Mental Health and NCAA Student-Athletes: A Review of "What Made Maddy Run"

I’ve been in the running world for a long time. I ran my first race when I was about 5 years old, competed in AAU and USA summer track throughout middle school, ran track and cross country all through high school, and then dove into the Division I running world my sophomore year of college. I have met some of the toughest, most courageous women I know in this sport and have made more friends through running than any other activity in my life.

I have come across many types of runners at different stages of my career. I’ve seen issues like eating disorders, obsessive tendencies, perfectionism, high anxiety, and other mental demons derail successful careers of athletes that I have trained with, looked up to, and competed against. A lot of the struggles that athletes face hit them during their first year at college. Life changes, the sport changes, the pressure changes, but most of the time, the athlete’s expectations increase.

I recently read Kate Fagan’s book, What Made Maddy Run, (I LOVED it) and she summed up one of the biggest struggles that NCAA freshman student-athletes face in the quote below.

“Freshman year of college, especially for those playing a sport, is like walking through an obstacle course wearing a blindfold. No context exists for how hard the workouts will be, how long they will last, what each class will be like, what events are fun, what should be avoided. There is no yin-yang, either; no understanding that one week might feel grueling, unmanageable but just hang on, because the following week will be light and easy. For someone who struggles with the unknown, freshman year of college can feel like walking a path lined with land mines---heart racing, disaster around every corner.

Now add another variable: mental health.”

Overall, Fagan’s story on Maddy felt very familiar to me. I have witnessed many of the tales that Kate retold of Maddy’s first few months as a Division I runner at an intense academic university. When I was reading the book, I felt like I knew Maddy, like I’d met her before, or at least parts of her in other athletes that I have known. I have participated in similar conversations with teammates and seen elements of this behavior play out before. Luckily, each person I knew that shared an element of Maddy’s tale was mentally healthier than Maddy. Yes, they were suffering, but not to the same extent of mental illness as Maddy. This difference in mental health is the differentiator between Maddy’s story and the story of friends that I can recall.

Oftentimes, cases that resemble Maddy’s do get better overtime through perseverance, resilience, or just toughing it out - a concept that is stressed to student-athletes. But in the rarer cases when it is mental health, are we equipped to deal with the problem?

To get on the roster of a Division I program at a top 15 academic school requires a strong, driven personality. Many of these student-athletes are addicted to progress, and when they felt like they start going the wrong direction, their world crumbles. For a lot of student-athletes, their identity is closely tied to their performance in sports, but the competition is much harder at the Division I level. Failing is hard. Additionally, in sports, “sucking it up” and “toughing it out” are part of getting to the top. Asking for help, especially mental help, is not a concept repeated to athletes as they are climbing the ranks in high school. In most cases, the reason athletes make it to Division I is because they have experienced a lot of success, something that many assume will automatically continue throughout their college careers.

In many NCAA Division I programs, there is no open door in the athletic department to talk with a professional who is trained in the mental health of student-athletes. Yes, there are coaches, but their job is to coach you, and as an athlete, I know that bringing what feels like ‘personal’ issues to coaches makes you feel like a nuisance. There are academic advisors, trainers, and administrators. All of these people can offer some form of help, but it is not their primary job or their area of expertise. There are professionals that collaborate with the athletic department, but they are not in the athletic department. A subtle, yet important difference in my opinion.

On the whole, the NCAA is doing a better job of raising awareness of mental health. Schools are trying harder to develop resilience in their athletes and are focusing on programs that offer student-athletes skills that will help them deal with the turbulent 4 or 5-year journey. However, there is still plenty of room for progress. If you have story or an idea or an experience to share, I’d love to hear it! Spreading the word, speaking out, and sharing experiences helps create positive change in this area. 

