Scenario #1: Your HS Freshman Cross Country runner fakes being sick the morning of a big race because he has this premonition that he’s not going to run well, and he tells you, “why does it even matter if I run; it’s not going to make a difference?”
Scenario #2: You are coaching young kids running XC and for some it’s their very first race. Two of these kids finish their race and burst into tears. What do you do? How do you handle this situation appropriately?
Scenario #3: A 4th grade girl who has some running experience tells you before her race that she’s not very good at these longer distances. Why the negative self-talk and why does this talented girl put herself down?
What can you do as a coach to help these athletes think positively, feel confident, and strive to BE their best self? Encouragement is key: being supportive and motivating encourages athletes to believe that they can make goals and accomplish them., Being a good coach is all about helping the runner get to the start line, and seeing that the race starts before you get to the line, and keeps going as you pass it. It’s about assisting them in being diligent in workouts, how to be a helpful teammate, and challenging oneself to dig a little deeper than they thought they originally could. What transcends is a feeling of internal locus of control and accomplishment. These characteristics go a long way in life, on and off the track!
In the first scenario where your HS Freshman is ambivalent about racing, it’s key that he feels like an important member of his team, whether he is scoring points or not. Athletes on team sports like Cross Country significantly add to team cohesiveness, positive energy and support. If he’s routinely coming to practice, he deserves to be noticed. It’s important for coaches to approach all their runners, check in periodically and ask how things are going, both on and off the field. A little conversation goes a long way because the athlete will feel like he matters and because the coach takes interest.
Managing stress as an athlete is like a muscle that needs to be trained. Via a face-to-face interview with this HS athlete, here are the important components that aid with this developmental piece for mental skills preparation.
• You have to be confident about your workout or run.
• You need to have a good mindset about what you’re going to do. For example, you don’t want to be in a bad mood…”this is going to be horrible.”
• Before a race, think about what you are going to do during the race. For example, I’m going to have controlled breathing so I don’t get a cramp.”
Fortunately with some guidance from his parents, this athlete came around the next week, trained, refocused, and toed the starting line in the next race and ran a personal best. Getting to the line proved to himself that he could do it and that made all the difference.
Coaching is a delicate balance and it’s important to really understand your ‘audience’. Two of your runners who have never raced before, a kindergartner and a third grader, finish their races and burst into tears; they go to their parents who try to console them, telling them they did really well. You watch from a short distance and want to help these kids, but you also want to “read” the scene and approach cautiously and provide support, but not intrude on this family triad. When appropriate, getting to the kids ‘level’, (squatting down), and listening so they feel heard is so important. These young runners likely held a lot of stress in their bodies and were not able to verbalize how they were feeling; the tears were cathartic. Being empathic also creates space for the athlete to not feel so alone. It lets them know that the coach has been in his or her shoes before. Reiterating to these kids that trying something for the first time is scary and by getting to the line and persevering is a muscle that will get stronger and stronger.
We all have an internal dialogue that is ‘on’ all the time and we need to manage our self-talk and quiet down from time to time. Silence is good for us. As athletes, we internalize a lot, questioning how we will feel for a hard workout or race and sometimes doubting ourselves that we can reach our goals. This negative self-reflection doesn’t do the athlete any good, but creates more anxiety, self -doubt and nervousness. In the last scenario with the 4th grader who doubted herself before the race, she needed some assurance from her coach. The coach reminded her to break the race down into three separate parts, so she could focus on each segment separately and thus have it feel more manageable. Being reminded to have fun, stay positive, RELAX, and just go out there and do her best was also key to her running a good solid race.
Getting to the line is symbolic of engagement, being seen, being vulnerable, it’s daring greatly. As Brene’ Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, so beautifully writes in her book, Daring Greatly, “Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”
Amanda Marks lives in Boulder, Colorado and has two children, Jonah, 14 and Samantha, 11. Amanda grew up playing competitive tennis and transitioned into distance running in HS. She received her undergraduate degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in Human Development and Psychology, and was a six-time All American in track (5,000 and 10,000 meters), and a member of the 1990 Cross Country National Championship Division II team. Amanda went on to Pepperdine to receive her M.A. in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. Amanda’s passion for running, and sports in general continues; she’s been coaching kids for the past three years, and participated in her first triathlon this past Summer.