Friday, October 25, 2013

Get that "Killer Instinct"

Before I go any further, let's be sure to understand that the phrase "killer instinct" in this context has nothing to do with harming anyone. I have often written about how great the sportsmanship is in the sport of cross-country, so we're not talking about anything that would hurt someone else.

What I do want to tell you about is a heightened level of mental intensity while competing, and even while training. When I was in college, there was a woman in my dorm who was the top badminton player in the country. She went on to compete in two Olympic Games. She taught several of us in the dorm how to play, and was laid-back, patient, and fun when teaching us. There were a few times when she and I played as a mixed doubles team in pick-up games.

This is where it got a little scary.

My friend became the Godzilla of the badminton court. She was 100% respectful and sportsmanlike in her words and actions, but there was a whole other level of intensity that was way beyond anyone I had ever played with in any sport. Way beyond. Did I say "way"?

When I reflected on this, both immediately after and years after, I realized that this is a characteristic of many successful athletes. They probably have physical skills that are somewhat greater than the rest of us, but not that much greater. The difference, though, is the level of mental strength and focus. These athletes feel an intensity so great that they will expend effort beyond what other people will do to succeed, both in training and in competition. The best ones are also "intense" about knowing when to back off to avoid injury, by the way - yes, it's possible to rest with intensity.

This is what I call the "killer instinct." It's analogous to a lion who is really, really hungry for that gazelle, and will expend enormous effort to chase it down. In cross-country, there are many times when there are just a couple more runners within catching distance, and if a runner can just give a little more effort, they can catch them and shave a couple more points off of their team score. Most runners will try to catch them; only a few runners will have that "killer instinct" to go beyond what they think is a maximum effort and actually catch them.

As most leagues around the country are winding down toward league and regional championships, it's time to bring out that killer instinct. For some people, it comes naturally; for others, it can be learned. Yes, have fun, enjoy being around your teammates and competitors, but when you head to the starting line, let's see that lion's gaze, searching for that gazelle.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review: Cross Country 101 by Dan Martinez

One thing that I don't cover too often on this blog - OK, never, actually - is reading. Well, I just finished reading Cross Country 101 by Dan Martinez, which is a novel set at a Southern California high school. Why am I telling you this? Because the story centers around a high school freshman who joins the cross-country team. The target audience seems to be pretty much the same as this blog, which is, more or less, 7th-10th graders.

I really enjoyed the book. At first, I was suspicious that it was going to be an overly corny kid-with-football-dad-gets-bullied-but-succeeds-in-XC type of book. While it's true that that pretty much sums up the basic storyline, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't overly corny - indeed, it wasn't corny at all. Despite an intended audience much younger than I, I found myself entirely engaged with the story, and even rooting strongly for Eric, the protagonist. As I got deeper into the book, I found myself reading faster and faster, as if I were training and racing with Eric, and it was harder and harder to put it down each day.

I found some parts of the story foreign because I neither experienced nor observed any kind of bullying when I was in high school. I also never found that upperclassmen were mean or even unkind to the freshmen. This is also the case at the high school where I coach now - the coaching staff is constantly on the lookout for bullying and even guys or girls being less than nice toward each other. We're lucky we don't seem to have these problems. The parents I know are all very supportive of their sons and daughters running cross-country, too. In the book, Mr. Martinez handles it all very well, and it's great to see the team come together, as well as Eric's father get on board with seeing cross-country as a "real" sport.

Finally, if you have ever run at the State Meet course at Woodward Park in Fresno/Clovis, you will appreciate Mr. Martinez's accurate depiction of it in the book. I have never been to Mt. SAC, but he clearly knows what he's writing about for that course, too. Being able to visualize parts of these actual courses as Eric and the rest of the team race there is great fun and helps to draw you into the story.

Finally, I definitely finished the book hungry for more stories about Eric - what happens in his sophomore year? Junior year? Senior? Does he get recruited and run in college? This is a character that I found I really cared about, and I think you will enjoy reading Cross Country 101 as well.

Available on Amazon: Click Here

Dan Martinez's web site: Click Here