What I've Been Reading: Research

1.     A Diversified Portfolio Model of Adaptability

This article speaks my language. For me, it highlights the importance of social networks, experiences, travel, culture, sports, school, and work all in one piece. It basically applies portfolio theory to people and discusses the benefits of having multiple roles and how this can act as a buffer to stress and “risk.” In short, it argues that diversification in roles may increase adaptability, resilience, and well-being. Now, this may sound backwards to some people. One line of thought promotes the idea that if you really want to succeed, you have to be all in, with a narrow focus. Maybe this is true. But, this article proposes that having a rich diversification of roles helps you adapt to life’s challenges, which can ultimately increase success. In my life, I have found that I am more successful when I have multiple roles that I am invested in. The year I tried to fully commit to professional running (i.e., not working, not going to school, JUST running), was my worst year ever. This was probably because I was unhappy and confused and struggling with my identity. I was supposed to be a runner, and when that didn't go well, I felt totally unsuccessful. I learned that I thrive when I can draw on other roles, and this article provides a good theory on why this may be the case.  Not everyone is like this, but if you are, and you sometimes worry that you aren’t committed enough to one pursuit, read this article, it may explain why you need other important identities in your life.

2.     Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

This article appeared in HBR in 2007. It is still extremely relevant and perhaps even more important to implement today that it was 10 years ago. On one hand, I worry that this research is 10 years old and we are still seeing these problems.  On the other hand, the conversation around creating a more fulfilling and satisfying work environment is happening more frequently now. Also, this article may feel particularly important to me as I am finding myself busier balancing working, running, and my social roles. This article highlights how the individual is at the center of structuring their environment and it suggests ways to take control of our work life so we can have the energy to perform our best and enjoy life more. A couple of my favorite quotes from the article are below.

“To recharge themselves, individuals need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.”

“It’s been a revelation for many of the people we work with to discover they have a choice about how to view a given event and to recognize how powerfully the story they tell influences the emotions they feel.”

3.     Music of the Night: Performance Practitioner Considerations for Enhancement Work in Music

I am not musically talented. Some may even go as far to say that I’m tone deaf. Nevertheless, I have learned that the musical world and the athletics world have a lot of performance elements in common, and I have enjoyed exploring this topic. Dealing with anxiety, comparing yourself to others, dissecting the Instagram posts of fellow athletes / musicians, coping with the bumps in the road to the ultimate goal, navigating setbacks and failures, and training with the hope that your breakthrough performance will come soon—these are topics experienced by musicians and athletes.  I got excited when I saw this article because it puts a research spin on a lot of topics I have discussed for fun over dinner with friends.

Sport Psychology is the oldest and perhaps most established field in the performance enhancement. More and more people are taking skills from sports and applying them to other domains, like business or music. Also, more domains are actively seeking out the use of performance specialists (yay for me!).  This article highlights the overlap between the music and sports. It also does a great job of bringing to light the differences and areas of caution. Although there is a lot of overlap in the performance domain, there are cultural differences that must be taken into consideration. You can’t take a sport performance program and plop it down in a music program. That definitely won’t work. I am always an advocate of learning more about the environment of the client before developing a performance plan.  If you are thinking about working in the music industry, I suggest this a starting point to get to “know your audience.”

 

References:

Chandra, S. & Leong, T.L.F. (2016). A diversified portfolio model of adaptability. American Psychologist, 71, 847-862. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0040367

Pecen, E., Collins, D., & MacNamara, A. (2016). Music of the night: performance practitioner considerations for enhancement work in music. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5, 377-395. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/spy0000067

Schwartz, T. & McCarthy, C. (2007, October). Manage your energy, not your time. Harvard Business Review. 

Olympic Games Re-Cap

Where am I supposed to start?! I have a million stories, thoughts, and reactions to share with you from my Olympic journey. Reflecting on this epic journey is hard, especially for me, as I am the type of person who focuses on moving forward. When I start reflecting, my mind wanders to what could have been. What if I didn’t get hurt? What would the Olympics have been like if I was able to compete instead of hobble for survival to the finish line? I’d be lying if I said that each day I didn’t wonder why I tore my plantar fascia at the Olympic Games. However, I am a firm believer in the phrase, “I don’t bounce back, I bounce forward.” And I bounced forward from my race as soon as possible and focused on the positives that achieving my Olympic dream presented to me. I can honestly say I have walked away from Rio with an armor of happy memories.

Thought # 1 from the Olympics: The People and the Conversations

My favorite part of the Olympics was the people that I got to meet and the conversations I was lucky enough to have with other Olympians. I think a lot of people that interact with me may notice that I ask a lot of questions when I get talking to someone new. The researcher in me is fascinated by the different pathways that people take to become an Olympian, the support system that they have, and what their life looks like outside of the village.

