“Never ask how it felt! You’re creating doubt!” the supposed master coach quipped. I had just asked an athlete how their last interval felt.

I was young and I didn’t understand it then. Perhaps I’m still too dense, but I don’t understand it now either. This coaches point was that he wanted athletes to run through a brick wall. To do what we say, to throw down mind blowing interval sets. It didn’t matter if they felt good, bad, or indifferent, when the workout needed to be done, well, it needed to be done.

Yet, as I stood there that day, and as I sit here years later, I still ask the question.

Athletes give us feedback

When we are standing there observing practice, we are looking for two types of behaviors: deliberate or automatic.

We have what I call our conscious feedback, which is what the athlete tells us. It’s the verbal communication they provide. This is a glimpse into their conscious thinking mind. It’s what they themselves are aware of and the message they want to get across. They are aware of the story they are constructing. If they want to run another interval they might say they feel better than they actually do. If they want to stop the workout, the complaints of how bad they feel will start pouring out.

This conscious information gives you one set of clues. It provides a glimpse into what STORY is being constructed in the athletes head. We shouldn’t get mad if an athlete says they are tired and we might think they have much more left to give. Instead, we take the information and figure out why they are telling themselves that story. Why don’t they have the motivation to override this particular negative narrative?

Regardless of what you do with it, their verbal and deliberate behavior provide information about their conscious.

The Subconscious Mind

On the other side of the coin, we have what I call their subconscious feedback. These are the movements and mannerisms that an athlete performs, but he or she isn’t quite aware of. The way they move during and between reps, the body language they give up, the eyes looking at you or staring down at the floor, the instinctual moves once they finish the interval. Even running itself can be subconscious; look no further than what happens the moment fatigue takes over and their mechanics start to disintegrate. These are all the clues that their body is betraying.

Their subconscious clues provide an inside look at what’s going on without the filtered story. See a few stumbles as an athlete’s spikes catch the track as they walk/jog around during the rest? Perhaps it’s their nervous system sending you a message. See their posture slump before the start of the first rep? A subtle sign that they might not be as engaged as you’d like.

When we ask how they feel, we’re attempting to get at both. On a superficial level, I’m trying to ascertain effort. Often, people associate feel with effort. Was it difficult or easy?

But at a deeper level, what I’m asking is how did it feel? What was the rhythm like? Did it feel smooth and flowing or forced and rigid? Did you feel in synch as you glided around the track or were you muscling your way through each rep.

You see, timing and rhythm are a neglected component of training. When we race, what our mind does is it compares how we expect to feel with how we actually feel. If we feel worse or “off” from what we expect; the sensation of effort are amplified. All of the sudden, our pace feels hard and we slow. Much of this sensation is dependent on timing and rhythm.

Yet, as coaches, we ignore it. As Jim Denison and Joseph Mills stated in one of their papers:

“The personal search for a rhythm, rather than an imposed rhythm, is an outstanding opportunity for athletes to explore their relationship with their bodies”

Famed coach Mihali Igloi knew this well. It’s why, despite having his athletes perform countless intervals day after day, he only rarely assigned paces. Instead, he assigned rhythms. He called them “swings.” You had a short and long swing, to go along with effort levels (easy, fresh, good, fast, hard, very hard). Igloi taught the athletes what the efforts and swings should FEEL like.

And Science backs him up. Psychologist Timothy Wilson, in his book Strangers to Ourselves, notes that subconscious learning is heavily reliant on rhythm. In one study, participants were made to press a key corresponding to an X that showed up in one of 4 quadrants on the screen. Where the X appeared was based on a complex algorithm. As the participants practiced, they slowly got faster and faster at pressing the button corresponding to where the X is. They had nailed the pattern, but when asked, they had no idea what the pattern or “rule” was. As soon as the researchers switched the pattern, the participants were at a loss. All gains had been lost.The participants who happened to be psychology professors could not explain it. As Wilson reported, three said, “their fingers had suddenly lost the rhythm.”  When it comes to subconscious ingraining, rhythm matters.

Should I ask “How do you feel?”

As a coach, I often think back to this advice offered to me when I was just getting started and can’t help but think the logic was misplaced. When a coach asked how that felt, he’s not doing so out of insecurity. He’s doing so out of confidence. The coach knows what he is looking for: both the effort and feel. He’s making sure the athlete feels what he is supposed to. That the message is getting ingrained.

Fortunately, I had the privilege of working with another coach, Tom Tellez, who would stop his athletes after most reps and say “How did that feel.” Then he’d step away for a few seconds, as you saw his mind working through the possibilities, and he’d come back. If he said “good!” you walked away beaming, knowing that what you had felt is what you were after. And you worked to ingrain that feeling into your body and mind. If he came back and told you to try something else, that meant the feeling, timing, and rhythm were off. He knew how it was supposed to feel to truly run fast. He knew that if you were going to do it on race day, even if it was only for 100 meters, you had to experience it. Yes, looks and biomechanics gave him a hint. But what he was really after was a feeling.

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