“How did it feel?”
It was an endless process. Run a 100-meter stride, walk back and hear this question repeated over and over. These weren’t the words of some uninformed coach or parent trying to fake their way through coaching, they were spoken by Tom Tellez. And when Tom speaks, there’s a reason for the words.
As an athlete, it took me a while to grasp what coach Tellez was doing. Yes, we were trying to change my running mechanics, but the physics of it all wasn’t what Tellez was truly worried about. He knew what it should look like, and that’s where most of us put the focus. As coaches, we obsess over whether it looks correct. What was the shin angle at ground contact? Where on the foot did we make first contact? How much undulation are we seeing in the hips?
It’s easy to go down this path, make correction after correction until it looks right. What right is can be debated, but it’s how almost all of us approach changes in form. We have a model of what’s right, then try to get the pictures to match up, mimicking the look, with little concern to how they got there. It’s one of the reasons you see coaching cues that are looks based (i.e. lift your knees) shouted at every track meet.
But to Tellez, a man who obsessed over the minutia of mechanics, the sensation was what truly mattered.
The sensation would lead to the correct mechanical solution for that individual. Not the other way around.
“What was that?” Tellez barked after I had just run my fastest race in 2 years. “You were forcing it. You weren’t feeling it. It’s rhythm!”
How we conceptualize different movements and the feelings we tie to them largely determine what our action will be. When a coach instructs to pick up the pace, consciously and subconsciously the runner will have some sort of concept on how to do this. For some, that might mean they need to grit their teeth and “dig”, as they equate the sensation of effort to running faster. For others, they might think in terms of power, needing to push hard into the ground to move forward faster. Still, for a select few, they might understand that it’s a subtle change, a slight increase in their arm stroke or lengthening of their stride, that gets the job done.
In other words, how we perceive it should feel like, impacts our choice in mechanical movement.
Feeling helps us conceptualize movement. Do we think the movement should be powerful, effortful, rhythmic, or easy? What Tellez was attempting to do was to get me to move my own perception of what I was doing and feeling closer to what was “optimal.” He was trying to bridge the gap. In other words, he knew that any change was useless unless it could be conceptualized in my head, not his. If I could tie the feeling to action, then the desired movement would be cemented.
When Tellez informed me I was forcing it, he meant I reverted. I’d gone back to the old concept, where to run faster I needed to put more effort into each stride. As I fatigued, the only way to counteract was to force things even more. When I forced things, my mechanics would eventually break down. The answer after such a display wasn’t to tell me to pay attention to my knee angle, it was to cement the feeling. I had the wrong perception, the wrong concept.
He was attempting to do was to get me to move my own perception of how to run, the sensations that should be tied to good movement. In other words, he knew that any change was useless unless it could be conceptualized in my head, not his. If I could tie the feeling to action, then the desired movement would be cemented.
Stated in a different way, instructions solely based on movement (i.e. arms should be 90 degrees) wouldn’t get me there. Those instructions were fragile. Yes, they were used and useful for giving me an idea of what it might look like, but when push comes to shove during the chaos of a race, what holds the mechanical changes together is the feeling.
And research backs it up. In a recent study that built upon work performed decades ago, researchers found that when giving instructions on how to copy an image via drawing, instructing based on movement failed compared to those who instructed based on perception. The lead researcher summed up their findings.
“We commonly instruct people in terms of the physical actions they must carry out in order to perform any task…Our study tests the effect of describing how to perform a skill in terms of the perception of the outcome compared to the observable actions.”
While not novel or new findings, they bear repeating. Often when it comes to making any sort of mechanical change, as coaches, we default to instruction based on how it looks. We pigeonhole ourselves into the mimicry game. If our sprint acceleration only looked like Usain Bolt then we’d be faster. Mimicry is easy to accomplish, we can see if an athlete is getting ‘better’ or not, but for lasting change, we need to delve deeper. Cement the feeling and action together. After all, what matters is not what I think or the coach sees, but the concept the athlete carries around in their minds on how an action is to be performed.
For more on the psychology of performance, check out my NEW book Peak Performance. Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold! For more on training, check out my first book, The Science of Running.