Hope, Luck & Confidence
In conversations with many runners (either those who I coach or those outside my own client base) who are getting ready for big events, I hear a few words routinely pop up, such as nervous, worried, hope, lucky and maybe. As a coach, when I hear these words I know the runner is either under-prepared, not well-schooled in proper goal setting and/or not interpreting a small dose of nervousness as a positive sign.
The word that I want to hear more often is confident. I define confidence as “the lack of uncertainty.” It’s the feeling of getting to the start line and knowing exactly what will happen after the starting gun (or when the first whistle blows in other sports). If the goals are clear, there’s no room for worry or anxiety, and if the runner has trained properly, then the goals should be clear with no need for luck.
We all know that goals should be specific, objective and measurable, but what is often overlooked is how the athletes will reach these numerical goals. In other words, qualifying for Boston and/or setting a PR are fabulous goals (performance goals); however, runners too often leave it at that. They don’t have the process goals laid out. To take a step in the right direction, a runner should hone in on the required pace per mile, but even that focal point is shy of the real beef of what gives athletes confidence, namely, process goals. Specifically, how do you run an 8:00/mile (for example)? How do you run sub-3:10:00? The numbers themselves don’t really give the actual focal points for when one is out there on the course, in-the-moment.
The process goals are breathing patterns, stride length, posture, fueling strategies, frequent reminders to not get caught up in a random pack of runners, and so on. Hopefully, these are all the things receiving attention during weekly workouts (at least the key workouts). Focusing on these process goals is why I often persuade the runners I coach to do less training with the Garmin technology. Focusing too much on pace during training can leave a runner empty handed on race day, when present-moment variables enter the equation. This is not a rant on being anti-tech, but that last point is very much related to confidence on race day. When someone is able to hone in on the process of running certain intensities, then the brain has an easier job, thereby increasing confidence. As more training and racing take place, it becomes easier to hit the goal intensity (and therefore goal paces), which allows the process goals to be kept simple because the mind is operating on auto-pilot. When the goals are simple, then there is a quieter mind, which is preferred. In this sense, although the mind is at work during races, it is very simple work (ideally), so this is why I say running is only 10% mental (if goal setting is done correctly). When goals are incorrectly set, then there is much more mental energy required to make adjustments mid-race.
Thinking during a race is sometimes beneficial, and other times it is counter-productive, and this is the heart of the debate as to whether “running is 90% mental.” It depends on what the thoughts are. Typically, we don’t want the mind working too much when competing, as the mind can get in the way of letting the body function in a state of automaticity, which is usually the goal for the coach/athlete. Like driving a car, racing should be done on autopilot. We don’t have to think too much about the actual process of driving a car because of its simplicity. To actually think about the act of driving a car while driving would be dangerous since it would break the state of automaticity. This is what is meant by paralysis by analysis. In other words, naturally occurring movements would be interrupted. For this reason, overly cautious drivers can be hazardous on the road due to too much mental activity. Candid conversations I’ve had with driver’s education instructors only confirms the truth in this statement. They state, “the kids who think too much are the worst drivers.”
When a task is perceived to be easy, then the brain has less work to do, the perception of pressure is diminished, and there is less tension in the muscles and therefore no pre-mature muscle fatigue. In turn, the brain remains quiet because there is no additional, unnecessary feedback coming from the body. This is why running should not be 90% mental.
K.I.S.S. is an acronym that is used frequently by coaches and sport psychologists. It stands for Keep It Simple and Stupid, and is a reminder for athletes to avoid paralysis by analysis and helps to reduce anxiety. What is anxiety? It’s uncertainty about what will happen next. Too much brain activity and too much self-talk only compound this problem. When an athlete has too many goals or if the goals are not clear, then there is too much left-brain activity, lots of processing, and very little room to “Just Do It.” Great athletes don’t engage in much analytical thinking when they compete. If an athlete is engaging in analytical thinking then perhaps the goals may not be specific enough, not simple enough, or the focus is on the outcome instead of the process. Confident athletes are masters of proper goal setting. From this logic it can be reasoned that simple process goals alleviate much doubt and nervousness, but perhaps not all nervousness.
A small dose of nervousness is good, and I would even distinguish it from anxiety or worry. Being slightly nervous shows that you value your performance and that your leisure time activity isn’t a waste of your time and energy. The people who aren’t nervous before a marathon might be those whose goal is simply to finish the race alongside their coworkers, or those who are extremely confident in their goals, the latter of which explains the perceived “arrogance” of so many professional athletes. Nervousness is a sign that the body is alert and therefore prepared, versus not having a care in the world about the outcome. “Butterflies in the stomach” are fine; it’s just a matter of getting them to fly in formation. There are relatively few athletes in the world who are not nervous before an event, and you can spot them every so often because they might paint their shoes gold before the race to show that there’s not a doubt in their minds that they’ll win the gold medal. (American sprinter Michael Johnson donned a custom-designed pair of golden-colored racing spikes during the 1996 Summer Olympics on his way to winning the gold medal in the 200m and 400m. Confidence to the max!) Anytime you have a good race despite a dose of nervousness beforehand, file that away for future reference. All is not as bleak as it seems with a dose of nervousness (it can be good energy).
What I offer to the reader is that if you know you have too much nervousness before a race, if you’re hoping you hit your goal time, or looking to catch a lucky break, or think maybe you’ll have a good race, then it’s time to restructure how your goals are phrased on paper and in your brain. Make sure you are focusing on specific tasks in your control. When a college basketball player makes the sign of the cross before he takes his foul shots, the announcer Dick Vitale will exclaim, “No confidence, baby!” So don’t look for divine intervention on race day and don’t hope to get lucky. Control your own destiny and plan to know exactly what will unfold when the starting gun fires.