The relevant question is not "Did you win?" but "Did you come up to your expectations?"
The greater the prizes in sport, the more emphasis there is on winning. The greater the emphasis on winning, the harder it is to be a loser. However, there is only one winner in, say, the Open golf championship or the Wimbledon men's singles. Does this mean that all the others are losers? Certainly not. Before we analyse the reasons for success and failure, we must define the terms.
Losers and winners
The loser is the person who produces great training performances but does not live up to them in races. The winner is the one whose performance under pressure is greater than you would expect from his training.
The loser is the person who develops injuries and minor illnesses just before the big events. The winner is the person who copes with minor setbacks and still performs to his best when it matters.
The loser is the person who looks very impressive when against familiar, weaker opposition but who cannot cope with the challenge of competing against those who are apparently better than him. The winner is the person who is not overawed by better opposition but rises to the challenge.
The patterns can be seen more clearly in running than in almost any other sport because we have the times to go by. A few years ago I was running in a road race in Devon against a local athlete, let us call him Shanks, who was a little older than me and had always beaten me in my early years. On this occasion he had heard that I was off form, whereas in fact I had just been going through a hard training period. We had a really hard race and I broke my own course record, but he beat me by half a minute because he believed that he was better than me on that day. When it came to the next national event, I won and he was nowhere because he did not believe that he could perform well at that level. Shanks obviously had the physical ability but lacked the right mental approach.
What causes people to fail?
First of all, everyone has a physical limit. All the self-belief in the world won't enable you to run five miles in 20 minutes. All that we can hope for is to keep on improving for as long as possible, gradually pushing back our physical limits. In that time, we try to compete at our own level, attempting to get as much success as our talents will allow us.
The relevant question is not 'Did you win?' but 'Did you come up to your expectations?' If the answer to this question is 'no', the coach should look for both physical and mental explanations. Very often the single poor performance is due to an infection, over-tiredness or something like eating at the wrong time. However, if there is consistently a gap between training and racing performances, there may well be something wrong with the mental attitude.
Let us take two hypothetical runners, Alphonse and Bertrand. Alphonse has lots of natural speed. He can run 400 metres in under 50 seconds on very little training and he has run 1.49 for 800 metres. He was a national junior champion but now, although he wins club 1500m races easily in 3.53, he has only progressed to 3.48 and cannot get into the senior finals. Bertrand, on the other hand, was not a junior champion. His best 800m is 1 .5 1, but he has run 1 500m in 3.44 and has been picked for the under-23 team. Alphonse is becoming depressed because he is not improving and he is getting beaten by Bertrand. Bertrand is feeling cheerful and more and more confident about his training because he is improving all the time.
The key lies in their early experiences. Because he had so much ability, Alphonse did not need to train hard as a youngster, nor did he need to push himself very hard to win races. Bertrand, however, had to train hard as a youngster to come up to a decent standard, and he has always had to work hard.
When Alphonse fails, he thinks 'I'm a loser'. When Bertrand fails, he thinks 'I shall have to work harder'. As they come up to a big competition, Bertrand is thinking 'This is a great opportunity for me' and Alphonse is thinking 'What if I fail again?' Early experiences cannot be eradicated, but the mind can be 'reprogrammed' so as to change the mental attitude towards Altering self-perceptions
The way a runner approaches a race depends on how he sees himself. If he feels that he lacks finishing speed, he worries if there is anyone near him as the race approaches the finish. If he feels that he lacks endurance, he will be worried by a fast early pace. He may in fact be perfectly capable of dealing with the situation, but self-doubt is usually fatal.
What needs to be done is to follow a training and racing programme to deal with that weakness. If a half-marathon runner has a season of training and racing at 5000 metres he will find that his times for the shorter distance improve a lot. When he returns to road racing, he can say to himself 'I've run 14.20 for 5000m. I've got more speed than anyone else here, so I can relax until the last mile'.
If the runner is worried about lack of endurance, the coach simply has to increase the volume of training and, in particular, the length of the longest run. When I was moving up from 5000m to 10,000m, I increased my long Sunday runs to 1820 miles, instead of 10-12, and I even ran in a 20mile race in April, so that when it came to running a mere six miles I knew that I could handle the distance.
Man is a tribal animal. He is used to hierarchies or 'pecking orders'. Runners, like hens, tend to settle into accepted places within a group. If you are used to being in front and winning races, you will not be happy with anything else. If you have always been at the tail-end of a bunch of good runners, you may be improving physically but you will not have experienced the feeling of being in front, dominating the race. It is a good thing to run in fast races against better people to try to extend your limits, but it is also good to run in minor races which you can win, to get that winning feeling. It has been shown that testosterone levels rise after winning a race, so the 'winning streak' may become easier to maintain as it gets longer, and I would certainly advise a carefully chosen race programme before a championship event.
...and decreasing anxiety
Nobody is free from big race nerves, but some people are able to master them, while others are paralysed. Part of this is due to experience. The sheer size and novelty of a big Games meeting can flood the personality with a mixture of new impressions and strange emotions so that it is difficult to concentrate on the job in hand, but these emotions diminish with experience. Being in Rome, being in the Olympic stadium, finding yourself as British Number One, may in time become routine situations. The central problem, though, remains: the fear of putting yourself under maximum pressure or, rather, the fear of failing when under maximum pressure.
No one performs well unless they are nervous. It is the high state of arousal brought on by the big occasion which produces the great performance, but we are all familiar with the anxiety-arousal curve, where over-anxiety depresses performance. David Hemery, the former Olympic gold medalist and a master of the mental game, has a technique for dealing with this. He says: 'What is the worst thing that you can imagine? How likely is that to happen?' and then asks, 'What would happen then?' and 'What would you feel about it?'
When put like this, athletes realise that even a championship race is just another race, not the end of the world nor the end of their career. If you lead the athlete through his past career, it is usually one of success, and reasons can be found for the failures. He will realise that 'cracking up' is very unlikely, and that there is always another race. People remember the races you win, not the ones you lost. Seb Coe is remembered as the man who won two Olympic titles at 1500m but how many, apart from Steve Cram, remember that he did not take part in the 1983 Championships?
The best ways of coping with this pre-race worry are:
1. Follow a routine which has been used before in the last few days. One should not make a fetish of needing to have exactly the same meals or wearing the same pair of socks, but a pattern of training, eating and sleeping which you know will get you on to the starting line fresh and rested.
2. In the last few hours, when you are tempted to worry about what other people are doing, think about the good training you have done, think about your best races, and visualise the race itself. Think through different scenarios and picture yourself winning in each one.
3. In the race itself, focus on your own performance, monitoring your tiredness and trying to run as efficiently as possible, moving into the right position as the pace changes. Try to carry out your race plans, however bad you feel, because the chances are the others are feeling just as bad. Whatever you do, you must come out of the race feeling that you have put everything into it. That way you will have no regrets.
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