How Badly Do You Want It?
by Andy Palmer, Ph.D.
“It is a hoary truism that with few exceptions—Babe Ruth, Jean-Claude Killy, Edwin Moses, Eric Heiden—the level of competition at the very top is dead even. The winners have little advantage in strength, technique, or training; the difference comes in psychology.” —John Jerome
Over the past year I have been on a quest to figure something out. As a coach, counselor and former elite runner I know that many athletes undermine their ultimate performance potential despite expending so much time and energy on trying to improve. I have tried to get my mind around why this happens. I’ve struggled with my thoughts when I run, and I’ve talked to any runner who’ll listen to me.
On one particular run with a client, a scientist training for the Olympic Marathon Trials, I was explaining my structural theory of performance breakthroughs. I had been refining this and I wanted her take on it. Betsy is a tremendous athlete, with a scientist’s ability to cut away the fluff and get to what is real. She has run a 2:45 marathon and believes, two kids later, that she can still run sub-2:50. If anyone can do it, Betsy can.
As we ran, I explained my thoughts. I had come up with a step-by-step plan to help athletes achieve performance breakthroughs. There are two parts to this process. Part one contains six steps:
1) Make a decision. This decision can be at many different levels. The novice runner may decide to begin a structured running program. The competitive runner may choose to sacrifice some time on the job so her lifestyle will support a more ambitious training program. The elite competitor may commit to doing whatever it takes to reach a goal, such as qualifying for the Olympics.
2) Consult the experts. Once you’ve made a decision, it is important to obtain the best possible information and advice. The novice runner should read running articles (good, you’re following my advice on that score) and books and join a running club. For the competitive runner, this step probably involves getting a coach or adviser and plotting a strategy for optimum and efficient use of time and energy. For the elite competitor, concentrating more on the mental and emotional aspects of running may be the necessary step toward a breakthrough performance.
There are many resources available: coaches, sport psychologists, exercise physiologists, nutritionists, etc. You’ll find information in countless articles and books, on the Web and by talking to other runners. Read, listen and absorb as much information as you can, but remember to screen your sources wisely. There are many so-called “experts” out there. Find people whom you trust, who are willing to meet you at your level and who have time to invest with you.
With coaches it is better to serve one master rather than to flit from one program or approach to another. Arthur Lydiard once complained to me about athletes who would run out of patience while training to establish an aerobic-fitness base, switch to another coach and see sudden, dramatic improvement. The breakthrough, of course, came from all the work leading up to this point. Most training programs do not bear fruit immediately; I recommend sticking with a plan for a minimum of six months unless it clearly isn’t working for you.
3) Determine negotiable vs. non-negotiable. You must sit down (with a coach if you have one) and figure out just what you want to accomplish and how you can set your life up to do it. You need to consider not only training (both physical and mental/emotional) but also lifestyle concerns such as work/career, nutrition, relationships, sleep and stress management.
If you are new to regular running, there may be significant adjustments. You should talk with family members about the new role of running in your life, which could be seen as disruptive. The competitive runner may need to negotiate for flexible work hours. The elite athlete might need to lobby for greater sponsor support. No runner at any level should ignore these issues or assume “it will all just work out.”
4) Set goals. At this point you can establish goals as a runner. Whether it’s running your first 10K or making a World Championships team, it is important to gear yourself for success. Your goals should be ambitious but realistic.
Set up long-term goals and short-term or interim goals along the way. Write them down and have a way of evaluating your progress at each step.
5) Draft the plan. Once the goals are established, you must develop a plan. Plans consist of the actual training schedule—including running, strength training and any supplemental training—as well as the balance of work, family and leisure (life, in other words). They should also include a mental and emotional training plan. This is an area to which everyone pays lip service, but in which very few coaches and athletes invest much energy or time. You’ve probably heard that most tasks are 90% mental and 10% physical. So why do we all spend 99% of our “training” time on the physical part?
6) Remember that life happens. No matter how thoroughly you prepare, things will come up. Bosses will renege, significant others won’t understand, you’ll overtrain and get injured. The important thing is to do the best you can, make the necessary adjustments and get on with your mission.
Betsy and I were still running and talking (did you think I’d forgotten about Betsy?), and at this point I said, “Now you’ve set yourself up for part two.” Betsy replied, “Andy, if you’ve done everything you’ve talked about, you are going to perform well.”
I smiled. In Betsy’s world, the world of the rational and logical, all a runner had to do now was perform (race). But for many runners, the task of reaching their potential is just beginning.
Part two is in many ways tougher. As Betsy pointed out, the “work” is done; the runner is as prepared as possible. At this point what remains is to step to the line and trust that you are ready to execute your plan.
