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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

Relevant vs. Useful

Time.

Stand near the track during a distance event, and that's what you'll hear.


Time.

Seemingly every lap, a chorus of coaches will yell out splits to their athlete. Many times, I have been one of those coaches.

Perhaps we yell out splits because it makes us feel like we're doing something. And sure, because practice is typically conducted on a 400m track, giving a split to an athlete racing on a 400m track provides something that is relevant.

But is it useful?

Yelling out splits to an athlete often causes them to make an evaluation of their performance while they're still performing.

Is that too fast?

Is it too slow?

Can I still PR?

Now, imagine they're making these calculations every lap. That kind of in-race analysis will inhibit an athlete's ability to reach flow state. Sure, if they're hitting a prescribed pace, it can provide confidence. But what if they're not?

Some of the biggest breakthrough performances I've witnessed have come when the athlete has absolutely no idea how fast they're running. They've seemingly had tunnel vision, locking into an external point of focus - like a competitor's singlet - throughout the duration of the race.

In some ways, I feel like our fixation on time has stunted our athletes' competitive development. Of course, much of this is created by the NCAA system, which prioritizes time to qualify for postseason competition. But once at the championship, the narrative shifts, and it's all about place. More specifically, it's all about who can race.

So then, does it make sense to yell out splits as your athlete attempts to run like a metronome? Sure, it may get them a ticket to the dance, but it doesn't mean they're ready to tango when it counts.

In cross country, we get it right (for the most part). Maybe that's because, when it comes to times, we don't care. Consequently, most of the feedback is actionable, external cues, instead of information that requires analysis.

Surge up this hill!

Get the runner in green!

Go with this group!

Close this gap!

Above all, in most cases, the course is also too large for us coaches to be providing feedback every 400m like we do in track. In those instances, the athletes have to use their intuition and instincts.

And that's when they learn to race.

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