially boost our performance, but it's just as likely to be entirely maddening. As we've transitioned into competing in every aspect of life—from followers on twitter to "productivity" scores from our computer work to our health score spit out by our smart watch—the temptation is to treat life as we do sport, with the emphasis on getting faster and stronger, taking more wins, and then judging ourselves entirely by those parameters. By shifting how we judge ourselves, we've also shifted the story that we tell ourselves.
When it comes to sport, researchers have found that athletes adopt one of two kinds of narratives: a performance or a quest. A performance narrative occurs when the athlete prioritizes winning over other aspects of life. Performance comes first and foremost. Whether that is winning games, scoring goals, running faster, or making more money; the outcome is all that matters.
A quest narrative, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential growth from diverse experiences. It involves "individuals confronting their suffering, accepting the consequences, and striving to gain something positive from their experience." In other words, the emphasis isn't put on the outcome, but on the journey. Yes, the outcome still matters, but it becomes a signaling mechanism, not the be all end all.
Performance narratives are ingrained in us from a young age but they can lead to maladaptation when we encounter adversity. Because if performance is the sole judge, when failure occurs, people often register this not as failure at a specific task but failure at life. If an athlete has a quest narrative, the outcome becomes information, and the "failure" becomes something to understand and grow from, not a self-defining setback.
In Olympic swimmers, researchers found that as athletes matured in their careers, they tended to shift from a performance to a quest narrative. Early on in their career, outcomes were all that mattered, and they let their sport consume all aspects of their life. While one might think that their performance might suffer in the pool as they shifted their focus, the opposite occurred. For Olympic Swimmer Ryk Neethling, it made all the difference; "walking away gave me perspective...but for that fresh perspective, I may not have become an Olympic Champion."
As competition infiltrates every aspect of our life, there can be a temptation to embrace it, mistakenly thinking that we need to 'raise our game' in order to survive and thrive. The reality is that we might want to take a hint from Olympic swimmers: sometimes to reach the next level (and to enjoy what you do!), you've got to let go of the false idea that outcomes are all that matter.
Steve Magness - University of Houston CC and Track Coach.