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Sports Psychology Running

By Ken Jakalski

In 2007, I was one of seven finalists for the National High School Coaches Association Track Coach of the Year. At the awards ceremony in Milwaukee, each finalist gave a presentation. Only two of us delivered PowerPoints delving into the technical and assessment aspects of the sport. The five other discussed things like program building, recruitment strategies, and team development activities. One of them said afterward that I had lost him when I clicked a button and a video appeared on the screen.

At first, I thought I had gone far deeper into the science of speed training than anyone else in that room. I prided myself on having a friendly working relationship with several top researchers in human locomotion. I thought I had a clear edge on my colleagues, who seemed to rely more on the “fluffy stuff” to build their programs.

Eight years later, I’m not so sure that I should have dismissed “fluff” as a key contributor to their athletes’ success. After all, they clearly boasted far superior pedigrees than I did relative to career wins, conference and state championships, individual event champions, and state and national record holders. As the bios of the six other finalists were read during the banquet, my wife even turned to me and asked, “Why are you here?”

Thanks to my good friends at SomaSimple, I’ve come to understand the bio-psycho-social aspect of physical therapy. As one member pointed out, “If counseling therapy is about psycho-social matters, physical therapy adds the bio to “psycho-social.”

It’s probably been the psycho-social aspect of coaching high school track and field that I’ve distanced myself from over the years. That may have been a mistake.

I use LYNX ReacTime to assess my athletes’ reactions to the starting command and their times to 10 or 20 meters. It’s a nice piece of equipment that has provided me with some good information and detailed analyses of my sprinters’ reactivity and acceleration. However, they hate the sound of the automated starting commands coming from the unit. After one or two trials, they are more focused on mocking the guy’s voice than on the data from their starts.

I like to run ASR sessions in distance covered over a specific time. As we’re getting close to the state sectional meet, I might click off the scoreboard clock to buy a second or two in order for an athlete to achieve his or her training goal. It may result in an honest evaluation of that athlete’s workout. But if it gives them the confidence they need going into the sectional 1600, is it wrong to choose “psyche” over “science”?

The legendary Jim Santos spoke many years ago at a coaching clinic with not more than seven attendees. Jim gathered us together and spent a considerable amount of time discussing the human or “social” aspect of track and field. It was one of the best clinic sessions I ever attended.

He talked about his daughter, a C/D student whom he felt could improve her grades if she found something to motivate her. When she decided on her own to come out for track, he was thrilled. Her event of choice was the discus. As an internationally recognized authority in the sport, Jim purposefully tried to distance himself from his daughter’s involvement, thinking she didn’t need that kind of pressure. But she started to do well in the event, throwing over 110 feet despite very bad technique and instruction from a coach who, as Jim noted, “didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.” He decided to step in.

Jim was coaching the great Ben Plucknett at the time and thought his daughter would benefit from training sessions with a world record-holder. But after a few sessions with Ben, her marks began to decline. Jim realized that what motivated his daughter to perform well was her desire to please a young coach genuinely interested in her improvement, even though that he had no clue how to teach the discus.

Sometimes, for all our careful monitoring of performance fluctuation and ability to assess neural drive, strength gain, and CNS fatigue, the improvements we see in our athletes may be the result of something we are doing—or not doing—which has a very powerful placebo effect.

Christopher Glaeser and I have swapped stories about the lengths to which we have gone to help relieve our own kids from debilitating shin splits. In my son’s case, he had expensive sessions with DPM’s, orthos specializing in sports medicine, two different sets of orthotics, magnets, TheraBand, and other strengthening concepts such as the D.A.R.D.—Dynamic Axial Resistance Device.

The only thing that actually worked in getting him through one football game or one track meet to the next was a trip to an area massage therapist noted for treating Scottie Pippen’s back issues during the Chicago Bulls’ run of championships.

I don’t know what made the difference. The actual treatments, or the belief that what had worked for Scottie Pippen would work for him—that he was in the hands of someone who knew how to make him pain-free.

Tony Holler is a firm believer in the benefits of Muscle Activation Techniques and refers to me as skeptical. That is indeed accurate. But I can’t dismiss his confidence in the technique, and how that confidence may influence the athletes he is training.

At our Top Times Indoor Championship meet, I heard a coach talking to one of his athletes who had just run an excellent time.

“Did the Muscle Activation stuff help?” he asked.

“I think so,” said the athlete replied.

And maybe the best explanation for it is related to something Shakespeare noted in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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