Bad races are tough to witness as a coach, and even harder to experience as an athlete. The feelings of despair, hopelessness, and confusion are ever present. We do our best to put it behind, move onto the next one. But if we aren’t careful, they’re effects can linger, far after the race is complete. If we fail to treat it right, a race can become ingrained as trauma.

When individuals experience trauma growing up, they develop a hostile view of the world. Their traumatic experiences color the lens that they view life through. As explained in the recent book How Emotions are Made, their brains are ingrained with a pattern to watch out for trouble. Every hint of danger or sign of trouble sends the brain and body down a cascade of preparing for danger. Even innocuous cues are interpreted as a threat.

During everyday life, our brains are constantly scanning the horizon, receiving countless pieces of information from our environment and our internal sensations. As we take a leisurely walk through the woods, and we sense a rustle in the grass, our brain selects any number of responses. Perhaps we interpret it as a potential poisonous snake, or a harmless rabbit, or maybe even, the wind blowing. With each different prediction, our body experiences a different reaction. We can be put in high alert, ready to run away, or we can ignore the information and continue along our merry way.

If that same walk occurred a midnight in a neighborhood that appears less than savory, we can even feel a tinge of adrenaline making us hyper aware. We might even feel the hair on our arms stand up, even though we have seen no threat. That’s because our response to various encounters is a result of a prediction. Our brain prepares us for what it thinks has a likelihood of occurring. The sensory data coming from inside and out plays a role, but so does our past experience. It biases us towards certain reactions.

If we’ve been in a similar situation, whether that’s based on similar environments, or similar internal and chemical reactions, it helps shift what our response is. For example, if we had previously encountered a snake on a walk, our mind would bias us towards preparing for that reality when the rustle in the bushes occurred. Or even if we had just finished watching a horror movie that takes place in the woods, we’d be biased towards being on edge.

When our trauma induced child comes across a dangerous situation, then his reaction is heavily influenced by the traumatic experiences of his youth. His stress response might have a trigger finger, ready to go at any semblance of trouble. If the trauma occurred enough, their brains are literally wired to see a threat, even long after the trauma or threat has vanished.

The brain is predictive, not reactive. Venture back to our early times on the Serengeti and it’s easy to see why. Whenever we encountered anything in the environment, we needed to quickly be able to identify whether it was a threat or not. Furthermore, we are wired to trend towards caution and mistakenly identifying the rustle in the bushes as a snake or lion, than simply the wind. Why? Because of survival. It’s better to mistakenly identify the rustle as a lion, and simply be anxious for a few moments than to brush off the noise and have an animal ready to pounce.

Race Day Implications

When it comes down to race day, our brain works in much the same fashion. Recent research points to the idea that we use prior experience combined with sensory data to determine how we should feel during a race. If there’s a mismatch between our predictions and the sensory reality during the middle of the race (i.e. we feel worse than we predicted), than our racing can take a turn, as we either increase or decrease the pace based on the mismatch developed. If we feel better than expected at the halfway mark, we pick the pace up, on our way to a PR. If we feel worse, if our body senses that we are headed towards danger or fatigue, sensations of effort go up, doubts get created in our head, and our muscles may stop being recruited to generate the much needed force. In other words, our brain predicts the “right” response. Are we close to winning or having some meaningful moment, then our reigns are loosened and we can push a bit further. Are we on the brink of exhaustion, potential muscular damage? Then a response leading to protection and shut down occurs.

Our past experiences help shape these predictions and the route we take and just like our child who experienced trauma, negative race experiences can bias our minds and bodies towards the wrong direction.

When we go into a race, we can perceive it as a positive, yet challenging environment or a hostile one. Did we develop a joy for competing with permission to fail, as long as they were giving it everything they had? Or did we develop a fear of disappointing their coach, parent, or teammates? Outside influences, whether a coach, teammate, or parent can help shape how an athlete reacts in the future.

As a coach, I’ve seen both positive and negative consequences. For an athlete with an overbearing parent, look no further at their performances when the parent is their watching versus when the athlete is free from their watchful eye. Or look at the athlete who was motivated solely by fear and punishment in High School, and watch how they look when a race starts going in the wrong direction. There’s a sense of fear, or a developing an excuse for why it went wrong, so as to avoid punishment.

Outside influences aren’t the only things that effect our experiential reaction. When we have several bad races in a row, a pattern can develop, with a reaction becoming ingrained. The next time we hit halfway in the race, our subconscious flashes back to the last 3 races where the athlete slowly “died” to the finish line. The athlete “survived” even if the outcome wasn’t what the athlete may have wanted. So the reaction is biased toward the sub-par outcome.

Have you ever experienced an athlete who drops out of a race for the first time, then subsequently seems to drop out at a high rate in future races? This is an example of experience shifting future races. Before an athlete drops out, it’s not an option for a reaction. We either run fast or slow down. But once dropping out becomes a legitimate option, the likelihood of selecting it increases. On the other hand, have you ever seen an athlete who always tends to show up and race well at the same track? Perhaps he performs really well at Stanford every year, or maybe at the small local meet? While the performance isn’t entirely due to the environment, the fact that he or she continues to run well at the same place helps create an environmental cue leading to a positive experience. If we always run well at a certain track, just being in that environment ever so slightly bias us towards having a positive outlook. It does not guarantee one, but it shifts things slightly in our favor.

In these situations, the athlete’s internal status quo becomes either entering a hostile or positive racing environment. And if it’s hostile, it’s easy to see how bad races can snowball into a pattern. The implications of this are big. If we have an athlete who is struggling, we’re not only fighting physical and psychological demons, we’re battling against an ingrained and biased interpretation of their racing world. We need to wrestle their experiences back towards the positive.

So what?

And that’s why it can be so difficult to break free of the pattern of poor performance. It’s not about simply gritting our teeth and fighting our way through it, it’s about fighting the natural pattern we’ve established. The longer the slump, the harder that pull towards seeing every negative racing experience– a bump or a slightly slow split– as the first step towards doom, gloom, and catastrophe. The brain makes the instant jump from something is wrong to there’s no reason to try.

Similar to how a trauma victim works through his experiences and tries to understand and then reframe them; poor racers need to do much of the same. They need to understand, come to terms with, and reframe their experiences. If they are afraid of failing, then somehow we need to create the permission to fail with no consequences. If they’ve had the same falling apart at the same point in the race, then we need to create racing situations and training that puts them in a place to succeed.

While the complexities of changing past experience are vast, understanding why an athlete might fall into a pattern of poor performance can go a long way towards figuring out a solution. Along with this, comes the responsibility in knowing how we process and learn from our race experiences will guide how we react to them in the future. As I’m sure most of us have experienced, often, it’s not our fitness that is at fault for a poor performance, but maybe the lingering experiences from past races.

What kind of environment are you creating and what kind of experiences are you patterning?

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