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August 23, 2015

Mental just as important as physical

I was reading over some race results from various cross country meets, and noticed that, on several, the times in the state meets were often several minutes slower than the week before in a regional meet.

It got me wondering what was the cause of this decrease in performance from one week to the next. Was it a fault in training before the big meet; or was it a mental state that was the result of slower times?

I remember years ago, there was a runner who came to our San Marcos races and wanted a free entry because he was going to take first overall in the race. And more often than not, he did finish first overall (I didn’t grant the request for free entry). I noticed that when he entered a race that had a large number of entries, although he was a good runner, his place finish was somewhere between 10th and 20th.

Maybe it was the tougher competition; but his times were usually a little slower than when he raced in the small local races.

I looked at some of the golf competitions over the past few weeks, and saw some of the leaders hit the fairways every shot and make a good number of birdies in a round. Then, the next day, the golfer was hitting out of sand traps, the rough and occasionally amongst the crowd on the side.

What was the change in performance from one day to the next?

I coached wrestling for many years and looked back on some of my athletes’ performances. In wrestling, the athletes go through a “wrestle off” to see who will wrestle in the varsity match. I had one wrestler who I called a “practice wrestler” because, in the wrestle offs, he would almost always beat the number one wrestler.

In the varsity match, he would choke and lose every match. The number one wrestler couldn’t fire up for the practice match; but in the varsity match, he wouldn’t lose. I finally had to tell the practice wrestler that, as a coach, I had to go with the other athlete.

Why the difference in performance? Was it a mental state between the two?

I had one wrestler who was outstanding, and made it to the national championships. He was leading by eight points in the final round, and looked like he wanted to lose; and he managed to do just that.

What was the cause for an athlete to go from one level of performance to a lower level in more competitive races?

It might be that, in preparing for the big race, the runner put in extra training and speed work hoping to improve. In reality, the extra hard training tired him out; and when the time came to perform, the body could not respond.

The movie “McFarland” was an example of a good runner going out too fast, and not having enough energy to keep up the pace and falling way behind. The rule most marathon runners follow is that duringthe week (or more) before the race, the primary training is to rest and take it easy. Save that energy and weeks of training before the race for the day of the race.

One other reason might be the make-up of the athlete in how they look at competition. If the race is a big race with a higher level of competition, the runner may try to move his mental state to a higher level and focus on how much more is at stake in this race.

Physiologically, researchers know that how much stress an athlete is feeling can affect performance. Whether it is in gymnastics, golf, swimming or running, the heart rate, blood pressure and nervous system are all increased before the event starts.

Performance is affected either by having too much energy in the beginning or not having enough energy halfway through the event. Think about the first quarter of the Super Bowl, and how long it takes some teams to settle down and do well.

Good runners, and athletes in general, who perform well time after time have the ability to focus on the task, and can mentally and physically reach that necessary performance level that carries them to doing well.

In the next big race where you want to do well, just think positively and confidently; and more than likely you will.

Moe Johnson
Dr. Maurice Johnson - better known around San Marcos as “Moe” - is a professor in the Department of Health, P.E., Recreation and Dance at Texas State University - San Marcos. Moe has been a fixture in the San Marcos running community - both as a runner and race organizer - since way back when Moby Dick was a minnow. His column on running and fitness appears each Sunday in the Sports section of the San Marcos Daily Record.

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