The sportsaholic: The mental side of the Webster University track team


First, a confession: I am 5’8,’’ weigh 210 pounds and have short, stubby legs. I enjoy greasy food and high-calorie beers. I have never been, nor will I ever be, a track star.
Indeed, I’ve never run track and tend to avoid running under most circumstances. So it’s probably not surprising that track has always sort of puzzled me as a sports fan.

I love most sports, even if I’m not very good at them (consider my aforementioned measurements and lifestyle choices and you’ll begin to see why), because I’ve always been able to engage with the players on a mental level.

A quarterback in football, a central midfielder in soccer and a pitcher in baseball, for instance, all compete mentally as much as they do physically.

The decisions they make must be informed by the positioning and knowledge of their own team, the opposition, the situation of the game, the situations in the game yet to come and a myriad of variables that are constantly changing. Because these positions are so cerebral, they are often the most praised, and alternately critiqued.

This is one of the reasons I love sports: because it allows people like me to play “arm-chair quarterback” and say with great confidence (and of course in hindsight) how we would have handled a given situation differently and thus led our team to victory.

But there is no such second-guessing in track, other than the banal observation: “Run faster.”

I had to wonder, is that all? Is there any mental aspect to track? What goes on in a runner’s head during a race?

At the Washington University Invitational on March 30, Webster University junior Jenny Howard finished second in the 100-meter dash with a time of 12.46 seconds and finished sixth in the 200-meter dash, at 26.04 seconds according to a Webster Athletics article. Howard has established herself as one of the best sprinters in school history. So what’s going through her mind when she’s running?

“To be honest, during most of the races, nothing,” said Howard, laughing slightly.

Head Track Coach Dan Graber addressed the nature of the average track runner and spoke to the difference between the runner and athletes in other sports. Graber favors a more calm and composed strategy in track, as opposed to the blood-and-thunder approach of other sports.

“Most track kids will overanalyze things, will overthink things,” Graber said. “They get themselves psyched up really well. Compared to other sports, I really don’t think it’s a good thing to (try and pump them up), especially for distance runners. I really try and keep them calm more than anything.”

Graber said that in this aspect, track is a different mental game from football or other sports.

While Howard has enjoyed success as a sprinter, Webster University senior track member Heather Heisse has performed well in her role as a long-distance runner. Heisse completed the 10,000-meter race with a time of 41:04.35, which broke the Webster school record time according to a Webster Athletics article. Additionally, she dispelled the notion that the person in the best shape will win a race.

“For the 10k, I just focused on each lap. If you’re not mentally prepared for that, it’s gonna throw you off. I went in to one race, when I was feeling in the best shape in my life, and I ran a terrible race,” Heisse said.

Because track is so minimalistic, the smallest details can affect a runner. Even something like the weather or a strong headwind can wreak havoc on the preparation of a serious runner.

Track is also different from other sports in that it is an indirect competition – one’s performance is generally unaffected by the performance of the opponents – or so it would seem on the surface.

“There are a lot of people who like to train more than race. It’s really tough to race to the level of your fitness. There are a lot of people, who, competition takes them to the next level. Some people look less fit when they get in a race situation,” Graber said.

Howard is certainly one of those people who drive on competition and is always aware of her competitors.

“I definitely see people (the other runners). I really like running against people who are faster than me or on my same level. I run a better race when I have someone to chase,” Howard said.

Like any sport, a race is often won before it even starts. Runners have intricate pre-race routines, from special set-lists on their iPods to standing away from the rest of the group so they can focus. Howard has a simple mantra she repeats to herself before every race: “Power, power, power.”

But the real secret to success on the track team is all about the special socks.

“I wear the same socks since middle school,” Heisse said. “One green sock and one black sock. I wash them, though, obviously.”

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