I took advantage of running along the likes of Jo Pavey, and asked her to describe all four of her previous Olympic experiences and what it was like to get to her 5th Olympics. Jo confirmed my belief that finding a way to make running part of a sustainable lifestyle is the key to a long, successful career. She has inspired me to avoid limiting my career by my age and instead focus on the enjoyment and improvement I have seen in my running over the past couple of years.

There were several young stars on the GB team who I loved hanging out with because of their high energy, no fear, and invigorating approach to the games. There were other ladies who I had competed alongside over the past 6-8 years and we all finally achieved our Olympic dream after each of us had to overcome several obstacles on the journey to Rio. It was great to make it to the Olympic games alongside so many friends.

I spent time speaking to athletes from other countries on the long bus rides to and from the Olympic village. I loved coincidentally sitting next to Canadian runner Micha Powell, who happened to be the daughter of Rosey Edeh, a hall of famer and 400m hurdler from Rice University. It was also great to catch up with Marielle Hall, who I competed against back in college, and was also once coached by Steve Sisson. The conversations I had were fascinating and proved to me how small the Olympic community really is. I felt connected in someway to everyone I spoke to in the village.

Thought #2 from the Olympics: Team GB knows how to do the Olympics.

I feel lucky to run for Great Britain. The British Olympic Association (BOA) knows how to make the Olympic experience unforgettable for the athletes. It started with the kitting out process: picking out the sizes for our village wear and competition kit and being presented with a lot of freebees was the first way I was spoiled by TeamGB. I was quick to take advantage of several of the perks that go along with making a British Olympic team, like my free Oyster travel card and the £25 monthly vouchers from Aldi. The perks didn’t stop there. When we travelled out to Rio, we had a lovely free breakfast at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant in Terminal 5 and we picked up a lunch box for the journey. Our facilities at training camp in Belo Horizonte were top class, and the BOA did a great job of making sure everything was in place for the athletes when they arrived.

Before arriving in the village, the news had spread stories about how poor the living conditions were in the Olympic village. The British block was great—the BOA had solved all of the problems before the athletes arrived. Plus, our apartments were fully outfitted with TVs, wireless Internet, tea and coffee supplies, including a kettle and refrigerator, decorations on the walls, and lamps and cute pillows to lighten up the ambiance of the living rooms. I know that several other countries only had the bare bones in their rooms—no TV, no excess furniture, nothing in the kitchens. I am interested in the differences between countries and what each provides for Olympic athletes—I guess I still have more questions to ask J.  We were greeted with special gifts at our welcome meeting to the British block and constantly reminded of the caliber of our achievements to get to the Olympics. The star treatment continued on the journey home with a private, gold nosed, British Airways 747 plane. On the plane, we did a champagne toast, sang our national anthem, and were treated like heroes. We were welcomed home by loud cheers and congratulations at Heathrow.

Thought # 3 from the Olympics: It’s expensive, but totally worth it.

This year, I made no money from running. I do not have a salaried contract. Adidas provides me with shoes, racing kit, and training gear, but I am not a contracted athlete and I have no bonus structure. The majority of my travel and expenses are covered by Scottish Athletics (who are unbelievably supportive, positive, and by my side through thick and thin). Through British Athletics, I receive the Virgin London Marathon Silver funding, which covered an additional £1000 of my travel for races that wasn’t covered through Scottish Athletics. Luckily, my sister Katie is an incredible physical therapist, and when I’m in Texas she takes care of me, which saves me a huge expense. When I was in Teddington this summer, I paid for massage and visits to the chiropractor to help keep my body in once piece in the build up to Rio. I know I did not get nearly enough treatment to maintain my body because of the expenses and my lack of access to British Athletics physical therapists outside of competition. I used airline miles for travel to and from London for the summer, I paid out of pocket for some accommodation in the build up to Rio, and I was lucky enough to have great friends put me up for the remainder of my time in Teddington so that my Olympic dream didn’t burn a hole in my pocket.