John Jerome alluded to this concept of trust in his book, The Sweet Spot: “It is inescapable that our bodies are often smarter than our minds, if we could only learn to trust them.” Trusting the body is very difficult in a society that has trained itself to be so removed from that body. Recapturing faith and trust in the potential of the body is a gradual process, and for many runners it’s the hardest part of “training.”
One way to start is to let go of judgments when you run. Instead of constantly assessing your performance, tune into what your body feels like as it moves. Imagine yourself as an instrument that is able to immediately register and correct for any change in the terrain, your body or the air around you.
Trusting that you will get everything out of yourself is very hard. But the alternative, negative thinking, may have dire consequences. Negative thinking is almost always the result of someone’s value judgments. One of the best things an athlete can do for himself is to learn how to treat his own body and performances objectively. Instead of judging the results of races, use them as a measuring tool of your progress on the way toward reaching your ultimate potential. That’s all a race result is. It’s not a measure of your self worth.
Here are some strategies that can help you on your journey toward trusting yourself and your potential:
1) Go into competition with an open mind. This sounds easy, but can be incredibly hard because of all the value judgments we carry about ourselves that can impact performance. Many of these value judgments were programmed into our psyche beginning in infancy or early childhood, long before we had any say in the matter.
Use positive affirmations and triggers to help you shake off negative programming. Positive affirmations are personal, positive, present-tense statements that begin the reframing process. “I can handle it,” is a simple example. Triggers are anything that inspire positive emotions. Find music, videos, books, quotes, places and people that make you feel good and free you to learn what is available to you. Surrounding yourself with these things will create an environment that promotes success.
Cognitive reframing can help too. Many of the beliefs we hold about performance are not based in fact. The ability to challenge these beliefs and frame them positively and constructively is mind-opening. Look at a belief and ask if it is helping or hurting you. If it is helping, leave it alone. If it is hurting, challenge its validity. Is it true or is it something that has been programmed into your conscious or subconscious mind? The validity of many programmed thoughts is taken for granted and really should be challenged.
2) Develop self-awareness. If you want to make a breakthrough, you have to develop an awareness of yourself as an athlete. You must be aware both of where you are and where you want to go. Looking at yourself honestly and challenging what you know about yourself are not easy tasks. Challenging what you do not know is even harder. You have to search your soul.
Keeping a log will help develop your sense of self. Most of us go through the day with only the vaguest idea of what we are really thinking and feeling. Keeping a log will help you organize your activities and thoughts. This log should be a record of your activities (including training, meals, work, relaxation and sleep), the people you encounter and your impressions of it all.
To develop an awareness of where you want to go, look to others as role models. In our sport people such as Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Frank Shorter and Bob Kennedy have all risen to the highest levels. They do not all present themselves to the world in the same manner, nor do they all have the same skills, but the skills they possess have brought them to the top. Athletes in other sports also can serve as role models. My personal favorite is Michael Jordan. I don’t think there is any other athlete who has risen above the BS as well as he.
You can also act “as if” you are what you want to be. In a race, act “as if” you are totally objective about your performance. Role models can help you here as well.
3) Become detached from your performance. This is the process of actually suspending judgment about the outcome of your running efforts. You must be truly able to “let go,” to become a split personality of sorts. It’s not easy; after all, you are striving to do your very best, yet you have to not care about the result. Running the race should be the most important thing in your life while you are running it, yet you can’t care how it turns out. If you have trouble with this, ask yourself: Does caring help me or hurt me? Caring certainly helps you get to the starting line, but once there, you must simply trust your training and your ability to execute.
Meditation is probably the best drill to use to learn detached awareness. Try doing progressive relaxation drills every day. Begin with deep abdominal breathing for a few minutes, focusing on the release of stress and tension that each breath brings. Be particularly conscious of the exhale.
Follow the breathing with a tense-relax session for the different muscle groups. Hold each muscle group tense, then let the tension go. Pay attention to how the tension and its release feel. Once you have relaxed to this point, focus on a mantra, which can be a word, a thought or your breathing. The idea is to clear your mind. This process should bring you to an emotional place where you can detach yourself.
Before a race, when you don’t want to be too relaxed, try just doing the breathing. (For a more complete description of meditation refer to Herbert Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response.)
4) Run on automatic pilot. You probably already experience this mental state from time to time when you run, but in fragments. It happens when you just lose yourself in your running, yet still maintain your performance level.
Recognizing these auto-pilot moments and the conditions that lead up to them can help you develop the ability to achieve such a state at will, and this control can lead to better race performances.
Remember, you can train your mind just as you train your body. Learn to recognize thoughts and feelings that both help and hinder performance.
Reinforce those thoughts and feelings that help you perform well, and work on changing those that hinder you. Realize that this is not a quick fix. If your performance is important enough, you will develop the diligence and patience to train your mind and your emotions, and this can lead to the breakthrough you seek.