Making the Conversion from Practice to Race

Making the Conversion from Practice to Race

If there was ever a headline I felt unqualified to write it's this one. Because I have been there. And I have worked with many promising young athletes who have felt stuck in that place too.

So what follows is no magical formula for transformation. Instead, it's a few questions for you to ask yourself. I suggest using them to talk to your coach or with a supporter who can help you with your goals and your plans for going after them.

  1. What is it about practice that helps you succeed?

Probably a lot. Great coaches structure every element of practice to create successful outcomes. (Over time! Not every practice will or should make you feel like a superstar.) So make yourself a list. Write down exactly what it is that makes practice feel good for you. Here's a sample list of things that might come to mind:

  • I get to regroup after each interval - the little mental and physical break helps, plus I can talk to my coach or teammates if I need to.
  • I can shake off feeling bad about an interval by putting in the effort to feel good about the next one.
  • I know who I can run with.
  • No one is expecting anything other than that I show up and work hard.
  • There is no "permanent record" of my performances in practice; the stakes are low.
  1. What is it that you want out of practice?

What are your goals when you show up at practice each day? How do you evaluate your practice efforts?

When you look over what you have written down, did you write anything about belonging? Feeling like you have a place, that people know you and see you and appreciate what you're doing? Did you write anything down about predictability? That you know what to expect and can feel some comfort in knowing how exactly to make sense of everything that just happened?

I'm guessing you probably didn't write down the words belonging or predictability in your lists. But look again at what you actually wrote. Are either of these feelings implied in what you put down?

3.. What is it that you want out of a race? (Just one race for now. Your next race.)

Do any of these goals have anything to do with belonging (for example, belonging to a group of top finishers; belonging to a group of people who have clocked a particular time; belonging in a certain place on your team)?

Do any of your goals have anything to do with predicting an outcome (for example, I want to finish in X time; I want to be in Xth place)?

Now you're going to do two things.

First, go ahead and acknowledge why you want what you want. Talk with someone about it. Be honest about the extent to which belonging and predictability figure into what you're going after.

Next, try this one exercise. Go watch another sport. Since it's football season, take a look at some offensive linemen. When they go out on the line, how do they position their bodies to convey that they belong? Go ahead and assume the position. When they're in that position, those linemen know that they could get hit and hit hard. And hurt. But look at how they are working - in their bodies and their minds - to let go of the need to predict the outcome, to focus on the effort of protecting their teammates. They are literally putting everything they have on the line with no guarantees of what will happen next.

Copying the body language of an offensive lineman for a few minutes is only one of many little mental skill exercises that can enhance your athletic performance. But this little exercise gives you the chance to practice two key mental skills that you need for translating great workouts into great races: 1) suspending doubts about whether or not you belong; 2) letting go of desires to predict outcome in order to give yourself over to effort. Notice I said "suspend" doubts -- as in, you may never get rid of them completely, and that's OK, and "let go" of desires to predict -- which doesn't mean you won't feel some desire to know an outcome ahead of time but rather that you don't hold on to that desire quite so tightly.

We can talk more about suspending doubt and letting go of desire to predict here in this forum or one-on-one. Because both of these are easier said than done. But both are critical for reaching the next level in your sport -- for building the mindset of a great athlete.

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 or on Twitter @DrMargaretAS.