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“Who is going to win? I am going to win!”
Whatever your sport, there are three levels of training. First, you train to be fit enough to take part, then you train hard enough to be competitive, and after that, if you are good enough, you train to be the best – international level.
Put into the context of running, the beginner has to go through at least several weeks of training before he or she is fit enough to run in a 10K road race. The natural athlete might get away with it, but for most people to run in a race without training would be physically and psychologically disastrous. The level of effort in a Mce is so much greater than that of the 50-yard jog which is the ‘normal’ person’s idea of running that the thought of continuing the effort for mile after mile is quite appalling. Only by building up the effort gradually does the beginner become convinced that he CAN keep on running for that distance. The physical and the mental training go hand in hand.
In the same way, when the runner has decided to become a more serious competitor at this distance, he will set his mind on a certain target time, let’s say 40 minutes, for 10 kilometres and start to train with that goal in mind. He will be running up to 40 miles a week, so that 10 kilometres a day seems quite a normal distance, and he will be running shorter distances at faster speeds, so that a speed of four minutes per kilometre does not seem exceptional.
The next step might be to run five kilometres in under 20 minutes, followed by 8K in 24 minutes. By this time the runner will be convinced that he can achieve his goal and even be impatient for it. When he reaches the day which he has assigned for his attempt he should be so determined that even bad conditions will not prevent him from making it. He is strong mentally because he has confidence in his physical ability.
Looking at the Commonwealth 1500
At the highest level, the mental strength grows from the physical performance in the same way, but there is a crucial difference between performing well and actually winning. When you reach international level, everyone else is accustomed to winning. The win will not come automatically with the performance.
If we look at the recent Commonwealth Games, for example, we had a 1500m race with no clear favourite. Neither Steve Cram nor Peter Elliott made the English team and none of the four Kenyans who topped the ranking lists had been picked. Simon Doyle of Australia, who might have been the favourite on last year’s form, was injured. David Strang of Scotland was World Indoor Champion but had run poorly in the European Games. Graham Hood of Canada carried the expectations of the home crowd. Kevin McKay was the English champion and John Maycock was World Student Games champion at 5000m. Chesang and Tanui were expected to uphold Kenya’s remarkable tradition in distance running. So who was going to assume the mantle of champion? With six or more potential winners, the battle was as much mental as physical.
-You will never win a race unless you believe you can win it but merely believing is not enough. You will not win a race unless you put yourself in a position from which it is possible to win.
In this particular race it was obvious that the Kenyans went in with a plan which was designed for Chesang to win. The young Ugandan, Achon, and the Kenyan second string, Tanui, maintained a pace which was fast enough to discourage McKay and Strang, both renowned ‘kickers’ in slow races. Going down the back straight on the last lap, neither of these two could have won except with a superhuman finish. If the leaders run the last 200 metres in 26 seconds, someone who reaches that point seven metres behind them will have to run at 25-second pace. Moreover, the leaders have a clear track in front of them, while those coming from behind have to thread their way through a group of other runners, all of whom are trying to take the shortest path to the line.
Clearly, Chesang ran to a winning plan, but both Maycock and the young Canadian, Sullivan, put themselves in positions where they could have won if they had possessed a little more strength or finishing speed. Sullivan came round Maycock and almost got on terms with the Kenyan. Nieuwoudt of South Africa, like Maycock, was in a position from which he could have won but lacked the strength. Chesang hung on to finish eight-hundredths of a second ahead of Sullivan, with Maycock and Nieuwoudt a few tenths behind. McKay finished eighth, Hood tenth, Strang twelfth.
Turning theory into practice
It is easy to theorise about these things but how do you achieve success in an actual race? There seem to me to be two or three effective ways of going about it. The first is by working as a team. The team is stronger than the sum of its parts. The single infantryman will never go over the top on his own but he will when he is a member of a company. If, when the race starts, athlete A has instructions to lead for the first lap, he will do so, and B will take over at halfway. By giving the athletes instructions, the coach relieves them of doubt, which is such a betrayer of hope in the big event. The athlete must be able to apply his plan even when he is feeling bad, and this is where the sense of duty acts as a reinforcement.
The other effective bit of teamwork is that between the athlete and the coach, even though the coach cannot be on the track. The athlete who does it all by himself is now the exception rather than the rule. The coach does not merely study the opposition and make the plan, he builds into the athlete the conviction that he is good enough to win, that he ought to win, that he must not tolerate defeat. Of course, if the coach himself has experience at international level his arguments are much more convincing. It was significant that of the younger athletes who did so well in Victoria, John Maycock is coached by Peter Elliott and Mark Hudspith, bronze medalist in the marathon, is coached by Jim Alder, who himself won the Commonwealth Games marathon in 1966.
Even if you have no coach and are not the fastest man in the field, it is still possible to talk yourself into winning. David Hemery often tells of the visual imagery he used before his Olympic victory, instead of worrying about the others, he concentrated on his most pleasurable runs and visualised himself running the perfect race. The complete athlete has thought through every scenario and worked out his response. The more often he runs through those scenarios in his mind, working out how he would react to, say, an early breakaway or a mid-race kick, the easier it will be in the actual race. If you need to reinforce this, you could try saying a little mantra to yourself every time you think about the big day: ‘Who is going to win? I am going to win’. It may sound childish but it worked for me.