In days of yore, I considered myself a tennis player. I'd win some matches on occasion, but by the time I was about 15 I realized it maybe wasn't the sport for me. My problem was that I just didn't have the temperment or mental game for tennis. I'd get agitated, I'd get angry, and soon enough I'd have beaten myself handily.
Fortunately, I stumbled onto an article by sports psychologist Jim Loehr in 'Tennis' magazine. The thrust of this article was that there are '2' different kinds of players-those who need to get 'psyched up' for a match and those who effectively need to 'chill out' in order to perform. I was definitely the latter when it came to tennis.
The reality is that being in the right mental space is critical to performing well...regardless of the sport or activity you're engaging in. If you don't BELIEVE you can do something, it doesn't matter how hard you work, how hard you train, chances are you WON'T do it.
I was reminded of this important lesson not too long ago when I started working with Maxine. Maxine and myself exchanged emails and finally agreed to meet for our first session. I was immediately struck by Maxine. She was tall, thin, athletic, and attractive. Maxine spoke at length about her challenges 'running fast'. I found myself looking at Maxine and wondering exactly why someone like this would have challenges running fast. She was BUILT to run!
I expected her to take off like a gazelle when she ran a couple casual warm up laps. But, the speed at which she was moving was more like a clydesdale! Needless to say, I was a bit baffled and in a few weeks found myself wondering if Maxine's challenges had less to do with training and more to do with something inside her head.
My suspicions were effectively confirmed after about a month or so of training. Maxine would have moments of brilliance where I'd see her run fast, but they were fleeting and far between. I scheduled a 2 mile time trial to see what progress we'd made since we first started working together. The first two laps were beautiful to watch. Maxine glided gracefully and quickly across the track. However, Maxine's graceful gliding was all too short lived.
After the second lap, Maxine's body language changed, she moved differently, and she inexplicably slowed down! The next thing I knew she finished the two mile time trial with a time that was even SLOWER than what she posted during our first session. This simply didn't make ANY sense to me. I knew she was committed to the training. The schedule I had her on included workouts that ABSOLUTELY increase endurance, VO2Max, lactate threshold, and leg turnover. How was it possible that after 4+ weeks of solid, consistent, QUALITY training that Michelle had somehow regressed?!?!
Frustrated, I called Maxine out at the conclusion of this time trial. I asked her what happened after the first two laps. She told me after the first two laps she got scared and basically started telling herself she couldn't maintain this pace. The proverbial lightbulb went off for me at this juncture. Maxine's challenge wasn't the training. It wasn't that she wasn't meant to run fast. Maxine's challenge was that she didn't BELIEVE that she could.
My approach to coaching Maxine changed a bit in that I really tried to focus on positive reinforcement and encouraged Maxine to do some positive visualization and positive self talk. I encouraged her to become cognizant of those negative voices and confront them. You CAN run fast. You ARE CAPABLE of doing this. FIGHT through this!
I also began asking Maxine questions that were a bit more personal in nature in an attempt to get a better sense of exactly 'why' these nasty voices were creeping in. What started to become clear to me is that Maxine had encountered a number of experiences in her life that had led her to believe (erroneously) that she wasn't capable of performing at a high level...whether this was at the track with me, at the office, or in other areas of her life. Maxine had a tendency to pack it in at the first sign of challenge or difficulty. This was my challenge...how to help Maxine work through this.
While I saw progress at the track during our workouts, I was curious how this might carry over into an actual race day performance. I would find out soon enough.