I’m not particularly fond of talking about the ‘mental machinery’ of the kids I coach. It almost seems like a breach of trust of the ‘unspoken’ contract that I hopefully develop with my animals (that’s ‘kids’ in the language of middle school Cross Country) who run in my program. I will talk about them from a ‘herd perspective’ though. You notice something fairly early about 7th and 8th graders while you’re out on the trail, watching them trudge up treacherous trails that most mountain goats would avoid: their enormous resilience goes hand in hand with their equally enormous self-doubt. My middle school runners KNOW when they are doing well from their perspective (the only perspective that matters) and when they are not. You can ‘good job’ them ‘til your voice grows hoarse, but they will call you on it… usually with just a look. I’ve seen it happen. Felt it. It’s a disgruntled, distrustful look of, ‘Really?… you’re gonna’ try and sell me that bill of goods?’
I’ve learned through trial and error that you cannot verbally applaud a middle school runner’s performance if it’s subpar by their standards. But you can show them other ways to quantify it. Basically, what this means is you can show other perspectives that reveal smaller or equal in size ‘wins’ within their original goal. But it is ALWAYS best when a runner’s ‘mental machinery’ develops a mental/emotional ‘coach’ for themselves that can reside in their grey matter. A strong internal voice that is always on the ready to show them another way to look at their performance, building their emotional resilience so they keep coming back for the next challenge. Something about: if you feed a fish for a day, you’re a good pet owner. But if you teach the fish how to get himself over to the refrigerator, well…the cat will have a field day (I could be paraphrasing).
Your internal ‘coach’ is the cornerstone of your mental/emotional resilience. This cannot be over-emphasized. Under the overwhelming pressure of seeing only a single route to your goal, the smallest setback can be enough to send a pebble of self-doubt, disappointment, and fear rippling through your self-confidence and resolve. Anyone who has accomplished anything worth accomplishing didn’t get to the height of their respective arena by flying high on a ‘magic carpet’ made solely of victories. The fibers of all achievement are interwoven with defeat, and the lessons taught from those setbacks. It is this course, but strong fiber that makes your carpet, your vehicle, capable of carrying you up to your goals and dreams, and it’s your consistent effort to listen to your ‘coach’ that keeps you there. It is not just a consistent effort of physical or mental performance, but a persistent willingness to listen to your ‘coach’s’ voice.
You may be able to bring yourself to court during mistakes, but it’s your ‘coach’ that gives you the strength to push forward and accumulate the positive evidence you know about yourself in the first place. Your coach uses whatever mental/emotional perspectives that are at his disposal to stretch, strengthen, and develop your resolve to complete whatever tasks you throw at yourself. Your mental/emotional ‘coach’ sparks your tenacity, and resilience by alternating, changing, and restructuring the way you look at your goals. An ever changing kaleidoscope shining light on many different achievable, believable perspectives, allowing for the continuation of your unwavering, tenacious effort. Last, but not least, your coach gives you the most precious gift:
The ability to trust yourself.
We’re not talking about trust that you can score 6 goals in a soccer match, or that if you just practice hard enough, your free-throws percentage will go from 60% to 70%. Those are specific skill sets, and yes, they in and of themselves can be goals. To make the team. To win the championship. To be first round pick in the NBA (not happening for me…and that’s alright. Not my goal). But your internal ‘coach’ is interested in building a much more vital skill set that will carry over into all that you do. Your resilience. Your ability to recover from difficulties and setbacks, and to creatively find the wins and the mental/emotional blue-prints that will get you to dust yourself off and get back in the game. While scoring 6 goals, or reaching free-throw ‘elite’ status can bring about self-confidence, it is your resilience that brings about your trust in yourself, helping you to stay your course.
Although I will forever keep the anonymity of my animals, I will give up some solid ‘coaching’ dialog from my own enormous self-doubt on my run today (I’m using that term run ‘loosely’… it was on a ski mountain, so…)
Me: I really don’t want to run up this mountain.
Coach: Its more of a snowshoe, really.
Me: Haven’t really run in snowshoes yet this year. Maybe I should start on something less like, I don’t know… Not a mountain?
Coach: Its really about your heart rate and time out, right? Who cares how about where you go, really.
Me: Yeah, but it will be depressing. I usually run this trail at a good clip. I may have to hike some of it.
Coach: You’ll be wearing all your heavy winter gear, going up a mountain wearing snowshoes, breaking trail. You’re not supposed to be fast. Takes away the pressure of doing speed work, right? We know how you love that…
Me: Yeah, yeah. Alright.
20 minutes later… Feeling pretty good, but my heart rate is out of control. Have been breaking snow, breathing heavy… again, chose to go up the mountain.
Me: Can’t seem to get my Heart rate down… just started seriously going up!
Coach: You want your Heart rate high. You’ll get into your race weight quicker, and you’ll be able to hold a higher HR longer when it gets hot out.
Me: Yeah but I just started climbing. I don’t want to hike yet.
Coach: Slow down! It’s not a race. Let’s see how much you can run of it, speed doesn’t matter. Keep your HR in a place where you can consistently run.
Me: That would be cool if I could go the whole way running!
10 minutes later… My turtle shuffle is now officially a snail drag… I’m hiking.
Me: Crap. I thought I was going to be able to run this whole thing. I was doing so well.
Coach: We knew it wasn’t going to be ALL running… it’s about your heart rate really, remember. And be honest, you’ve run much farther than you thought so far, and it’s better training than most runs you would have taken on some lame road… just saying.
Me: Yeah, but I’m getting tired and I’m hiking now. This is ridiculous. Look at this pace.
Coach: Are we still taking about pace? You’re going up a mountain with about 15 extra pounds on you, and wearing an extra pound and a half on your feet. Did you really think this run would be about pace? (angelic singing voice) “HEEAARRTT RRAATTEE!” How about a goal of not stopping (unless you have to pee… that’s out of your hands) whether it be hiking, running, rolling up the mountain, How about that?
Me: That would feel good, but if it ends up being mostly hiking…
Coach: What? Come on, you have to come back down right? That’s 50% of the run right there. That means if you run half of the up, it will be 75% running. I’m no Einstein (mainly because I don’t like math), but if my calculations are right, you get to walk away with the fact that you ran 75% of a 1400 foot mountain, while breaking trail, in 15 pounds of gear. Sounds like a win to me.
Me: Well when you put it that way…
Last 10 minutes… Thinking about making it an hour and 20min. run instead of an hour and a half, since I’m back to where I parked my car quicker than I’d planned.
Me: Crap. Wanted an hour and 30min… an hour and 20 is good, though.
Coach: You’re on the flat now. All the hard work is done. Why not cool down with 10 minutes of light running?
Me: Because I’m tired…
Coach: Right, that’s what I’m saying. An easy 10 minutes of ‘jogging.’ It will add to your overall run time, and you run easy for the last 10 minutes. It’s like cheating… I can’t believe I even suggested it…
Me: But I can make up the rest of the time later in the week?
Coach: Don’t burden yourself. You’re warmed up. Take the win. IN FACT, you can get both wins of “mostly running” Slidebrook, with heavy equipment, while also gaining ‘trust’ that if you set a time to do something you do it. All for the price of a very soft jog on golf-course-ish flat, well-groomed snow…
Coach: We’ve been talking for the last 3 minutes anyway… you’re going to stop at an hour and 23 minutes?
Me: What?!… why you –
Coach: Actually it’ s been 5 minutes.