The Whole Sandwich, Concession Stands and Mystery Meat

By: Amy Baker

High school track meets move slow.  To pass the time I read Catherine’s article on Ketchup and emotional running.  Her article made me hungry, so I went to the concession stand and got myself something that tasted sort of like chicken. I peeled back the layer of bread I tried best to scrape off the high calorie mayonnaise, added some ketchup and mustard, and hoped it would turn out ok. As I squeezed the ketchup I thought about the “emotional element” and how I know it well in myself, but I know little about the layers of emotion that stand behind each of the high school kids I coach. So in a way their emotions are like my mystery sandwich. (Sorry for all the abstract symbolism… I must say its tough to follow Catherine’s posts so I’m trying really hard to make my high school English teacher proud.)  Like mystery meat in the cafeteria, students come to me as they are. Once I’ve gotten a taste for their talent, I fix them up a little, and send them off to their future. So how should I do this? I’ve got to peel back the bread and train both the body and the people inside it.

I’m not a therapist, but a great teacher once told me, “Practice makes Permanent.”  Running involves body, mind, and heart. Here is how we practiced all three with my three top runners. They are all great kids and great runners. These are their weaknesses and here is how they overcame them!  Names have been changed to appease my nerdy sense of humor.

Athlete – Bobbie Burnout
Weakness– Not finishing strong.
Bobbie would go out way ahead of everyone, but would always die the last 400m.  He would be on pace to run a 4:45 mile, then suddenly run a 1:35 last 400m (slowing down 25 sec in just that 400m).  He was worried if he went out too slow, he would never get up with the pack.

Solution– Run workouts that start slow and finish fast.  It simulates the feeling of a race that is run even paced since races always feel harder at the end. I made Bobby start slow and gradually speed up throughout the workout, if he slowed down even a little, he wouldn’t be allowed to finish the workout. Even if his body could have benefited from another set, I knew if he practiced slowing down, that’s what he would do. Permanent practice can work for or against your goals. Keep the mental/emotional goal of the workout in mind in addition to just the physical.

Athlete – Sam Surrender
Weakness– Gives up when he gets passed.
Sam lacks confidence.  He starts thinking negatively and being passed just makes things worse.

Solution – Run a few workouts “Indian file” with a group of equal ability runners. Make sure the runners average their target race pace. The connection works best if the conditions feel similar to race conditions.
I started Sam, Bobbie and Caleb in a line of 3, one behind the next, every 100m the person in the back would pass the other two and take the lead. Indian file runs have been done for years by coaches, but they are almost always done as easy runs. I wanted Bobbie to get used to being passed, knowing that he could fight back. My hope was that when he gets passed in a race, he’ll just think its another Indian run and it won’t trigger a negative emotion. If the body and the mind are connected maybe we can train the mind by practicing with the body.
Athlete – *ocky Caleb
Weakness- Wimps out of the real race and picks the one he knows he can win.
Caleb is too cool for school, he’s awesome and he knows it. The problem is he’s too cool to show he’s working hard, so when he gets into a race where there is someone as good as him, he backs off. He makes excuses like I wasn’t really feeling it… Sometimes he likes to be a hero and go slow the whole way, then puts on a show the last 100m by sprinting by the 4th place guy, even though he should be racing the 2nd and 3rd.

Solution– Structure a workout so that he has to run with someone faster than him.  If he’s too fast for everyone (hence the reason he has this attitude in the first place), then find a way for him to run longer intervals with runners going shorter. When Caleb has to run 400m repeats at mile pace, I’ll pair him up with someone who is running 300m at 800m pace.  The perfect guy for this job, will be someone whose 800m pace is just slightly faster than Caleb’s mile pace.  Honestly, Caleb just doesn’t have enough practice getting beat in a real race, so he is afraid of really racing.  I try my best to praise hard effort and taking risks, and avoid giving him too much praise for the things that although may look impressive are rather easy for him.

Conclusion/Disclaimer:
I hope this was informative. I’m still experimenting with these mental tactics, but so far they seem to be working in my favor. Since I started training with Rogue, I have learned a great deal about coaching and training. A few years ago, I used to think that although I could train the athlete, it was up to them to get themselves straight in the head. Now I know that although ultimately it IS all up to them, I can guide them in the right direction.
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