I like to keep my running a sustainable part of my life, and sometimes that means I miss out on some of the extra things that could really benefit me. My running situation is similar to a handful of other athletes (perhaps more, but people aren’t very open about this stuff), but drastically different to many people at the Olympics. I know I am not on track to win a medal, and making the final this year was going to require me to run the best race of my life with a healthy left plantar fascia.

When I reflect on all of the sacrifices I made to line up for one race, momentarily it can seem crazy. However, Making the Olympics was worth every penny that I have put towards running, every penny I have missed earning by delaying putting my PhD to full time use, and every missed party / wedding / bottle of wine. Becoming an Olympian is PRICELESS, and I am so excited to be able use my experiences on the journey to the Olympics and through the Olympics in my role as a sport performance consultant in the future.

Other interesting things from the Olympics

·      I’ve never eaten in such a diverse space. Think about taking people from every country in the world and putting them in a single dining hall. It is chaotic. There are so many different cultural intricacies that surround food and I loved watching them unfold in the food hall.

·      Some athletes stay in the village in the build up to competition and some do not. A lot of athletes miss out on the spirit of the games because they want to stay in a quieter, more controlled environment. Others want to make sure they have their altitude tents, which aren’t allowed in the village apartments. Some people want to stay with their families. A handful of athletes are great at balancing both: staying focused and participating in the Olympic spirit. From my perspective, the Olympics are a lot about savoring the experience and participating in the Olympic spirit. I know I am swayed by the fact that I don’t have a medal, massive bonus, or pay check waiting for me at the finish line. But I also know that my Olympic memories would not be nearly as great without the fun times I had in the team apartments, participating in activities in the village, meeting new people, and navigating the insanely unique village environment.

·      Transportation was the one downside of the Olympics. It was very hard and time consuming to get to competition venues, even when using the Olympic lanes. Luckily, I was tired from the excitement of watching so many thrilling races at the Olympic stadium that I fell fast asleep on many of these bus rides.

What’s next for me?

I am settling into the next stage of my life in Houston, Texas. I am currently taking my annual break from running and giving my left plantar some time to recover. I am using my free time to focus on my business and I am excited to work with Houston based athletes regarding mental performance in sports. I will start training in a couple of weeks with Rice coach Jim Bevan, and I am so excited to be back on the track where it all began. My main aim for next year are the 2017 World Championships in London. Yep, you guessed it, I can’t hang up my spikes just yet!

What Is It Like to Become An Olympian?

I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I am heading to RIO for the 2016 Olympic Games! As I mentioned in my last blog, things have seemed far from picture perfect this season. Since I last wrote, I have had a couple of great races and a couple of OK races. Most importantly, I achieved my ultimate goal: I made the OLYMPICS! The races that got me there are all part of the story, the good ones, the bad ones, and even the DNF one.

I want to write about my journey because I think it is important to highlight that the buildup to becoming an Olympian is not always smooth and ideal. In most cases, it is the opposite. But in the end, it is that one race on the right day that makes everything possible and erases all of pain and feelings of defeat of all of the other races. When I think about running a big PB in June of the Olympic year, I catch myself saying, “I’m SO lucky.” But when I think longer about it, I realize it is not luck. There was a ton of hard work, a lot of sweat, some tears, huge sacrifices, and an endless amount of support from people helping me on this journey. We all worked our butt off for this day, and I am so happy we were rewarded.

Below is a little recap of the series of races in the buildup to my selection for the Olympics.

May 20th: Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic, Occidental College, LA

This race was the first time I lined up for a steeplechase since I walked off the track 3 laps into the race at Payton Jordan. The weeks following my DNF were hard, but good. I was nervous before every challenging training session and I was questioning whether I would be able to tough it out or not. Did I want it badly enough? Each day I proved to myself that I DID want it—I relit the fire in my belly and I was genuinely excited to line up at Oxy.

I raced aggressively and ran my third fastest time ever--less than 2 seconds outside of the Olympic Qualifying mark. I felt like I had brought my Olympic dream back to life and was relieved, proud, and excited.

