Across the America today, Cross Country athletes will toe the line and start the season. For those of us who have competed in Cross Country, we all know that no matter how fit you are, no matter how many miles you have put in, without being having the ability to be Mentally Tough [which results in the combination of several factors], the fittest athlete will struggle on race day.

And unfortunately, many coaches and athletes see this ability to focus as something that is in-born, not trained. This train of thought could not be more incorrect. Just like becoming fitter after putting in the miles during the summer, mental toughness and focus can be taught and enhanced as the season goes along. However, growing these skill takes the same amount of dedication as it does to get in physical shape. So let’s talk about not just what it takes to be mentally tough in Cross Country, but how you can grow your teams skills.

It’s Important to Stress that No Race is Bigger Than the Next Race

Especially in the first race of the season, athletes and coaches will invest lots of emotional capital in emphasizing the importance of the first race as one that ‘sets the tone’ for the entire season. In reality, this could not be farther from the truth. Now, does it help if the first meet of the season is a good one, yes. However, in the large scheme of things, does the first meet of the season matter in your quest for a Conference Championship? The answer is no. In fact, no meet is more important that the next.

I say this because if you are focused in on putting in quality efforts and competing at a high level [which we will discuss later], then each meet is a great opportunity to do great things. Each meet is another opportunity to do your best. Obviously, you are going to be excited because of the start of the season, but I have seen too many occasions in which the excitement of the first meet overcomes the athlete and they go out too hard at the start of the race, have nerves that are so out of control that they lose sight of the race itself, and coaches that after not performing up to expectations set in the first meet, think that the season is over. Each meet is important, but if the first meet does not go the way you want – there is no reason to throw in the towel. Just get back to work.

Focus on Effort

After a [hopefully] very productive summer and lots of miles run, you may see some tired legs out there in meet one, even if you gave your team an easier week heading into week one. And this is totally fine. What you should be more focused on is effort and your teams ability to compete. Effort is something that an athlete has complete control over. You can’t control the weather, the course, or the competition. You may be able to effect what the competition does by making moves at certain points along the course, however that is all dictated by the effort your team puts in.

If the result is not what you want, but the effort is there, then it is hard to complain about the result. It is what it is. If you have seven athletes on the line at the start of the season that are focused on putting in the best effort that they possibly give, then when you get to the end of the season when they are rested and sharp, the results will end up being something you and your team will be very happy with.

Run the Race One Section at a Time

Here is what ‘one section at a time’ means: rather than look at the race as one particular distance [i.e. 3 miles, 4 miles, 6k, or 8k] it will be more helpful if when examining the course, to break it up into several sections, rather than focusing on doing well from purely start to finish. This does not mean ‘let’s focus on mile one, then move on to mile two,’ and so on. What it does mean is examining the course closely and break it up into sections such as from one exact point to another. From one tree to another, from one hill to another section. You don’t need to break the course up into 30 different pieces, however, telling an athlete ‘once we get out and settle in, let’s just focus in on getting through this section in good position,’ could be very helpful.

The rationale behind this is simple: having small victories throughout the race will play huge into your athlete’s confidence and keep them focused on the moment at hand. Especially with younger runners that maybe focusing on environmental factors [the course, the weather, etc.], breaking the race into smaller chunks could be a very positive return on investment.

Become Aware

Far too often, when the race is over, you may ask ‘what happened out there’ to one of your athletes and their answer is often, ‘I don’t know.’ This is because they are not aware of what is going on. It is not because they are not paying attention, it is just that they are paying attention to the wrong things. They may be focused on how bad they feel, how hard the course it, or [especially at the start of the season] how hot it is. Like we already spoke about, these are all things that they cannot control. Again, they can control their effort, but in this particular instance, they can control their response to what is happening around them.

Having a heightened awareness is developed by training your athletes to have a calm mind that can be developed in training. Running intervals in training is not just about the quantity of intervals that they put in, or how fast they run them. It is HOW they are running them and if they are responding to your instructions [To read more about how you do something is more important than what you are doing, click HERE]. By emphasizing HOW athletes are running workouts and executing effective strategies, then you are building a team that is not just in shape, but increasing their awareness and their ability to execute race plans during competition.

These are all very simple skills that when taught effectively, can take you team from a good team to a great team. I would take a team that competes hard every time on the course, is aware of what is going on, and runs the race one section at a time, over a talented team any day of the week. Teams that rely on talent to get them through the season may start off well, but they will not be as prepared at the end of the season as your teams will. If you commit to training your mental toughness, you and your team, when they execute, could be one hard team to beat.

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