Deliberate Practice & Youth Cross Country


Allen Iverson once said, "We talkin' about practice, not a game, not a game, we talkin' about practice."

Growing up, I thought practice was practice. If you wanted to get better at something you simply practiced more and that hard work would pay off. In my youth, I loved playing basketball and running. Most of my training was self-guided and looking back, I didn't practice effectively.  Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code" is one of my all-time favorite books and the concept of deep practice and deliberate practice was also touched upon in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and Angela Duckworth's "Grit." I've read all three and highly recommend them, especially to parents, teachers, and coaches.

K. Anders Ericsson is one of the pioneers in researching deliberate practice. You've probably heard of the "10,000-hour rule" which was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Well, Malcom was writing about research that Ericsson had done on violinists looking at their practice hours and skill level. That "rule" and its efficacy was quickly dismissed, but if the point was that the more you practiced the better you got, well that's true, but how you practice is also important.

A simple definition of deliberate practice would be that it's not how many hours you practice, but how you practice, not all practice is equal. The old saying was "practice makes perfect" but that has been replaced with "practice makes permanent."

Ericsson put his ideas to paper with last year's book "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise." The difference between deliberate practice and ordinary practice are in the areas of goals, feedback, focus, and practicing at the edge of your abilities.

I have to admit that most of my application of deliberate practice is when I look at other sports. For the most part, running is a simple sport and not as complicated as mastering your golf game or playing a team sport like basketball or soccer with a lot of moving parts.

We launched the Colorado Coyotes in the fall of 2016, as someone who times races for a living, I'm pretty locked in on the importance of time and reading out timing splits during workouts. However, when I read "Peak" last year, I thought about deliberate practice and youth running. How do you create an atmosphere of deliberate practice in a cross-country setting?

Following our first cross country meet of the year, the kids were lining up on the grass for a workout. I thought about times and deliberate practice and started quizzing the kids and asking them if they knew their time from the race on Sunday. I was taken aback that only 50% of the kids had any idea what their time was from a race they ran a day prior. It was also obvious that the kids who were new to running had not developed any heuristics that would allow them to ballpark a time.  For all, they knew they could have run the 3-kilometer course in 10 minutes or 20 minutes.

One thing we stress as coaches is that running is a unique sport in that you can only have one individual winner and for most kids they will never win a race, that's ok, the real goal is self-improvement and as coaches we weren't doing our job in that regards, in running, the best way to see self-improvement is the clock.

After that practice, I realized that a lot of my split reading probably fell on deaf ears, so how do I get the kids into that deliberate practice sweet spot where they are not only focusing but focusing on running faster. My first step was to better explain why I was reading off splits, if we were running 8*400 meter intervals, I wanted them to focus on their times, either via their watch or to listen to one of the coaches as we read off times.

Each workout would need to be explained with a time-related goal. For that workout the objective was that their first 400m was to be their slowest and that I wanted their fastest one to be on their last one and at any time during the workout, I would call out a few kids and ask them what their fastest 400m was of the day.

Once the parameters were set the kids started paying attention to their times and when I'd quiz them they could tell me their fastest 400 in the set. On the final 400, the kids would finish and I'd ask the group "Put up your hand if your fastest 400 was your last one" and in general we'd have 95% compliance as the season progressed.

We felt good about making a more productive practice, but what about the meets, the importance of knowing your times as a runner is to track progress and in youth cross country we generally have one or two races that are run on the same course, which allows us to compare apples to apples.

We stressed the importance of knowing your time and reminded the kids that we send the link of race results to the parents as soon as they are available. Our second step was that we created an Excel spreadsheet with all of the kids on our teams and their race times, we not only email the individual race results but an Excel spreadsheet with all of the Coyotes and the times of every race that they have run that year.

We've also built a culture emphasizing that times and self-improvement are important, both the times you run in practice and the times you run in races. If we ask a Coyote what time they ran in the meet the prior weekend and they don't know, we tell them how they can find that information and that we will follow up and ask them at a subsequent practice.

When a young runner focuses on times and splits, concentrating on not running the first interval too fast and working on incremental improvement that's when they enter the sweet spot that is known as deliberate practice. What we want to avoid is the young runner zoning out on a workout and simply running to complete the workout with no purpose.

When our young runners are focusing on splits and times, they are cognizant as to how their body feels at a certain pace and when they concentrate on running their last interval the fastest, that ties back to knowing you can run your fastest at the end of the race, when you're already tired and the body hurts. The goal is work at the edge of one's abilities.

At the end of our 2017 fall cross country season, we took the kids down to the track and had them run a 1600 meter time trial, with the timing clock in full display, ticking off the seconds. At this point in the season, I was aware of what the kids could run and started giving a few of our older runners a time goal. That escalated into every Coyote wanting a time goal, which we were happy to provide. The goal was tough, at the edge of their abilities, but attainable. Almost every runner, on that chilly November evening, surpassed their time goal and made sure to tell me that they ran faster than the time I gave them. All we could do was smile, deliberate practice.

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