June 4th: American Track League, Atlanta

I was overly eager to get back out and race after the Hoka meet. I wanted to secure my second Olympic qualifying time, and I wanted to do it sooner rather than later! As the race day approached, I had a lot of doubts. Was the weather going to be too hot? Was I recovered enough to race again? Was I forcing an unplanned race onto my schedule? In my heart, I knew I wasn’t ready to put everything on the line again. The race didn’t go nearly as well as I wanted. My doubts, the weather conditions, where I was in my training cycle, and the environment of the meet (including an extra barrier) all played a part in me not racing as well as I hoped for. Time to move on to the next one.

June 12th: Portland Track Festival

This had been a tentative race on my schedule. I was hoping to leave for the UK and start prepping for the trial race around the time of this meet. However, I was extremely uncomfortable making the trip over to the trials without securing my second Olympic standard. Training after the last race had gone really well, and I knew that if I raced to my potential, I could run under the Olympic Qualifying mark of 9:45. And then, BOOM, I ran 9:35. I had teammates from Rogue and from Rice cheering me on massively, and I could feel their energy pushing me the last two laps. I couldn’t contain my excitement when I crossed the finish line. I had essentially booked my ticket to RIO!

June 26th: British Trial, Birmingham

This meet was where I could secure automatic selection for the Olympics. For those who followed my story last year, you will remember that I was denied selection for the World Champs team even though I had the qualifying time and I won the British Championships. Things in Britain are done differently than in the US—to gain automatic selection you need 1) a top 2 finish at the British Champs and 2) two qualifying marks. If you don’t attain the automatic criteria, then your place on the team is left up to a committee to decide. In my case, the committee determined to bring 0 people to World Champs in the steeplechase instead of bringing their best steeplechaser who had achieved the qualifying standard. After last year, I made sure to read and re-read and re-read the selection policy.  I knew I had to hit the automatic criteria to guarantee selection.

Unlike last year, I entered the trial with my 2 qualifying marks, so a top two finish would secure my ticket to Rio. Going into the trial, I was the favorite by far. I also was the only person with an Olympic spot on the line. I was very nervous—the barriers always add an uncertain element and my Olympic selection depended on this race. I felt that I had the emotions of my non-selection last year creeping in and making things even more difficult for me. I DID NOT WANT TO MESS THIS UP!

I lead the race from the gun at a pace that I thought would thin out the field and keep me out of trouble. For the most part, I was right. Two girls followed my lead, but that was one too many! I was hyper aware of everything happening during this race. I was looking up at the jumbo screen and could see two girls on my heels. I wanted to win so badly, but more importantly, I needed to finish top 2 to gain automatic selection to Rio. I put in an injection of pace with 1k to go, and managed to lose one of the competitors. With 400 to go, there was still one other competitor by my side. All of the worrying, angst, and concentrating on not messing up had drained me throughout the race. I didn’t have the final kick I needed and I ended up finishing second.

Initially, when I crossed the finish line, I was disappointed. I was the favorite to win and I didn’t. However, the disappointment fleeted pretty quickly as interviewers started asking me how it felt to be going to Rio. I had checked all of the boxes for automatic selection for the OLYMPIC TEAM! Mission accomplished.

This trial race was emotionally taxing for me, but I still achieved what I needed to. I have been reminding myself of that. The journey is not picture perfect, and overcoming so many doubts, fears, and barriers is what makes the journey so great!

What’s Next? 

I am currently in Amsterdam with the Great Britain team preparing for the European Athletics Championships. I am excited to get some practice at a major championship event and have the opportunity to run rounds in the steeplechase. My prelim is on Friday, July 8th and the final is on Sunday, July 10th. You can read about the meet entries, time schedule, and streaming information here: http://www.european-athletics.org/

After Amsterdam, I’ll be heading back to London to continue preparing for Rio. I’ll also be lining up at the London Diamond League on July 23rd. Thank you all for the support, likes, and words of encouragement to help me get here!

 

The 2016 Track Season: An Update

I dropped out of my first race ever this past weekend at the Payton Jordan invite. Two months ago, I was confident that this race was going to be my chance to get my second Olympic standard and move me one step closer to selection for the GB Olympic team. My training had gone very well all winter, and I ran a PB in my first indoor race. In March, I thought I had the whole season perfectly planned.

Open up with a 5k PB at Stanford Invite. BOOM.

Run a FAST 1500 at Mt. Sac. POW.

