Coaching Youth Middle Distance Runners: Psychology

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Coaching Youth
Middle Distance Runners
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Nutrition | Psychology

Since at least the late 19th century, scholars have analyzed the correlations between psychological attributes and athletic success (as cited in Raglin & Wilson, 2008, p. 211). As Kruger, Pienaar, Du Plessis, and van Rensburg (2012) concluded, it is "important to consider psychological skill development in young long distance athletes to enhance their athletic performance" (p. 413). Focusing on the overall well-being of athletes, including their mental states, can also foster positive overall development (Henriksen, Stambulova, & Roessler, 2010). A one-size-fits-all approach to this field is not advisable (Jones & Spooner, 2006). An athlete's motivation can be affected by his or her gender, age group, and locality (Chin, Khoo, & Low, 2012), so coaches should approach each athlete from an individual perspective. Coaches can often misjudge the psychological skills of their athletes, even if they feel confident in their assessment (Leslie-Toogood & Martin, 2003), and they can threaten the athletes' psychological well-being by treating them disrespectfully (Gervis & Dunn, 2004). Therefore, they should use the research in this field, not just their intuition and experiences, to guide their actions.


A middle distance coach's role as a psychological motivator is important during competition, but it is perhaps even more important during training (Goose & Winter, 2012). While dedicated, deliberate practice is generally not considered enjoyable in most sports (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993), there is some evidence that middle distance runners perceive their most difficult and relevant activities as their most enjoyable (Young & Salmela, 2002), making a coach's job that much easier. Coaches should focus on creating specific task-oriented goals in an effort to improve athletes' intrinsic motivation (Barić, Cecić Erpič, & Babić, 2002: Ferrer-Caja & Weiss, 2000). Goudas, Biddle, Fox, and Underwood (1995) found that one way to engender this kind of motivation among young track athletes was to give them some control over their own workout. This kind of perceived autonomy has been shown to have significant positive and long-lasting effects on motivation (Almagro, Sáenz-López, & Moreno, 2010; Jõesaar, Hein, & Hagger, 2012). Care should be taken, however, to ensure that highly motivated runners do not endanger their health by running to the point of collapse (St Clair Gibson et al., 2013). Perhaps most importantly, coaches must instill a feeling of long-term hope in their athletes; Curry, Snyder, Cook, Ruby, and Rehm (1997) found that cross country and track athletes with a higher sense of personal hope were more likely to excel in both academics and athletics.


Keeping young athletes engaged and excited about running can be a difficult task. Over a span of 25 years, Enoksen (2011) analyzed survey results of track and field athletes who had left the sport and found that the average "drop out" age was 17. There are many reasons a young athlete might leave an athletic program, including injuries and conflicts with work or school, but coaches can encourage retention by fostering a sense of competency in his or her athletes. In general, athletes who are task-driven with a higher sense of competency are more likely to remain in an athletics program (Konttinen, Toskala, Laakso, & Konttinen, 2013; Xiang, McBride, & Bruene, 2004, 2006). Conversely, young runners with a high ego orientation—that is, those who are primarily motivated by a desire to best others and/or a low perception of their own abilities—are more likely to drop out (Cervelló, Escartí, & Guzmán, 2007; Whitehead, Andrée, & Lee, 2004). Cashmore (2008) described this type of runner as someone who "may return a poor time in a 1,500 m race, but, as long as she finishes in front of the field, it counts as more of a success than if she had run a personal record but finished second" (p. 142). Setting performance goals based on time, rather than place, can help to avoid this mode of thinking (Lane & Karageorghis, 1997). Hill (2000) also listed a number of ways to encourage young runners to stay in their programs, including

  • using imagery, such as having an athlete imitate the form of an elite runner;
  • encouraging social interaction between athletes, such as positive feedback from peers or group-related running activities; and
  • allowing self-pacing, rather than explicitly prescribing distances and times.


Offering advice, criticism, and praise is an integral function of the coach–athlete relationship. As Stein, Bloom, and Sabiston (2012) concluded, "it is important that coaches realize the significance of giving feedback following good performances, and attempt to incorporate positive and informational feedback into their interactions with their athletes" (p. 488). Stoate, Wulf, and Lewthwaite (2012) found that runners who were given positive feedback about their form (in this case, fabricated) were more likely to improve over time than those who were given no feedback. Parents should also focus positive verbal feedback on their child's effort, rather than an outcome like finishing place.

It is also important to consider the focus of the advice given to an athlete. Though a less experienced runner may react to a coach's external cues—such as "pass that runner!"—positively, higher-level runners consistently report more internally-based thought processes—such as monitoring breathing and maintaining proper form—during competition (Nietfeld, 2003), and their coaches often focus much of their verbal feedback on promoting those internal processes (Porter, Wu, & Partridge, 2012). That said, Schücker, Anheier, Hagemann, Strauss & Völker (2013) found that there were physiological benefits to maintaining an external focus during high intensity exercise. If nothing else, a simple confirmation of the distance remaining can be better than no feedback at all (Faulkner, Arnold, & Eston, 2011; Neumann & Piercy, 2013). Children will also find it easier to respond to cues related to distance than to time (Chinnasamy, St Clair Gibson, & Micklewright, 2013).

Gender Differences[edit]

In general, male and female athletes "want a coach who (a) implements instructional practices, (b) can perform the skills required of the sport, and (c) provide opportunities for the athletes to compete and achieve their goals" (Martin, Dale, & Jackson, 2001, p. 208). That said, preferred communication style may differ between genders: Male runners and coaches may prefer to focus the conversation between coach and athlete on fitness and athleticism, while female runners may prefer to address a broader array of topics (Childs, 2010). Sources of motivation may also differ significantly. According to a study by Sirard, Pfeiffer, and Pate (2006), "boys are more attracted to the competitive aspects of sports whereas girls are more motivated by the social opportunities that sports provide" (p. 696). Gneezy & Rustichini (2004) found that "when children ran alone, there was no difference in performance. In competition boys, but not girls, improved their performance" (p. 377), although Dreber, von Essen, and Ranehill (2011) found no such effect in their similar study. A focus on competition, however, is not necessarily a stronger long-term motivational force: Young women may feel more motivated by the unity of their team (Smith and Ogle, 2006). In fact, Feltz, Lirgg, and Albrecht (1992) found that the young female runners in their five-year longitudinal study were more dedicated than the males.


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