Head over heels

Mental toughness, not raw talent, can be difference in winning or losing in extremely demanding sport

August 30, 2006|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,Special to the Sun

In cross country circles, it's known as "The Dip" -- a painfully steep ravine in the middle of Hereford High School's cross country course, the home of the state championship meet.

Through the years, the course has swallowed the dreams of many runners. To some, the mere thought of it is enough to do the trick.

"I was not mentally ready," recalled Dulaney senior Vince Walsh of his initial meeting with "The Dip." "I'd heard so much about it and I was extremely scared, and I ran a terrible race."

To Walsh, who returned with renewed confidence two months later to run the course a minute and a half faster, there's little question about the role that psychology plays in the sport of cross country.

More and more, coaches and runners agree that it's not necessarily always the swiftest who win the race.

"It's a mind game," Liberty coach Bobby Ward said. "I think track is more about speed, but when it comes to cross country, it's not necessarily the fastest runner. It's the smartest. It's the person who just overcomes everything else."

And there are so many obstacles to overcome. Aside from the competition, there are the hills, the trees, the physical pain and, increasingly, even the Internet.

Runners say that the popular practice of logging onto Web sites devoted to the local running scene can be quite motivating, but also occasionally discouraging. While the sites make opponents' results easily accessible, more than a few runners have lost their focus after either realizing that their times didn't measure up or reading unnerving comments on message boards.

"For me, it's a lot easier to get psyched out before a race if I look and see what people are doing," said North Carroll's Katie Hursey, last year's state champion in Class 3A. "I'll be like, `Oh God, I can't race against them.' "

Before last year's state meet, for instance, Hursey said that readers of a particular message board launched into a protracted debate about who would win the Class 3A meet, she or another runner. "When I looked at it, everyone was talking about how the other girl was going to do well and I was like, `Oh, OK,' " Hursey said. "So I was really worried about that girl the whole time."

In the end, however, Hursey claimed the state title, with the other girl never really threatening.

"It's good to know some stuff about your opponents, but if I hear a time or something, until I race against him I don't get too overworked," said Broadneck standout Matthew Centrowitz, who has won back-to-back state titles in Class 4A. "It's a good reason to stay off the [message] boards."

Some athletes prefer to take the concept even further.

"I had one girl who just did not want to be interviewed for the paper," Mount de Sales coach Liz Williams said. "She just felt that if her name was out there, there were more expectations on her."

It's that inner struggle that coaches say can impose the biggest limits on the progress of a runner. The key, they say, is learning to push the right buttons.

"There's no cookbook method toward working with kids," said Brad Jaeger, a former longtime high school coach and the publisher of the Running Maryland Web site (mdrunning.net). "You have to be able to read the kid and get inside his mind a little bit. You've got to talk to the kid, you've got to talk to the parent, you talk to friends, you talk to family. You talk to everybody to find out what makes the kid tick.

"I've always believed that running is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical."

Coaches have many methods of getting the most out of their runners. While some deliver motivational speeches before meets, others use more subtle techniques.

Gene Hoffman at Archbishop Curley, for instance, feels that something as simple as stitching his runners' names to the backs of their uniforms has provided his team enough of a psychological edge to pull out some close meets over the years. And Chad Boyle at Dulaney makes it a point to communicate with each of his athletes individually before big meets -- most often by writing them quick notes that he hands out on the team bus.

"It's just something to instill in them that, `Look, you've worked hard, and this is just like any other day. You've got the skill to do it -- you just have to go out there and have the confidence to get it done,' " Boyle said.

For some runners, confidence isn't as big an issue as focus, particularly for track athletes suddenly thrust into the middle of a sprawling cross country course, according to C. Milton Wright coach Donnie Mickey.

"In track, you can't get away from someone because they can always see you. In cross country ... you get out of someone's field of vision, and they can kind of forget about you," Mickey said.

The problem can be equally daunting for runners alone at the front of a pack, having no one alongside to push them. When legs burn, muscles cramp and the hills seem endless, runners say they need to find a way to tap their reserve.

"You really have to push yourself when you're out there, and if you think that you're tired and you get down on yourself, you just have to think about your team and stay strong," Dulaney junior Emma Larkin said.

That's why most coaches believe that building confident, motivated runners is the first step toward building a winner.

"I personally believe, as a runner and a coach, that the ultimate thing somebody has to have is belief," Mickey said. "You've got to believe in yourself, your coaches and your teammates. If you have that, it's going to lead to success."

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