Run an Olympic standard in the 3000m Steeplechase at Payton Jordan. CELEBRATE!

Then, the season started, nothing went to plan, and the reality of running bit me in the butt.

Stanford: Workouts were going great leading up to the Stanford Invite. The plan was to run 15:50, and that seemed very realistic. Then the race started, the plan went out the window, and I tempoed a solo 16:24 all by my lonesome while the field raced in front of me. I was upset, but not too upset. I know not to attach too much meaning to any single race, so I decided to put it behind me and look forward to the next one.

Then a massively unanticipated, very sad event happened. My husband and I flew home from Stanford early because our dog, Mondo, was sick. We spent the next week trying to save his precious life, but ultimately, we had to put him down. He had an aggressive brain tumor. We tried a combination of drugs and radiation treatment, but he ended up having a very bad seizure that left him in a coma.  Mondo’s life meant so much to me that loosing him made running seem insignificant. I would have traded anything to save his life, and it led me down a path of questioning a lot of things in my life, including why I run. In the matter of 10 days, I went from being strong, confident, and determined to teary, emotional, and uncertain.

Mt. Sac: My training was interrupted, but I wanted to stick the course and run at Mt. Sac. I wanted to do it for Mondo on the MONDO track at Cerritos College. But, it was too soon, I was too emotional, and exhausted. I ran 4:20, I didn’t enjoy it, and I was still grieving Mondo.

Payton Jordan: I had a couple of weeks to get ready for Payton. I knew I wasn’t ready, but I thought it would be good to open up the season and get my feet wet. I tried to stay positive and relaxed, but it was impossible to overpower my lack of desire to race. I dropped out 3 laps into the race. This was the first time I had ever consciously made the decision to drop out of a race. I was calm about it. I didn’t have it on that day.

So, here I am, a few races into the 2016 outdoor season with a couple of underperformances and a DNF. I’ve been in this sport long enough to know that the last month does not have to dictate my next two months. I am healthy and fit, but I do need some time to get the fire back in my belly.  I need a few weeks of LOVING the work that I do. Bad races are a very familiar part of a professional runner’s career. They make the good ones so much sweeter. The journey to the Olympics continues, but it is not the picture perfect journey that I yearned for a few months ago. However, I am confident that my road to Rio will be a work of art in its own, unique way. 

Openness and Performance

Something to think about: Are you stuck in your ways? The role of openness for enhancing performance.

Continuing to stay open can take some effort. It is easy to get stuck in your ways and shutdown outside explanations, suggestions, and possibilities that don’t stem from your line of thought. Coaches and athletes can both fall into these traps, and it’s easy to see how: people get to the top because of a commitment to their method and philosophy.  So, why would they keep an open mind when they know something works? I would argue that the people who stay at the top are the ones who are constantly evolving, innovating, questioning, searching for improvement, and refining their methods. Openness can impact training and performance from a multitude of angles. For example;

·      Openness can impact your willingness to try different workouts / training elements

·      Openness can change the way you think about races, injuries, weather conditions, and even performance venues

·      Considering alternatives can increase opportunities for success and improve your self-awareness

For example, you can start to associate slow race times with certain performance venues, or a specific workout with failure or underperformance, or certain weather conditions as bad luck. The negative narrowing of your attention will likely impact your performance and re-confirm your beliefs. This spiral makes it easy to become closed off to alternatives. However, having flexibility in your thoughts can, at times, save your performance. Openness prepares you for dealing with multiple competition scenarios and can allow you to perform to your potential under uncertain circumstances.

Some research highlighting the benefits of openness:

·      Openness to experiences is positively related to fluid intelligence (Lochbuam, Karoly, & Lando, 2002)

o   Basically, this means that people who are high in trait openness are better at problem solving on their feet. Think about a race situation when things start going down hill. Having the ability to adapt your race plan and trouble shoot under distress could save your performance.

·      Preliminary evidence suggests that openness lessens the stress response when presented with a threat (Schneider, Rench, Lyons, & Riffle, 2011).  There are a lot of stressful situations for athletes, especially in the lead up to important competitions. Having an open attitude can help your body save resources for the race instead of worrying about things that are out of your control.

·      People higher in openness perform better when faced with a challenge. Competing is all about rising to the challenge!

