FAILURES' SECRETS

Anyone who enjoys success within the sport of track and field, just as it is with just about any other activity or profession, has to be able to juggle certain dualities. There always exists the need to be able to mesh and blend ART with SCIENCE. There is a need to understand and exploit NATURE and apply proper NURTURE in a timely and persuasive manner. When speaking of elite competitive efforts and human limits-challenging performances, there are other dualities that must be mastered and properly
understood. What follows is a litany of examples of how I failed miserably in observing the above and other dualities that I will outline in greater detail.
One of the first things I share with athletes with whom I am working is the fact that a significant part of my job in assisting them to ever higher levels of success is to make sure they avoid the mistakes and disasters I have seen athletes and coaches make over the last fifty years I have been involved in the sport at the elite level. At the very top of the class of classic screw-ups and mistakes,….. is your truly. Since I have been involved in such a large number of blunders, it makes me eminently better prepared to avoid them and thus do a much better job of coaching them.
One of the most important dualities and differences that must be observed has to do with mental profiles of athletes and coaches. For example, athletes tend to fall into GOAL centered and/or TASK centered mindsets. Goal centered athletes have as their primary focus and concern achieving a certain goal. The methodology and process is of secondary and tertiary concern. For them the reward is the sense of getting there first,.. and simply tolerating the processes involved in getting there. Very often task centered athletes get a great deal of satisfaction from the process itself. This is often the case with middle and long distance runners. Often times for them the process of running itself provides them with a grat deal of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment and this can often times diminish the need they have to “win”. Years ago while Director of Track and Field/Cross Country at Stanford University I was fortunate to have two very talented female athletes who basically ran the same events. Patti Sue Plumer came from Montrose, Colorado as an unheralded and unscholarshipped athlete. Regina Jacobs came from Southern California with across-the-board credentials, after having qualified for the semi-finals of the 1980 Olympic Trials as a junior in high school. Let me establish at the outset, I am predominantly goal oriented and often get bored and impatient with the processes required to accomplish elite performances. It represents a constant internal battle for me, often finding me leaning too much in one corrective direction, which then requires an opposite corrective action. Patti Sue Plumer was very much like me. What she wanted to do was to “get after it” and get to the finish line first. So our training sessions were almost always slanted toward that psyche and that end. Regina Jacobs, at that time, was very task based and centered. She did not want to know who was in the race. What she wanted to do was to have the process and task outlined for her. To that end I would say, “Regina, go out in 63/65, come through the 800 at 2:08/2:10, hold on for the third lap in the 67 range, and kick the last 300 as hard as you can. Do NOT worry about who is in the race. Just run these splits and the result will take care of itself.” To Patti Sue I would say, ” Patti, that is the bitch to beat. Stay with her until a lap to go and kick her ass.”. In her case I wanted to portray the competition as personal and the chief competition was a “bitch” and therefore deserving of the asswhipping we had in mind. I wanted her to see the opposition on a personal level, that was potentially positioned to take something of personal value from her. The idea was to get it down to a one-on-one struggle and have her personally triumph over someone seeking to take away the recognition and rewards she had worked so hard to achieve. With Regina, on the other hand, I wanted to make the race as non-personal and dispassionate as possible. Just stay with the objective game plan, do the task, and do not worry about the persons and personalities in the race.
Despite the fact that my race tactics and strategies for them may have been correct, the training was too much slanted to ultimate goal orientation and less toward the process and task orientation. This favored Patti Sue, but handicapped Regina. In order to be fairer to Regina, I should have included much more focus on her form and technique . Patti Sue already had what I felt was excellent mechanics, so all we had to do was to strengthen her in order to more effectively apply her naturally good mechanics. Regina had great inherent strength, but her mechanics were not as efficient and sound as they should have been. So when she mildly pushed back about mechanical changes I happily went along, and focused on goal focused training. After a while Regina realized on a subconscious level that the training she was getting was not inherently best for her. After graduating Stanford, she found someone who understood her needs and did a better job of making sure they were properly addressed. Patti Sue had been an Olympic finalist in 1988 at 3,000 meters and an Olympic finalist at both the 1,500 and 3,000 in 1992. She was ranked #1 at 3,000/5,000 in 1990. Regina Jacobs was ranked #1 in the world approximately 10 years later. Despite my desire for both of them to do exceptionally well at the elite level, I was not able to completely get out of my own way. By that I mean that I was not able to completely overcome my own personal psyche and mental orientation in order to train both athletes properly. By giving into my basic NATURE I was unable to properly NURTURE an athlete who had a mindset not consistent with my own. I applied the proper ART of coaching in developing strategies that worked for them, but did not evenly apply the SCIENCE  to training due to my own personal preferences.
It is more than obvious and clear that in the diverse sport of track and field, that ” one size fits all ” is definitely NOT the way to go. There has to be accomodations made for the inherent psyche and competition comfort zones of each athlete. The NATURE and NURTURE dichotomy, the ART/SCIENCE symbiosis are constantly bearing down on us. How we handle these and exploit these more often than not determine the ultimate outcome in competitive athletes and athletics. As we mix and match these critical elements of success we have one principal factor that we must keep uppermost in our work. Athletes do not compete well outside of their own personal comfort zones. No one functions for very long at 100%. The definition of INJURY is TWO efforts in a row at 100%. Therefore to ask an athlete to, ” give 110%” is on its face counterproductive and stupid. Something less than 100% is therefore the comfort zone of the athletes and they more or less settle into that during their event. The problem comes when we get athletes who have a comfort zone that is less than task, or race pace and therefore have trouble performing for long at that rate. Recently in talking with the athletes I currently coach I shared the following with them:
Gang, when I was at Stanford University I had athletes that would scratch, claw, perhaps do personal injury if they felt they
were getting a grade less than they deserved. The level of academic competitive zeal and demands they placed on
themselves were often well above  Olympic level. However, when they got on the track, their comfort zone for performance
was some times less. So what we had to do was to work them in such a fashion in training that equalled the work load they
were used to
in academics. It was not that they had a lack of competitive drive, in most cases it was the fact that we did
not stress them in ways that would allow their comfort zones in track and field equal task or race pace.  When we were
successful in doing that, they competetd very well against all comers.
The reason I am sharing this with you is because some of you fall into the same category as the athletes I worked with at
Stanford. You all have very high competitive zeal in the final analysis, but in some cases I have not been coaching you to
the point where your comfort zone equals race pace. However, some of you exceed the race pace demands based upon
your training because you have a high level  competitive comfort zone. When you relax and fall back into a race mode, you
do not fall back as fall as those with a lower comfort zone level and tolerance. People like David Oliver and Xavier Carter
have a natural competitive stress tolerance that allows them to compete in what is a comfort zone that is higher than
normal. On the other hand, those of you who do not have that, we have to train in such a manner that accounts for that
difference. That means we have to train at levels of stress that far exceeds what race pace requires. Once you have
adjusted to the newer and higher levels of stress, then when you drop off into your comfort zone you are right at race pace
and therefore have energy and reserves necessary to dominate the critical zone at the end of your race. What we have here
is the age old problem of how we combine NATURE and NURTURE. In some cases I have failed in not demanding and
asking enough of some of you in training to allow you to revert to your comfort zone and still be at race and performance
pace. That will change. We are going to increase both the velocity and volume stresses on you. But before we can do that
effectively, we need to make sure you have the mechanics and efficient technique necessary to handle the higher loads
without breaking down. But make no mistake about it,……. we are going to work much harder than ever !!!
There was a chorous of groans, but they all knew we had just addressed another one of failures’ secrets.
Brooks T. Johnson
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