Defeating the Racing “Precedent”




He beat me once, so he’ll beat me again.


She has more talent than I do.  Remember the last race?



Coaches of distance running athletes may have differing philosophies of physical and mental training, but all will agree that the mental constitution of the competitor has a lot to do with the overall success or failure of the physical training program.  We may differ in how much we feel the mental aspect affects the overall outcome of a race, but we all agree the mental state of the competitor has an affect and must be trained.


A phenomenon occurs in developing teams that defies logic or explanation.  A runner starts a competitive career, develops through several macrocycles in his or her first year plan, and matures to as high a level as possible given the ability and training they bring to the table as they start competitive running.  As coaches, we encourage them, plan for the future, evaluate the possibilities, and help them dream of unlimited success as they move to the next year of their development.   The training seems fine, the athlete’s health is super, the timeframe is reasonable, and communication is perfect between athlete, parents, and coach.  In short . . . all is ready.  This athlete trains superbly, and perhaps even exceeds physical expectations. 


A new macrocycle opens . . . cross country, indoor, or outdoor distance track.  The debut race for the athletes unfolds and all eyes are upon the runner, who is prepared physically, and perhaps even with a mental plan of how to attack the race.  The race is perfectly matched to ability and even has many of the same competitors from the past year in school.  It may even be a traditional debut event of a new season, in a traditional location.  A perfect place for comparison and validation of training technique!


Then the athlete crashes.  Maybe it’s just a slight hiccup . . . maybe they’ve been obliterated . . . but in any case, no one can explain the lack of performance . . . particularly the athlete.  The athlete’s eyes focus on the ground, the shoulders hang low, and disappointment fills the air as athlete, parent, and coach try in vain to explain why the race hasn’t lived up to its billing.  Physical and mental possibilities are discussed.  Should we alter the direction of training?  Do we need to eliminate ‘pressure’?  Was there some other element that we haven’t thought of?


Yes . . . there was.


Girls and boys in high school ( and beyond) both consciously and subconsciously develop comfort zones that are not only physical, but mental too!    They challenge themselves to attack the great unknown of running on the ragged physical edge of aerobic ability, but they are afraid to attack the comfort zone of upsetting the natural order of things in a race finish.  If Johnny beat me last year, he must certainly beat me again!  As a girl or boy starts to race and compete, they notice those around them in the first few races . . . the athletes ahead as well as those behind.  They gain contextual clues on the course or track and expect these reassuring situations to develop over and over again.  If Johnny always out-kicked me to the tape as a freshman and I saw it time after time last year, he’ll be the one to get me this year too.


There is just one flaw in the logic.  You trained and Johnny didn’t.  You had a summer strength program and Johnny didn’t.  You have parental support and Johnny doesn’t.  You were dedicated and sacrificed over the off-season to make yourself better, and Johnny didn’t.  But you showed up at the race and were a victim of precedent.  What Johnny did last year must certainly be the natural order of things.  After all, he has more talent!  Remember last year?


A coach must convince an athlete that precedent is irrelevant in distance running.  All athletes must race in the moment and that moment is fluid.  The moments connect together and become days.  The days connect together and become training microcycles.  The microcycles connect together and become seasons . . . and athletes change abilities over the fluidity of time.  Ultimately, talent reaches a point where training surpasses it . . . and the athletes you coach must understand that. 


Racing in the past has no bearing on outcome of the present or future, but training in the past has a direct correlation with possible improvement or success.  If Johnny has relied upon talent, or has been unable to seriously improve over the off-season for any reason, it is logical to expect your athlete to surpass Johnny in the next racing phase.  But we need to understand the mental state of the racer and the fact that a mental comfort zone rests deep within each athlete.  That comfort zone contains a picture and the picture is one of an order of finish that cannot be upset, regardless of the change of time or training.  That is the coaches’ challenge.


The first solution to the problem of precedent in racing is to outline the positive aspects of training and development.  That can come through regularly assessed training bouts that show progress and developing speed, timed race simulations that are compared to the past, and positive comparisons with previous athletes who have also achieved highly that are on the same training path.  As the athlete races, the focus needs to be taken off the others in the race . . . those others who have beaten you in the past . . . and it needs to be placed on the personal aspect of a new PR (personal record) or PB (personal best).  Regardless of conditions or outside influence, the athlete must avoid focus on the others who have historically done well, and focus instead on the newly trained racer who is attacking a PR on the course . . . themselves!  If the PR falls due to diligent training for your athlete, the untrained opponent who has had a historical precedent of beating them will also fall.  But if your athlete allows a focus on precedent, the mental picture stays in the mind.  They actually work through a race until they are just ready to pounce, pushing their opponent even faster, but never willing to overtake them as that would upset the natural order of who is ‘supposed’ to win.


The second solution is to avoid the precedent setting races and competition with the natural order of things until the mental state of the athlete can change.  Allow success to develop away from the routine.  You can alter the racing order, competitive sites, and/or timing of the races in the macrocycle so as to allow success to develop.  Expose the athlete to a new environment where the precedent has not been established.  When the athlete has experienced positive racing outcomes that are commensurate with training level, re-introduce the competition with the opponents who are a part of the ‘natural order of things’.


The last thing you can do is to aggressively approach sports psychology as an element of the program and work on visualization drills (following a relaxation technique) that take advantage of the training confidence built through hard work.  Competence breeds confidence and as your athlete works hard, the mental strength develops along with the physical ones . . . so spend some time every weekly microcycle on ‘programming’ a positive race result that uses the new training level.  During that visualization, the exploitation of the new training level versus the old opponent is seen . . . the coach allows a ‘pre-race’ to develop in the visualization of the athlete.  That ‘pre-race’ is believed sub-consciously, and eventually it blurs into the conscious mind as the conscious mind believes in the new level of training that has changed the ‘natural order of things’.


Athletes in high school are very peer oriented and social.  They are aware of things in and out of the classroom that might seem trivial or insignificant to parents or coaches, but they are very important to the athlete at the time.  The precedent established in races has a lot of importance to the athlete, and upsetting that precedent is a radical thought for some athletes, regardless of the competitive nature of distance running.  Be aware of the athlete’s mentalities on your team and those who may believe in the precedent established in prior racing . . . and what they can do to defeat that precedent if they decide to alter the ‘natural order of things’.



Jeff Arbogast




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