The 2016 Track Season Has Arrived!

The 2016 track season has arrived! As most athletes know, training for Rio has been underway for several months, and some may even argue several years. However, this is an extra special year when we get to run in an event that is recognizable around the globe, respected by everyone, and a symbol of achievement in sport. When it’s not an Olympic year, a lot of people are confused why I’m training. What would I be training for? Well, this year I don’t have to explain. The Olympics is a universal term that everyone understands!

I opened up my 2016 track season last week at the Husky Classic. I ran a personal best in the flat 3k of 9:15.20. I am very pleased with that as my starting point. I have run close to 9:15 before, but only after several races and multiple attempts at the specific race distance. For me, opening with a personal best is a good indicator that my training is going in the right direction.

As many of you may know, I spent mid-December to mid-January on my honeymoon—I did a month long trip around the globe with my husband, stopping in Moorea, New Zealand, Singapore, and London. When I bought the ticket to Seattle for the Husky Classic, I made sure it was refundable. I needed the flexibility in the ticket so I didn’t feel too pressured to meet specific training targets on my honeymoon.  It was important to me to find the right balance of enjoying my trip fully, embracing the vacation, while still finding time to enjoy my training. I didn’t skimp on the celebratory champagne, nice wine with dinner, or desserts, but I did make sure to run. I used my running as a way to enjoy the scenery and explore the new destinations. Some runs were definitely more successful than others—running to mountaintops for priceless views, is, well, hmm, maybe not that priceless? I dragged my husband on a couple of ‘scenic’ runs that were brutally hot, hilly, and lacking access to water. Nevertheless, for the most part, the running was glorious (check out the video below for a glimpse of some of the scenery we explored on foot). I didn’t have a planned schedule of sessions, but instead worked it around the travel schedule, weather, and sleep.  When I came back to Austin, I had maintained enough of my fitness to commit to the Husky Classic. The race was uncomfortable, as expected, but what I needed to give me a glimpse of where I’m at in training. It was also great to catch up with track friends—it is so good to reunite with people at races.

So, what’s next? Back to training! I’m focusing on opening up with a 5k at Stanford Invite on the 1st of April. Considering I’ve been in this sport for so long, I have done a pretty incredible job of avoiding the 5k. However, coach is pushing for it, and I have been gaining more confidence in my strength over the past few months. 

The Importance of Optimism:

Optimism is a characteristic consistently identified by researchers when studying the attributes of world-class performers. However, optimism is not only useful for success in sports, but also for success in life. Whether navigating a career transition, or aiming for a specific performance goal, staying optimistic can help you ride out the hard times and stay focused on the longer term benefits of your hard work.

Misconceptions Regarding Optimism

Don’t mistake optimism for unrealistic expectations or a distortion of true abilities. Optimists don’t make unsupported statements of their greatness. Instead, they set longer-term goals and stay motivated to chip away at them overtime. They understand that the path to success is difficult and are realistic about their goals, but they choose to embrace the bumps along the way to the top and stay focused on continuing to climb, even when the wind is in their face.

Let’s look at a tennis example: When you enter a match against the World #1, they will likely serve aces and hit shots that are so good that they are out of your control to return. These forced errors will happen regardless of your optimism—it is unrealistic to think you can control the level of play of your opponent. However, you can control your unforced errors, such as double faulting, during your serve. Unforced errors are often the product of negative thoughts and an unfocused mindset. Staying optimistic can help you focus on what aspects of the game are in your control, maximizing the points you score against this higher ranked opponent. Optimism helps limit your unforced errors and narrows your focus onto your strengths.

Wavering Optimism

Starting a new gym training regiment or training for your first 5k is hard. The soreness, tiredness, discomfort, and small improvements mixed in with bad days can make it challenging to stay positive and focused on the longer-term goal that you have set for yourself. I state this because the real benefits of optimism are seen when people are realistic about what they are attempting to achieve. Keeping positive thoughts and staying optimistic is the key to getting over the hump to seeing the big improvements that you’ve been anxiously waiting for. It’s a bit like kicking at a door, over and over again, waiting for it to swing open. People may walk by and say, “she’s not getting anywhere, why does she keep kicking?” And sometimes, you may agree with the walkers by and question your sanity in pursuing your goal. Then, one day, the door blows open, light shines through, and everything feels right in the world. At this moment, you are so thankful for that tiny optimistic voice in your head that kept telling you to push on and override your desire to quit.

