In cross country running, as in all sports, confidence is a key factor to success. This has been readily evident this past season coaching the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) cross country team.
In 2010, both the boys and girls teams qualified for the state meet. Leading up to the meet we were quite nervous. It had been nine years since the girls last qualified and five years since the boys last qualified. Never in school history had both teams qualified the same year. After so many near-misses I almost expected something to derail our dream of both teams qualifying. Every time I thought about the meet, my mind would come up with possible obstacles to our goal. When both teams did in fact qualify, it felt like a dream had come true.
This year, the team really believed that both teams would qualify for state. There was a lot less hoping it would happen and a lot more confidence that it would happen. “Calm and confident” was our mantra the week of the qualifying race. The 2010 team’s accomplishment was monumental because it proved to us that it could happen. This year every time I thought about the meet, I came back to the same conclusion, despite the strong competition, we would qualify. Negative thinking did not enter my mind the same way it had last year.
Breaking through the barrier last year made this year a whole lot easier in qualifying for state. Last year there was doubt in our minds whether or not we could qualify (“oh, qualifying both teams for state, that’s something that happens for other schools”). This year there was no doubt in our minds that it could be done and we had confidence in ourselves that we would do it. Success can become habitual and when one does something habitually, they develop confidence it will keep happening.
Confidence is an essential key to success, especially in high school cross country. As the coach, I feel it is my job to instill confidence in the runners. It starts with giving the team good training. Knowing that one has run enough miles, done enough hill workouts, run the proper combination of tempo runs and intervals, and done enough drills, striders, and strength exercises gives the runners confidence that they are physically prepared for the challenges of championship races. It’s the coach’s job to structure the training and to remind the athletes of all the good work they’ve put in.
It’s also important to have the right competition schedule leading up to the championship meets. You want challenging meets that push the runners but also some lower key meets where your athletes do real well to boost everyone’s ego a little bit. Having enough recovery time between meets towards the end of the season is also key because you want the runners to feel sharp and that they are “peaking,” not falling apart as the season comes to an end.
I add to the athletes’ confidence by giving them the sense that they are well prepared mentally. Leading up to championship races, we study the course, simulate race conditions and scenarios at practice, study race splits, and review race plans. I believe that when the SHC runners toe the starting line, they feel an extra boost of confidence because they know I have studied every tactical detail to give us the best possible chance for success during the race.
Being confident does not mean thinking the race will be easy. Confident runners know that the race, just like always, will be challenging and that there will be difficult moments, especially late in the race. The confident runner is confident that when they reach this point of the race, they will summon the courage to run through the discomfort in pursuit of their goal. I think this is what separates the good from the great runners. When I watch the less experienced SHC runners race, I never know what’s going to happen over the last mile. I hope they can push through and keep competing but I’m not sure. When I watch our varsity race, there is no doubt what’s going to happen in the last mile – they’re going to be fearless!
This past season I went to great lengths to point out that our team’s success did not require anyone to run out of the ordinary. If everyone ran like they had before, we would make it to state. All season long we had run hard against tough competition and each time we had done fine. There was no reason to expect anything different at the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships, as long as everyone approached this race like they had the previous ones.
Standing at the starting line of a championship meet like CCS can be nerve wracking. As a coach, you can’t make that element go away. What I can do is remind the runners to think about things they can control. They can’t control how fast their opponents run. They can’t guarantee a particular time or a particular place. Those elements are what tend to make you nervous at the starting line. Instead, I get the team to focus on things they can control – which primarily is their effort. I told them, “You’ve done this before. It’s no different. The gun goes off, you start running. You start breathing harder. You hear cheering. You start to get tired. You push through. You sprint to the finish line. You know the drill. It’s the same formula you’ve done many times this season already. CCS is no different.”
Confidence. It can make all the difference in a race.