Motivation - Learning From Steve Prefontaine [ARTICLE]

Motivation - Learning From Steve Prefontaine
By: Pat Tyson and Doug Binder

Originally Published in: Coaching Cross Country Successfully

Provided by: Human Kinetics

The story of Steve Prefontaine remains a huge source of motivation for young runners who have seen the movies Prefontaine or Without Limits. Some kids have his poster in their bedrooms or read inspirational quotes by him. I remember him as an inspirational guy. He made you want to follow his lead. You can use Pre's life story as motivation for your athletes, or perhaps there is a personal or public hero in your own life that you can use.

In addition to fuel for inspiration, there are several practical lessons that I learned from my time with Pre. What follows are tips on running and life that I attribute to him.

1. Establish rhythm. Training and daily life have a rhythm. One of Pre's most distinguishing characteristics was his ability to manage his time. His life was organized. It had consistent rhythm. He woke up at 6:00 a.m. and was out the door at 6:10 for the morning run. He got in the car, drove to campus, attended classes, and then went to practice at 2:30. Then he went back to the trailer or to dinner and then to bed. It wasn't random, and it was always consistent. He was always in bed by 10:00 p.m. There was time, occasionally, to go out and relax, to do something spontaneous like go to Dairy Queen for two-for-one banana splits, but the rhythm always took over again.

2. Maintain perspective. Pre said to me, "You worry too much." He used to call me a worrywart. He'd say to me, "Why don't you just lighten up? It will make you a better runner." I have taken those words to heart. As a coach or a runner, we're not flying $50 million jets and landing them on an aircraft carrier. What we're doing is all simple stuff. Pre knew when to turn it on and turn it off, when to be stupid and silly, and when to get ready. He kept himself busy on meet days, but usually around 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays, he would put his game face on to be ready for his race at 3 p.m. He'd go for a light jog in the morning, clean the trailer, and clean his car, always staying busy. When he kept himself busy he didn't think about the race. Then, on the way to the race, he got in the zone.

3. Know your body. Pre had the ability to relax and keep from taking his races too seriously. He tried to avoid becoming robotic. He didn't want to think too much about racing and all the scenarios that could go wrong. Instead, he'd line up and be ready for anything, relying on his instincts to kick in as the race unfolded.

When I ran with Pre he always asked me, "How do you feel?" And so I always responded, "Oh, I feel great!" I said that even if I didn't feel great. And during those runs, always under 6:00-per-mile pace, I was always a little tired, but I kept going because that's just what I did. He thought anything over 6:00 per mile wouldn't do any good. He ran with focus and intensity.

4. Listen to your body. When Pre asked, "How do you feel?" his intention was to make sure I was listening to my body. He was a master at it. He had instant radar that told him something was starting to go wrong. I've never met anyone who had that sort of sensitivity. I think it's why in the story of Steve Prefontaine's running career, there is practically no mention of injuries. In four years at Oregon, he never missed a race and never missed a workout.

It's easy to say to a kid, "Err on the side of doing less" to avoid an injury. But what does that mean to a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kid? It's a fine line, and you have to make sure you don't overdo it. There needs to be a day or two every week to go easy. Pre understood that there was something called conversation pace. If you couldn't talk, you were going too fast.

5. Trust the system. I never had to wonder how Pre would answer a question or solve a problem about training. I knew instinctively what he would do, how he would respond. I feel like that came from Bill Dellinger, our coach at Oregon. Pre never questioned workouts from Dellinger. He showed up for practice with his lunch pail and did exactly what he was supposed to do that day. I think that we all answer challenges and problems the same way. We don't shy away from them. We do what has to be done and trust the outcome.

6. Learn how to focus. Some athletes on race day never see their glass as half full. It's always half empty. Pre was different He never allowed negativity to enter his thoughts before a race. On race day, he visualized, either sitting or lying down, and when the time came, he hopped in the car and was on his way to the meet. He completely focused at that point. You could see it in his eyes and the way he carried his body. He was getting ready to go on stage. However, he didn't start to get psyched up about the race until two and a half or three hours before it. Some athletes turn on a day or two ahead of time. That's too early.

I use music to get my kids pumped up on the way to a meet. Some athletes have a particular song that puts them into a frenzy. I drove our runners to the state meet. We never got there too early, and I kept them away from the course until we needed to be there. Sometimes being there too early can wear on runners.

7. Nerves are fine. Pre wasn't negative about the potential outcome of a race, but he did sometimes say, "I don't feel good today." I think it was nerves more than anything else, because everyone gets them before a big race. His way of showing his nerves was to say, "I don't feel good today," and then go out and blow everybody away. I can't recall one time when he said he didn't feel good before a race that he didn't turn around and have a great performance.

When kids come up to me before a race and say they don't feel good, their stomachs are queasy, I tell them that's awesome. It means you're going to have a great race.

8. See it in the eyes. There was an unmistakable look in Pre's eyes that I paid close attention to, and it's always fascinated me. I saw it occasionally in the high school kids that I coached at Mead and also in runners on other teams. It's confidence. It's fearlessness. It is edginess and a willingness to go out on the course and run aggressively. It's a very interesting thing, and every coach at some point will have an athlete who has it.

9. Let go of the reins. One of the things I admired about Bill Dellinger was that he let Pre become Pre. He let him do what he needed to do. There were no rules. Dellinger took the stance "Let's see what Pre can do without rules." It was freedom. I took that philosophy from Coach Dellinger. Let the kids be radical and make mistakes.

When I coached Matt Davis as a sophomore he always hit a 60-second third lap in the 1,600 meters and then faltered badly on the fourth. Eventually he mastered that pace and was able to sustain it, and that fourth lap became easier by his senior year. I liked that. When you try to control your runners, that's when kids start to lose their instincts.

10. Discipline matters. Pre was especially disciplined. He never took days off, never missed runs on Sundays. In fact, some Sundays he added a second short run later in the day. That extra run was so that he knew he was getting an edge on his opponents. I know that some very well-educated running coaches will say going seven days a week is too much and that rest days need to be built in. Pre didn't take days off. Some days were just lighter than others.

11. Feed off of the competition. The best runners need to know where the bar is set. Pre had Jim Ryun and Gerry Lindgren to look up to. They set the standard that Pre tried to emulate and then exceed. He fed off those comparisons. Pre became the measuring stick for guys in the 1970s like Craig Virgin, Alberto Salazar, and Rudy Chapa. The same thing has happened in the past dozen years. Alan Webb and Dathan Ritzenhein came along and set the standard for Chris Solinsky, Galen Rupp, German Fernandez, and Lukas Verzbicas to chase after. Similarly, pioneering women like Doris Brown Heritage, Debbie Heald, and Joan Benoit Samuelson created legacies for Lynn Jennings and Mary Slaney, and in turn for Jordan Hasay and Mary Cain.

In Pre's day, the best way to keep track of what someone else was doing was through copies of Track and Field News magazine. Today the communication is practically instantaneous. The Internet has created virtual communities and race results. videos, and interviews are readily available.

Some of the items in this list are not so intuitive today, so I include them for your consideration. This was how Pre saw the world, and it's how he operated. I frequently think back on these lessons and take peace of mind from them. I'm convinced there was genius in his running, and I've been calling upon that wisdom ever since he died.

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12 Oct 2016


By Human Kinetics
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