A Personal Story: How Optimism Helped Me

Last year, I opened up my indoor season with a 9:36 flat 3k. Now, that time is not great for an elite athlete. A lot of college runners can run that time. It is also by no means an indicator of running a 9:40 3k Steeplechase (which I did later that season). My long-term goal was to get the World Qualifying standard in the 3k Steeplechase, which means I was looking to run 3k, jump over 35 barriers, 7 of those into a pit of water, and run under 9:45. When I ran 9:36 for a flat 3k, I was realistic regarding how far I was from running in the 9:40s in the steeplechase. However, I remained optimistic and kept a positive long-term perspective. Although the individual race performance was bad, I was showing improvements in training and there were indicators that I would continue to make strides if I stayed healthy and trained consistently. Having high expectations made the journey more fun to me. Working out and racing with big goals helped me stay focused throughout the season. I never lost faith in the process and smashed my steeplechase personal best during the outdoor season, running 9:40! It felt so good to blow that door open.

Ways to check-in with your optimism.

1)   Are you putting too much thought into one race, one workout, or one session at the gym? It’s a normal part of the process to have bad days. It is more important to focus on your overall trajectory of improvement overtime. Embrace the hard times and keep your eyes looking forward.

2)   Are you celebrating the small successes along the way? Embrace the journey. Highlight and enjoy the process of improvement.

3)   How are you picturing your future? You have a choice: You can look to the future and see a positive outcome, or you can look to the future and picture a negative outcome. Make the right choice!

 

Three Tips for Younger Runners

Here are three quick tips that I think can help a lot of middle school and high school runners have more enjoyment and success in cross country and track.  

1.     Pacing: As soon as the gone goes off, everyone wants to get to the front of the race. In the latter stages of the race, it turns into a competition of who can hang on the longest or fade the least. There are some races that call for quick starts, and yes, under some circumstances, you don’t want to get left behind. However, a basic understanding of pacing can make running so much more fun. Think of your best race. Most of the time, these races have strong finishes, you get on a roll, start passing people, and then it just comes naturally, you speed up and speed up—the positive momentum creates a great race. This happens when you have good timing in a race, when you don’t go out too hard, and when you pick a point to really put the hammer down. Talking with middle school and high school athletes about pacing and teaching them race tactics is an easy way to help kids enjoy the process of running races and reach their ability in race performance. This doesn’t occur naturally for all kids: The only reason I learned to pace was because I was taught the importance of pacing and I practiced pacing outside of races.  My nickname at youth track races was pac-man: I would slowly eat up the girls in front of me on the track. This made racing so much fun! I had targets ahead of me, and I maintained a steady pace around the track for the duration of my race.

2.     Embracing and positively re-framing the pain of running: Running is hard. A lot of things worth doing in life are hard. This is difficult to get across to young athletes and the thought of being uncomfortable or having to get on the pain train during a race is enough to make the number of people on a cross country team dwindle. However, working with athletes from Day 1 on positively re-framing the pain of running makes racing much less scary. From talking with athletes, it isn’t even the pain itself that they don’t like. More often than not, it is the uncertainty and the anticipation of the pain that they might experience that scares them before races. Talking about how nerves are good and show that you care, and giving encouragement can help get a lot of younger athletes over these fears.  It is normal to feel this way and discussing this with young runners can help them feel more at ease.

3.     Training to prepare for races: This is a big one. Racing isn’t fun when you aren’t prepared. The training has to prepare the athletes for the races. I say this statement a lot and I will share it again. Getting better at running isn’t rocket science. This is especially true for children. Nevertheless, you have to run to get better at running. I am a strong believer in low-mileage for children, but this doesn’t mean no mileage. To race and enjoy a 5k at a cross-country meet in high school, you need to have some running under your belt.  Seeking out a coach who is knowledgeable about training can make the experience so much more enjoyable because it can help lead to improvement and personal success.

I love helping younger athletes fall in love with running. Let me know if /how I can help you!