Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Six Valuable Running Lessons I Learned from Bounce by Matthew Syed

I learned six valuable lessons from Matthew Syed's book, Bounce. Syed, a two time Olympic table tennis player, explores how athletes can best handle competition and explains the science behind several of the most productive coaching methods.

How Do Top Runners Run So Fast?

Syed starts by offering data that backs up the current theory that it takes so-called 'gifted' athletes, artists and other experts ten years or ten thousand hours of practice to achieve excellence in their fields. Syed explains that when we see child prodigies, professional athletes and chessmasters demonstrate their skills, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Every decision and move that they make is learned from hours and hours of purposeful practice.
Winner are winners because they make quality decisions under pressure of competition. Syed explains that good decision making, whether on the tennis court or at a chess match, is the result of "decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience."

The ability to understand and react to what is going on inside of the athlete and around her comes from her prior experience. There are many patterns that the experienced runner recognizes, both in practice and during races. Runners can develop skills to see when their own body is close to injury and when their opponent is tired during a race, for instance.

What is the Right Way To Train For a Half Marathon?

The way to get the most out of practice is by developing skills that we do not currently master, a type of exercise that Syed calls "purposeful practice." For a runner, that could mean training the aerobic conditioning system through long slow runs during the basebuilding phase, or incorporating speedwork in the sharpening phase of a periodic training schedule.

Syed says that "purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again." and "Progress is built on the foundations of necessary failure."

Purposeful practice in running is accomplished many ways. One is through periodization of my running schedule. When I run my endurance runs, running at the proper pace is essential to ensure that my body receives the right type of workout.

What is NOT Purposeful Practice

The runner that runs the same six mile loop month after month at the same pace will not experience the same gains in endurance and/or speed as the runner who utilizes purposeful practice. This is also illustrated out on the road. Most drivers have driven for 10,000 hours, but I am not improving my driving skills during my morning commute because I am 'zoned out,' paying attention to the radio and not consciously practicing anything new. My driving will not improve just because I am behind the wheel for 40 minutes each day.

So, my first four lessons are that:

1. Expertise is derived by purposeful practice, and

2. 10,000 hours of purposeful practice are needed to achieve true excellence.

3. Winners are winners because they make quality decisions, which are ingrained through purposeful practice.

4. The tough thing about purposeful practice is that is hard and involves what an outsider would call 'failure.'

What About Natural Running Talent?

But, what about Pre and Ryan Hall? what about the tall, thin guy lining up next to me at the half marathon? Aren't they naturally gifted? What about talent?

Syed shows that what he calls 'The Talent Myth' is a mindset that can be holding long distance runners and other athletes back from their best performances.

If we believe that our athletic ability is predetermined by our genes, we subscribe to the talent myth and have a fixed mind set. If we think that athletic ability can be transformed through effort, we have a growth mind set.

Fixed Mindset Versus Growth Mindset

Syed writes about research that Stanford University professor Carol Dweck performed on the effects of the fixed mind set and growth mind set. Children with a fixed mind set, when faced with a difficult problem, said things like "I guess I'm not very smart" and I'm no good at things like this." What did children with a growth mind set say when talking about their work on a similarly difficult problem? They did not blame anything at all. They did not even consider themselves to be failing!

This finding made me think of purposeful practice again. If purposeful practice is tough because during this type of practice I will be constantly setting myself up against a challenge that I may not overcome, I need to redefine the meaning of failure. Just because I do not master a skill on the first few tries does not mean I am not a good runner or never going to eventually succeed.

Michael Jordan's view on failure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45mMioJ5szc

What Is The Best Type of Praise For A Runner?

Carol Dweck also performed a study on the effects of different types of praise. Schoolchildren were given puzzles to solve and either praised for their talent or their effort. Most of the children who were told they were smart chose an easy test for their second effort. They needed to live up to their label of 'smart.' The vast majority of the children who were told they were hard working chose the tougher test! They were interested in living up to their label of hard working.

Dweck advises that praising someone for achieving something easily should sound like, "Whoops, I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let's do something you can really learn from!"

Lessons five and six for me are:

5. Athletes do best when they have a growth mind set, believing that expertise is achieved through hard work, not innate talent.

6. In order to reinforce a growth mind set already rooted in an athlete, praise effort instead of calling them talented.

How This Has Improved My Running

Now that I know the value of a growth mindset and understand that ten thousand hours of hard work is needed to achieve excellence, I will:

Value putting in hard work over 'talent,' or settling for a task I can complete easily, and

Develop my running schedule to ensure that every run is purposeful practice - I will run every day to develop my running skills and increase my endurance.

How do you incorporate 'purposeful practice' into your runs?

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