Q:

Dear Lauren-

The last track season was bad for me. Really bad. My previous school’s cross country/long distance track program was very weak, meaning that I was the top runner. Well, that is, until halfway through the year. Then a girl from the school district next to mine transferred to my school and began beating me, which really ruined my self-confidence.

During races we would run together for the first mile or so (she was better than me, yes, but only marginally), but if she gapped me I would mentally consider myself a failure and end up slowing down considerably, even though that I knew I was in shape to continue at the pace and possibly, if she was off that day, beat her. In essence, I would give up before the real racing started. This year I am in high school (the girl is only in eighth grade) and have found that the competition is much more intense. Now there are three our four girls in my school alone that are at my level or better.

With the guarantee that I am no longer the top runner, how should I stay mentally confident and strong in races, considering all of the trouble I had over track? I was wondering what mental techniques you used in races where you got gapped or fell behind the lead pack.

Sincerely, ABS

Running Level: High School

A:

Hey ABS,

Lining up for the CA State Meet senior year. Recognize the girl next to me? :)

Lining up for the CA State Meet senior year. Recognize the girls next to me? Comment if you know any of the three girls to my right!

One of the cool things about running as a youth, pre-high school, is that you can really stand out at a young age. You only race against other people who have also discovered the sport early, so if you have talent, you’ll find yourself on the podium pretty quickly. Then in high school all sorts of rookie kids start training and finding their talent too, and it sounds like you are feeling as if you are getting lost in the mix.

This can mess with your confidence because winning used to be pretty straightforward. Now, in order to win, you have to develop some new tricks and techniques, and you have to up your training and commitment. And, as you already mentioned, you have to develop strong mental fortitude. Your passion for the sport can’t be tied only to winning because winning will never be as easy as it was when you were in youth track. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t talented. It doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to win again. It just won’t necessarily be a straight fast line to the top like when you were younger.

You are almost in a new sport now: The races are deeper and tighter. You’ll lose to people you want to beat at first. You’ll have to learn to fight hard for 10th before you can learn to win again. In a way, you are starting over. That’s an exciting thing! If you look at it like that, you can look forward to what’s coming up ahead, rather than comparing yourself to the past.The absolute key to your future success is viewing this experience as an exciting challenge, rather than a threat to your dominance. You are not a failure. You’re just moving to the next level and have some growing and improving ahead. Running from a place of fear will kill your passion faster than anything else, and without passion, you’ll never be your best.

If you want to be mentally strong and get the most out of yourself, you can’t be attached to your past successes. Motivation can’t come only from winning. This is true for you, for your competitors, AND for pros like me. A good mantra would be “I love to run and I love to compete.” You CAN control how well you compete…how well you fight. You CAN’T control who wins every race, or which new kid picks up the sport and has short term success, or if puberty effects you or not, or thousands of other things. I can’t control if some new pro has the year of her life, or if I get a surprise injury, or if I’ll have a bad day at the Olympic Trials. But we can control what we fill our mind with. If you focus on the love of running and competing, than overall, over time, you will maximize your talent, and I’m willing to bet you’ll stand on many more podiums.

photo (24)

Here is a drawing to show what a running career generally looks like for most top runners.

It’s rarely a straight line to the top with victory after victory after victory. Enjoy your great moments when they come and remember that the slumps are temporary and full of things to learn that will make your future peaks even higher. With this kind of mindset, each race feels less urgent, and you can just get out there and run your best on the day.

You can do this.

Lauren