A Plea for Less Talk about Time Goals
This father was lovely. Still in work clothes - office badge and long pants that must have been the last thing he wanted to be wearing out in the blasting Indian summer humidity. He found his son and a teammate stretching in the grass. His face lit up. So did the boys'.
"So do you guys have times you want to hit today?"
This wonderful father initiated the same kind of conversation I've heard on collegiate team buses.
And those athletes on those buses would probably say it serves me right for eavesdropping that I would get an earload of the kind of conversation I like least.
Why do I dislike it so?
Because "hitting times" has nearly nothing to do with goal setting in cross country.
Let's make a distinction right here. In cross country, it is good to have what we can call performance goals and what we can call fitness goals. "Hitting times" can be a kind of fitness goal. Chasing a particular time can help to gauge fitness in tempo runs, interval workouts, or say, road races that one enters as an individual.
But cross country meets are not won by times. Cross country is a team sport. Team toughness is what wins cross country meets. Cross country needs five runners across the line before as many other teams' five runners as possible. And every single runner on the team after the first five play the crucial role of displacing other teams' top five - pushing their placement up, up, up - so that their own team's first five can get the lowest composite score. Every runner matters. Every place matters. Time matters not a smidgen unless two teams tie in their top-five's composite placement scores. At which point the faster team average time breaks the tie.
Okay, you say, time doesn't matter all that much, but conversations about time goals in cross country are pretty harmless, right? Because they at least give athletes a chance to talk about their fitness goals, no?
Well here I'd have to disagree. Time conversations can do harm. They can derail an athlete's focus - sending them down the path of thinking about fitness when it's time to think about performance. And here's what happens when the mind sets off down that trail. Let's say an athlete gets to the first mile marker and hears someone call out a split. Oh rats, they think, that's way slower than I ran last week. Or Oh, no! We went out way too fast and now I'm going to die. Or Yikes! I needed to run 15 seconds faster per mile to hit the time I wanted to hit, and now I'm never going to be able to make that up. I have failed!
And now you get several things going on that distract the athlete from the task at hand. You get athletes doing math in their heads (what would I have to run in the next miles to make up for what I wish I had done in these?), you get athletes thinking about individual fitness rather than what they need to do to push their bodies past fatigue right now. They need focus on what drives their bodies forward - the power they can find in their feet, legs, glutes, armswings, breathing, and mind. They need to get in front of other teams' runners. Even if they are running in the seventh, eighth, tenth, fifteenth position on their own team.
Again, times count for almost nothing in cross country. Every course is different. Every day on the same course is different because conditions change. Times don't qualify athletes for races. Competing does. Times tell us nothing about who fell down and got back up and clawed or crawled their way to the finish. Times tell us nothing about the mud and blood that every cross country runner wears at some point in their racing career.
Every cross country runner contributes to their team, and they do it in far more ways - and far more important ways - than running for times. There is nothing wrong with celebrating improvements in fitness, and times can surely reflect those improvements. But you wouldn't ask a cornerback or a running back if he's going to run his fastest 40-yard dash in a game. Because the football game is different from the 40-yard dash. Those cornerbacks and running backs have got massive, moving obstacles to get around in their sprints from point A to point B. Speed and fitness are what get them there, but what matters is how they performs - how they read the situation at hand, how they understand the people and conditions around them and use those understandings to make moves that support their team. That's what makes them great athletes. And in that way, football is no different from cross country.
So please I beg the good parents and supporters of cross country runners everywhere: please don't prioritize times - fitness goals - when you talk with your athletes. Talk about what drives them forward. Because it takes more than fitness to be cross country tough.
Margaret Smith, Ph.D. works with individual athletes and teams of all sports and all levels from elite youth to professional at The MindSide Sport and Performance Psychology in Birmingham. Before joining The MindSide, she both coached and competed in NCAA Division I Cross Country and Track at ACC and Big 10 schools. Now that she's in SEC country, you can reach this TarHeel born and bred at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrMargaretAS.